In Need of Inspiration? Meet Eva.

Last Friday found me at Lincoln Elementary School in Calumet City, Illinois. Lincoln is one of our STEM Institute partner schools, sending eight teachers through last summer’s Introduction to Inquiry. One of the benefits and joys of the program is the relationships we build with each of our teacher participants over the two years of the program, as we visit their classes to support their transition to the NGSS and a more inquiry-based practice.

Evangelina Sfura teaches 4th grade at Lincoln and is on Lincoln’s iTEAM.  I stopped by her classroom to see the STEM Career Fair her students were putting on for each other and for students in other classes. Eva is an extraordinary teacher, and her passion for teaching, and for teaching science in particular, is contagious. I asked her if I could interview her and share her journey. Happily, she said yes.

Eva Sfura in her Classroom

I was fascinated to see the students engaging each other in your STEM Career Fair. They were riveted. How did that come about?

“My class participated in the event ‘Hour of Code.’ Afterwards, I was talking about STEM careers and why they are so important. One of my students raised her hand and said, ‘I know what STEM is but what kind of jobs do people have in STEM?’ That stopped me in my tracks, and I realized what a profound question that was. Students know what doctors, lawyers and teachers are, but they know nothing of engineers, analysts and programmers. How can students aspire to professions that they have never heard of?

I decided to turn that question into a project. We looked up a list of STEM careers. Student pairs were given a chance to look over the list and do some quick research to find a career they were interested in. Once they settled on a career, they used Google Slides to create a presentation. The students were especially interested in salary information, but I wanted to put that information in context so that it would have an impact. We researched 2010 US Census Data for our city to find the average salary of a person living here. We looked at the 2010 US Census Economic Data and found that the average income of a full time worker in Calumet City, Illinois, is $18,900 a year. They thought that was huge until they investigated their STEM careers. The careers the students researched had average starting salaries between $58,000 and $120,000. As one of my students told me, ‘Wow, college really is worth my time!’

During the course of their research, many groups came across the word ‘resume’ and had no idea what it meant. That led to lessons on what a resume is and how to create one. Students used a template on Google Docs to make their own resumes which became part of their presentations. The students asked me if they could present their projects to other classes. Thus, the idea of a STEM career fair was born. The groups made posters announcing their career and other classrooms were invited. My class did an amazing job presenting their information over three days.”

Two Students Learn about Environmental Engineering on STEM Career Day

Can you tell us about the Dyson connection you made, what that was like for your students, and what impact it had on them and on you?

“A colleague told me about the James Dyson Foundation and how they are promoting STEM in classrooms. Any teacher can go on their website and put themselves on a waiting list for a Dyson Ideas Box. This box contains a free month long engineering unit that allows students to explore the idea of product design. They used Dyson products as an inspiration point. My class and I were able to investigate an actual Dyson Air Multiplier to compare it to a conventional fan. This allowed my students to see that many inventions are as simple as taking an already existing product and making it more useful and efficient. By the end of the unit, students were redesigning products that are used in a classroom. My favorite was the group that decided the worst thing about a pencil is how small the eraser is. They came up with a model that had a longer, encased eraser that twisted up as the need for more arose. It was quite ingenuous!

My students loved this unit and begged me not to send the Ideas Box back. I know that it had an impact on my students. The very first lesson in the idea box had the students drawing what they thought an engineer looked like. They all drew men in suits with briefcases. The lesson was repeated at the very end of the unit. This time, without any input from me, they drew themselves, explaining that they realized they could be engineers if they wanted to!”

4th Graders in Ms. Sfura’s Class at Lincoln Elementary in Calumet City, Illinois, Exploring Engineering (Thank you, Dyson!)

What have you learned since completing year one of STEM Institute? Have you changed as a teacher? If so, in what ways?

“I have learned so much that I hardly know where to start. Science was my least favorite subject to teach. I really had no idea how to make it come alive the way I could do with reading or math. That is why I jumped at the chance to be part of the STEM Institute. I feel like I understand Science more than I did before. By learning to make these topics engaging for my students, I understand them better as well.

I love how the STEM Institute presents information. Instead of the usual lectures, everything is presented the way teachers should present in their own classrooms. This made me feel confident that I could actually implement changes in my teaching immediately. My first science lesson this year involved using glow sticks to understand chemical energy! It was messy and noisy, but now at the end of the year, my students are still talking about that!

If fact, the most productive tidbit I learned is that a little chaos, noise and mess can lead to some of the most amazing conversations and explorations with my students. It is now so important to me that students get a chance to explore, investigate or research a topic before I explicitly teach it.”

What has been the most valuable take away from the program?

“One of the biggest takeaways has been to place more trust in my students. They know and can handle more than I ever gave them credit for. I am so much more comfortable letting them take the lead on investigations and projects. It is an awesome experience to sit back and watch what they are able to come up with without me guiding them step by step.

We start every topic in Science with an inquiry lesson. I often just give them the supplies and let them explore before I teach anything. By the time we get to the textbook, they already have a real world understanding of the concepts, and it makes the reading less confusing and dry. This has also changed the way the students take their science tests. I leave out any materials or equipment we used during the unit. During testing, they will often get up and repeat an experiment quickly to make sure their answer is correct! I love it!

I am using this exploration time in other subjects as well. For example, in math, I will display a problem for the students on a topic they have never seen. I have them work in groups to try to figure out the problem using what they already know. At first this scared my students. I heard a lot of whining and complaints, but I just kept reassuring them that they could figure out something and to keep trying. As they explored, they got more confident, and it was exciting to watch their enthusiasm grow. Now, they love new problems and can’t wait to tackle them. They view it as a challenge rather than a chore. My scores in math have improved dramatically as well!”

Experimenting with Circuits in the Dyson Engineering Lab Ms. Sfura Brought to Her Classroom

How has your thinking about STEM changed over the past year?

“I was mostly drawn to the technology aspect of STEM. I, personally, love technology and have enjoyed implementing it in my class where I am lucky to have one-to-one computing. My school has provided me with a large amount of math professional development. It was the engineering and science that I was having trouble incorporating. I will admit that I made a lot of excuses. My students were too young or too noisy. The students would act up if I tried it. They probably wouldn’t get it anyway. The truth was that I lacked the confidence to try.

Being part of the STEM Institute changed that, and not one of my excuses came to pass. My students rose higher than my expectations most of the time. Sure it was noisy, but the students were on task and excited about what they were doing. They understood what we were doing and could articulate why. I didn’t have any behavior problems during these lessons because they were so intrigued and engaged! STEM and by extension inquiry-based learning has become a large part of classroom routine. I would never revert to the way things were.”

Is there anything you want to share with other teachers who might be considering an inquiry-based approach or a more STEM-based curriculum? Any words of wisdom based on your own experience?

“My first bit of advice is to learn to be more comfortable giving up some control to your students. Set the expectation and then trust them to accomplish it. Not only will learning improve, but it has the side benefit of improving your relationship with your students. When trust is running both ways, you can accomplish more than you can imagine. I am so bonded to this class and I think it is because they feel safe, heard and trusted. They have made me so proud that on a few occassions I have teared up!

The second bit of advice would be so stop being afraid of chaos. There is such a thing a purposeful chaos. Loud is okay if students are on task and collaborating. Messy is okay if it leads to better understanding. The world will not end if students are out of their seats, exploring concepts together.”

What has been the impact on your students of your more STEM focused and inquiry-based approach? Do you see any changes in them compared with previous years’ students?

“Several times a year, I send a survey to my students asking questions about the classroom, their likes and dislikes, any changes they would like to see, etc. Every year, when I asked about their favorite subjects, science was dead last. No one really liked it. This year, however, most of the class put science first! I am really proud of that because it means the students and I both agree that changes I have made are positive ones.

I can see a change in the students themselves. They are not afraid to explore topics. In fact, they have no problem asking me if we can extend a topic or take it in a different direction than I intended. They really enjoy a challenge instead of shying away from it. I have heard conversations where my students have discussed and debated the best type of engineer to be. They discuss the best ways to code on computers and even now suggest experiments they would like to try! They are so much more involved in their learning than any group I have previously taught.

I teach many ELL students who are typically shy and do not like to speak. It has been particularly gratifying to see those students gain more self confidence. I was so proud to see all of them talking to groups during the STEM career fair as much as the students who are native English speakers!”

You Simply Can’t Make Up This Level of Engagement

Eva, it is so inspiring to hear about your evolution as a teacher. I’m curious about how long you’ve been teaching and what brought you to this profession.

“I am finishing up my 11th year of teaching! I have only taught at Lincoln. Teaching is my second career. I was a marketing executive for five years before I realized that I was very unfulfilled. I was influenced by my father who had been a teacher in East Chicago, Indiana, for 42 years. We couldn’t go anywhere when I was child without running into his former students. Once we went to Atlanta, Georgia, and we still ran into a former student! All of his students adored him. He died when I was 19, and his funeral was packed with former students from all over the country. I couldn’t help thinking that he died having made a huge impact on so many people, while I was sitting in front of a computer all day. I got laid-off from my job, found a program at Roosevelt University that allowed business professionals to obtain a teaching license and never once looked back!”

What a legacy! And how proud Eva’s father would have been.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Filed under Calumet City, children as engineers, children as scientists, Dyson Education Foundation, inquiry science, professional development, resources, science teaching, STEM education, Uncategorized

Cats are Girls and Dogs are Boys

When I was maybe three years old, I had an epiphany. I came to the absolute conviction that the pets I was seeing around my neighborhood were like human beings. They came in two different genders, just like me and my mother and my brother and father. The cats were the girls and the dogs were the boys. It took a little longer for me to understand the concept of species as a means for sorting. In my mental file cabinet, gender came earlier than species.

Children are all little scientists. How could they not be? Fresh to this wonderful life, they are constantly observing the world around them, and much more closely than we adults do, hence the popularity of the Where’s Waldo books and the fact that most children are far more successful than their parents in finding the little guy in the midst of so many other people.

The Youngest Scientist is a Small Child

We freely admit that children are curious, that they can drive us to distraction with their constant questions. I recently read that preschool children ask their parents around 100 questions a day. You know the kinds: Where does the sun go at night? Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? Why do people get sick? Why don’t birds sing at night? Can dogs be girls? And every answer is followed by another question, until the conversation can become almost philosophical if not outright surreal.

Many a harried parent has wondered, “Why do children ask so many questions?” They seem hardwired to do so. In short, children are trying to make sense of the world. Imagine yourself landing on an alien planet, something like the moon Pandora in the film Avatar. What would cause you to wonder, to ask questions? Probably pretty much everything around you. And so with children, still strangers in a strange new land.

So in the process of asking all those questions, children are learning a lot of valuable things about the world, not the least of which is how to ask interesting questions that don’t have easy answers, an essential skill for success in life. And, as a result of following their inborn curiosity, children enter school with many of the “building blocks of scientific understanding” already in place.

That is why starting science in preschool and continuing science in kindergarten and the primary grades is absolutely essential. It’s a case of striking while the iron is hot. The natural curiosity children bring to school, their hunger to make sense of this world, makes them natural students of science, more than they are natural readers or writers or mathematicians. Why not let children’s inborn inclination to learn about the world drive their learning of those other essential skills, reading, writing, and arithmetic? Why not let their inherent need to know drive them to learn the skills they need to better understand what they are observing and communicate their budding understanding to others.

But there is another essential reason to start early and to emphasize science with very young children. Being observers and novice scientists doesn’t necessarily mean they will get the science right or that the sense they make of things is accurate. Letting them carry those misconceptions forward into middle school without addressing them immediately, not only risks dampening children’s natural curiosity by making science just another school subject rather than the act of grasping life itself, but it also risks their carrying forward uncorrected any misconceptions they might have. We all know that it’s more difficult to erase longstanding assumptions with new and more accurate constructions the longer we wait.

And speaking of misconceptions, the National Research Council’s landmark report, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8 (2007) makes a compelling case for beginning science instruction in the primary grades, starting with kindergarten. (Free here.)

  • In contrast to the commonly held and outmoded view that young children are concrete and simplistic thinkers, the research evidence now shows that their thinking is surprisingly sophisticated. Important building blocks for learning science are in place before they enter school.
  • Children entering school already have substantial knowledge of the natural world, which can be built on to develop their understanding of scientific concepts. Some areas of knowledge may provide more robust foundations to build on than others, because they appear very early and have some universal characteristics across cultures throughout the world.
  • By the end of preschool, children can reason in ways that provide helpful starting points for developing scientific reasoning. However, their reasoning abilities are constrained by their conceptual knowledge, the nature of the task, and their awareness of their own thinking.

Free Download from the National Research Council

Cats are both boys and girls and so are dogs. Children will, as I did, figure that out fairly quickly. But what about less obvious misconceptions, like those people often have about what causes seasons or what the relationship is between the sun and the earth in that scheme? Those misconceptions can take root early and remain uncorrected through university, if students are left to their own devices.

Far too often, we adults have already stopped challenging our own assumptions … about science, about society, about politics, about a lot of the things that matter. In the case of children, their inborn curiosity, their countless questions, seem to peter out around third grade, if they haven’t been encouraged and nurtured before that. What an incredible waste!

In fact, and to reiterate, we now know a lot more about knowledge acquisition in young children than we did when we believed the following falsehoods about children and science:

  • Elementary schoolchildren think in concrete as opposed to abstract terms.
  • Elementary schoolchildren can make sense of their world primarily in terms of ordering and classifying objects and relations and not in terms of explanatory understanding or the building of intuitive theories.
  • Elementary schoolchildren cannot use experimentation to develop their ideas.

Elementary children can do all of the above, from thinking more abstractly to developing explanations and theories, to using experimentation! “All three of these views, as well as other views of broad cognitive limitations of elementary schoolchildren, and even many preschoolers, are no longer accepted by the cognitive developmental research community.” So says the National Research Council’s Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. (See above for a link.)

Kindergarten Scientists Experimenting with the Properties of Matter in Jessica Manaois’s Class at Kipling Elementary in Chicago

Those early years are precious. If your school doesn’t have a strong emphasis on science in the primary grades, beginning one would be a laudable goal for the coming school year. In fact, principals joining Golden Apple STEM Institute often focus their professional development support on primary and early elementary teachers in order to build a strong foundation in children for doing science in the middle and upper grades. Young children deserve to have rich, engaging science experiences at school, and what’s more, they love it when they do!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.  If you are in the Chicago metro area, please contact us to learn how to become a partner school.

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Filed under children as scientists, Early Elementary Science, primary science, Uncategorized

We Marched!

Dateline: Chicago, Illinois, April 22, 2017

We marched …

As the March for Science Chicago website proclaims, we marched

To bridge the distance between science and society
• To showcase Chicago as The Science City, and
• Toward an ethical science.

We marched for a more human science. We marched because we

Support the scientific community, and want to
• Safeguard the value and funding of the scientific process.

We marched to

Celebrate the role of science in society, and to
• Encourage scientific curiosity and exploration.

We Marched!

As with many things these days, the March for Science began on social media. Inspired by the January 21st Women’s March, a group on Reddit discussed doing a similar event to support science. The conversation quickly migrated to a Facebook page that jumped from 200 followers to 300,000 in less than a week. After all, the United States had just elected a climate change denier who was threatening to dismantle the EPA, cut back on scientific research, and who almost immediately purged from government websites the taxpayer funded research data on climate change, in effect stealing our tax dollars by denying us access to the data our dollars had secured. The day before the March, the March for Science Facebook page stood at 530,482, with tens of thousands of others following the March for Science pages connected to their own cities, both in the U.S. and around the world, 609 cities from Amsterdam to Zagreb, with 10 satellite marches in Illinois alone. (You can see the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) interactive map here.) By April 23, the number following the March for Science page stood at 567,865, over a 30,000 person increase in just a day. So marching does raise awareness and helps build a movement.

The Science March already has a Wikipedia page, and one section recounts the way in which previous American leaders have embraced science.

“Several Founding Fathers of the United States had an interest in science. Benjamin Franklin was a scientist with his foundational discoveries on electricity. Like Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and George Washington were all avid students of the natural and physical world.

A number of later presidents had interests in science and promoted pro-science policies; these include Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama. A 2010 editorial in the scientific journal Nature warned of ‘a growing anti-science streak on the American right’ and argued that the rising trend threatened the country’s future, which ‘crucially depends on education, science and technology.’ Writing in the Scientific American, Shawn Lawrence Otto, author of The War On Science, wrote: ‘It is hard to know exactly when it became acceptable for U.S. politicians to be antiscience.’” (Wikipedia)

Ironically, for a country that has been in the vanguard of scientific research for generations, a country that has been the research and development engine of the world for over 200 years, a country that has had more Nobel prize winners than any other country by far in chemistry, physics, economic sciences, physiology and medicine, 328 all told, we have slid badly in recent years, as our political leaders have increasingly taken oppositional stands to the findings of science, particularly in the area of climate change. There is no longer any guarantee that the findings of science will guide policy.

As a side note, quite a number of those Nobel award winning scientists were immigrants to the United States, drawn here by the research opportunities afforded at our stellar universities and by our government’s support for research, immigrants from China, the UK, India, Japan, Germany, Mexico, Egypt, and Italy, to name a few. But that was before “immigrant” became a dirty word in some quarters.

“According to organizers, the march is a non-partisan movement to celebrate science and the role it plays in everyday lives. The goals of the marches and rallies were to emphasize that science upholds the common good and to call for evidence-based policy in the public’s best interest. The march’s website states that an ‘American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world.’” (Wikipedia)

And so we marched. In Chicago, we marchers had a beautiful sunny day Saturday. Over 40,000 of us streamed from Grant Park to the Museum Campus where Earth Day stands and activities were set up behind the Field Museum. We were students, and teachers, children and parents, nurses and scientists, young and old. One woman’s sign featured a picture of her as a child attending the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. And she is still fighting the good fight.

Still Marching 47 Years Later

Other signs proclaimed “Love Your Mother” over a picture of Planet Earth, and “There is no Planet B.” Some were blatantly political, playing on Donald Trump’s name and image or repurposing the Hillary Clinton slogan “I’m With Her” with an arrow to a picture of the Earth. Others focused on various reasons why science is important. It saves lives. It saves the air and water, which ultimately make our lives possible. Science people tend to be smart so many of the signs were clever and people were snapping pictures by the dozens, asking folks to hold their signs steady for immortality or Instagram. Most of the signs were handmade, and in the days leading up to the march, Facebook had photos of people gathered in families and church and community groups making those signs. So much for “paid protesters.” What was particularly heartening was to see young children, old enough to do science, proclaiming their love for it, and so many high school and college age students supporting scientific research and science-based policy. Peer review got a lot of shout-outs. “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!” So did bees and beer, both of which depend on science, albeit in somewhat different ways.

Signs of Science

On the march, I met Alice Miller. She’s a 4th grade teacher at Sandridge Elementary in Lynwood, Illinois, which is not far from where I live. Small world. We talked about the fact that with the predominant emphasis on English and Math, very young children are not getting much time to engage in science during the primary grades, at the very age when they are bursting with curiosity about the world and are keen observers of it. What a waste! We exchanged contact information. I would love to visit her classroom. She’s a teacher who avidly seeks ways to provide her students with more opportunities in science.

But here’s my biggest takeaway from yesterday’s march, something that struck me in that sea of signs, among those thousands of marchers. In what kind of crazy upside down world, do tens of thousands of people across the planet rearrange their lives, some of them traveling a great distance to do so, because they feel they have to defend something as obviously good for humankind as science is? Think about that for a moment. It’s like thousands upon thousands of people marching to say “let’s keep motherhood a thing we humans do,” or “we support the sun.”

Little Scientists Marching for Their Future

On April 22, 2017, all across the Earth, from Amsterdam (3,000) to Zagreb (1,000), tens of thousands of  people marched. We marched because something critical to humanity’s survival is under attack. We marched to support the obvious, to defend the essential. We shouldn’t have to.

~ Penny

You can learn about Golden Apple’s STEM Institute here.


Filed under March for Science, The War on Science, Uncategorized, war on science

Connected Kid Moments

As the school year winds down, with tests out of the way and spring vacation either here or arriving shortly, we can perhaps begin to catch our teaching breaths and reflect on the past school year. But, because it’s spring and the weather is nicer now and because we have a bit of a breather in this period of winding down, there are also opportunities to be explored. Many teachers take advantage of this time of year by planning special experiences for their students, activities they might not have had time for earlier in the school year, but that students will eagerly anticipate, thoroughly enjoy, and have fond memories of in years to come.

With that in mind, I want to offer you, by way of inspiration, some reflections from past participants in Golden Apple’s STEM Institute program. When we asked a group of iTEAM teachers to tell us about one instance during the past school year when their students were genuinely connected to learning science … “connected kid” moments … they shared some beautiful memories with us.

Here are some of those special “connected kid” moments:

“A special education student who glowed when we did hands-on experiments.”

“When Rayana was dying to know if water was renewable or nonrenewable.”

“I brought a beta fish to class and they began to change their attitudes about me as a teacher and themselves as care givers.”

“A special ed student who didn’t participate much in class jumped right in when we had a hands-on science project, making parachutes.”

“When a student with behavioral problems was so engaged he became silent and still as he explored! I was able to enjoy his presence and loved watching him learn.”

“A problem student who ‘shined’ when allowed to do a demonstration.”

“My kindergarten students were so excited when we did ramps and rollers last year. They were so excited to get to explore in groups and develop their own questions.”

“When kids say, ‘Can I take this home? Can I take this and work on it at home?’”

“When I taught lessons from Project Wet at the beginning of the year and the kids in the last month of the school year remembered all of the activities and what we got out of them. They retained all the water information.”

Project Wet Activities at Durkin Park Elementary

“One connected kid moment I remember is when my first group was able to make a bulb light up. They were all so excited. They wanted to share their knowledge with the rest of the groups and one of the students was able to explain the process.”

“When a student looked at me and declared, ‘I like this class. You make it hard because you don’t give us the answers. You make us think and record. I like that I feel like a scientist.’”

“When taking some of these activities from last summer and doing them with our staff in professional development and watching some of the non-science teachers faces light up with enthusiasm!! Non-science means teachers I know didn’t teach any type of science the previous years. Now they want to incorporate more science in their classrooms!”

“I love when a student or multiple students say, ‘This was the best day ever!’”

When moments like these occur, we know we’re on the right track instructionally. And aren’t momemts like these why we got into teaching in the first place … to make a positive difference in the lives and learning of children?

Please share a “connected kid” moment by leaving a comment. And why not explore using the idea of “connected kid” moments to inspire your future planning? How could you get your students to really connect? After all, spring is the season of rebirth and renewal. Happy Spring!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s STEM Institute here.

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Do It Yourselves NGSS Planning Guide: Resources for Building an NGSS Aligned Curriculum

In an earlier post, I reviewed an excellent free resource from the National Research Council that addressed the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards and surveyed some of the stumbling blocks to a seamless and effective transition from earlier standards and curricula to the new curricula, largely teacher developed, that the NGSS requires. The Guide to Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards was released on January 8, 2015. (It’s free here.)

But we’re two years past the publication of that still helpful guide, and there are now many additional resources available for you and your colleagues to tap as you develop your curriculum maps, units, lessons, and activities in alignment with the NGSS.

A Team of Teachers Assembled to Work on NGSS Aligned Curriculum

So where to begin?

Top Go-To Sites

First I’d like to point you in the direction of several “top go-to sites” for anyone planning NGSS aligned lessons. There are three sites that I highly recommend as starting points for your work, sites where content is vetted and reliable. NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association, has been developing NGSS aligned resources and guidelines, and Next Generation Science, the parent organization for the NGSS, has a wealth of resources for you to use free of charge, including guidelines for and examples of model course maps. You’ll find lots of helpful resources at both of the first two sites. The third, Bozeman Science, offers a series of videos, one for each of the fifty-nine NGSS standards, provides a good overview review of the science by grade level bands in short, easily digested programs, each under 15 minutes. Once you know your content topics (the disciplinary core ideas), the crosscutting concepts and the science and engineering practices you want to focus on, watching these video can help jumpstart the actually planning by serving as a content refresher and by getting everyone on the planning team on the same page. Paul Anderson, the Bozeman, Montana, high school teacher who created this series, is a hero of mine, for providing, free of charge, such a helpful and reliable resource for his fellow teachers across the country.

For Your Resource Collection:

Laura Chomiak, our Golden Apple STEM Institute Program Coordinator, recommends two additional sites your team might find helpful. They are the Teaching Channel and STEM Teaching Tools.

Laura also recommends signing up for the monthly newsletter NGSS Now, which focuses on a different standard and phenomenon each month with how to incorporate them into your own classroom. Each month they also respond to a teacher’s question about NGSS implementation. You can sign up here.

Specific Guidelines for Getting the Job Done:

Next, I’d like to suggest several useful documents from the National Science Teachers Association to help with organizing the work itself. They describe how to organize a team  in planning an NGSS curriculum and how to design units and lessons aligned with the NGSS.

Key Concepts in NGSS Planning:

There are also some key strategies that have emerged since the release of the NGSS to help organize your thinking about the standards, so that you can efficiently and effectively implement them in ways that are genuinely engaging to students. Here are three of the top concepts, which, along with using a “backward design model” focused on the NGSS Performance Expectations, can help you and your team create exemplary units.

Golden Apple STEM Institute’s “Backward Design” Lesson Plan Template


  • What is bundling? “Bundles” are groups of standards arranged together to create the endpoints for units of instruction. Bundling is just one step in a curriculum development process; many other steps are required to create instructional materials designed for the NGSS.
  • Why bundle? Bundling is a helpful step in implementing standards because it helps students see connections between concepts and can foster more efficient use of instructional time.

For a webinar and other resources, including example bundles, check here.


  • What are phenomena? “Phenomena” are things that happen in the world, things that we seek to understand. A phenomenon becomes the starting point for building the science knowledge that helps us figure it out. There is a strong recommendation, consistent with the NGSS, that teachers should start their units with phenomena, not with science content knowledge or vocabulary. Let curiosity about the phenomenon drive student learning.
  • Qualities of a good phenomenon:
    o A puzzling observable event or process that
    o Generates student interest and questions and
    o Intersects with numerous PEs (Performance Expectations) which
    o Can be explored through science and engineering practices

There are some great example phenomena that can jumpstart your planning and a helpful short (3 min.) video on phenomena based instruction.


  • What are storylines? Storylines are statements that describe the context and rationale for the Performance Expectations (PEs) in each grade band and section. “A storyline is a coherent sequence of lessons, in which each step is driven by students’ questions that arise from their interactions with phenomena. A student’s goal should always be to explain a phenomenon or solve a problem. At each step, students make progress on the classroom’s questions through science and engineering practices, to figure out a piece of a science idea. Each piece they figure out adds to the developing explanation, model, or designed solution. Each step may also generate questions that lead to the next step in the storyline. Together, what students figure out helps explain the unit’s phenomena or solve the problems they have identified. A storyline provides a coherent path toward building disciplinary core idea and crosscutting concepts, piece by piece, anchored in students’ own questions.”  (Next Generation Storylines)

Example storylines are increasingly available online and by grade level, and you can find even find a PowerPoint on the topic of storylines to use with your team. Think of every unit as telling a story … perhaps a mystery to be solved by the clever detective work of your students.

Storylining is a Team Effort. Here Jason Crean Leads a Group of Teachers in Developing an NGSS Aligned Unit on Albinism.

Bundling, phenomena, and storylines all work together in creating engaging, coherent STEM units. When done well, they comprise a seamless whole.

Finally, I want to share some of the timeline/tasks you might find helpful as you organize your planning process, along with  some of the elements that should be in place to help you develop a successful end product.

1. Identify who will be on the planning team – 3-5 teachers per band (primary, early elementary, middle/upper elementary).
2. Create a timeline for the work and be generous.
3. Devote a period of time, for the group and individual team members, to becoming familiar with the task/process and with the NGSS, identifying a target unit for each team to develop. Review some of the resources listed above individually or as a team before beginning to work on your own plans.
4. Study together one or two existing plans to become familiar with what a successful unit looks like, which elements are included by the planners. You can find these on the “top go-to” sites.
5. Begin the actually planning work by identifying 1-2 target performance expectations, then backward design the unit so that students have the learning experiences necessary to successfully accomplish the learning expectations.
6. Finalize the unit plan and teach it.
7. Evaluate and tweak the plan for the following year and to inform the next plan. What worked? What didn’t?

Todd Katz Developing a Student Activity for the Albinism Unit

Necessary Elements
Adequate time: Find time for teachers to work together. Allot enough time to do a good job on the first plan, e.g., begin work in the spring; allow some summer planning time; execute the following school year.
Passion for the work: Assemble a team that genuinely wants to do the work (get the right people on the bus). Pick teaching colleagues who are curious and who are willing to take some initiative, working with the team as well as independently outside of the designated team meetings.
Incentives and recognition: Find a way to reward the team for making the commitment. Publish the results of their work so that other teachers can benefit, and we can all learn from each other. And always have food on hand.
Patience: Be very patient with the people, yourself and your team, and the process. This will take time. It is deeply intellectual work.

It’s clear from all of these concepts and the accompanying resources that we’ve entered a brand new age in science instruction. There is no more covering the content chapter by chapter in a linear fashion as in days of old. Instead teachers are called upon to be creative in designing instructional roadmaps for their students to construct their own understanding of the world around them. And central to that new role is the importance of team work.

Happy planning!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under backward design, bundling, NGSS, NSTA, phenomena based teaching, phenomenon based teaching, professional development, resources, STEM lesson planning, storyline, teacher resources, Uncategorized

Will You March for Science?

On Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, 2017, scientists across the United States will do something they don’t generally like to do. They will leave their labs, their field study sites, their university classrooms and travel to Washington D. C. or to other cities across the country, including Chicago, to get political. They will be marching for science.

There is even a March for Science website … leave it to the techies among them! And this is what they say about their cause:

“The March for Science is a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”


If you want to get involved you can donate here, as well as find a local march near you. Actually, there are 228 sites across the United States and around the world where people will be marching, scientists and those who join them in valuing the freedom and findings of science and the importance of keeping those findings free of politicization. In Illinois, people will be marching in Chicago and in Champaign. In France, they will be marching in Lyon, Lille, Montpellier, Toulouse, and Paris. And Canada, our neighbor to the north, will have ten satellite marches in solidarity with the United States! Canadians will march in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Hamilton, Victoria, Halifax, Vancouver, Prince George, and St. John’s.

If you know Canada’s recent history of attacks on science research and evidence, you’ll understand Canadians’ fierce solidarity with scientists in the United States. With the election of Justin Trudeau to become Canada’s Prime Minister in 2015, the troubling administration of Stephen Harper (2006-2015) came to an end. Harper’s administration was infamous for issuing gag orders, muzzling scientists and preventing them from sharing their findings with the media and the public or with other scientists at conferences. Scientists had to get approval from the government before they could talk with the media, and they were assigned “minders” from the public relations department to manage those interviews. The bureaucratic red tape was onerous and media requests were often denied. Coverage of climate science, for example, dropped by 80% as a result. For an excellent NY Times op ed by Canadian scientist Wendy Palen, associate professor of biology at Simon Fraser University, please click here.

In summary, Stephen Harper is a climate change denier. His government closed research libraries and purged valuable, sometimes irreplaceable records, consigning them to the dumpster, calling that a cost-cutting measure. Harper also cut all funding “for the Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned research facility where scientists run experiments on pollution and environmental contaminants in more than 50 small lakes in northwestern Ontario. Other casualties included (Canada’s) northernmost Arctic monitoring station and national census.”

Sound familiar?

Scientists, who normally prefer to remain apolitical, became outraged and sprang into action when the Harper government passed legislation that eliminated or severely amended the “marquee environmental protection laws” that Canadians prized.

And then this happened:

“Fearing the continued erosion of even the most basic protections for food inspection, water quality and human health, Canadian scientists filled Ottawa’s streets in the Death of Evidence march. That theatrical mock funeral procession became something of a cultural touchstone. It was a turning point that galvanized public opinion against Prime Minister Harper’s anti-science agenda. “

Canadians Took to the Streets

Canadians Took to the Streets to Mourn the Death of Evidence

There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

But one thing is certainly clear. U.S. scientists are taking a leaf (probably maple) from the Canadian playbook and planning a massive response to the Trump administration’s gag orders, cutbacks in science research funding, scrubbing of climate science data and other science research from government websites, appointment of cabinet members who are hostile to their work, and other constraints on their research, including preventing them from sharing their findings at conferences and with the media and the public.

Scientists and their supporters will be marching on April 22, 2017, and people from around the world will be joining them in solidarity.

Protecting Science Must Be a Priority (Photos: L, Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP; R, Phil Plait)

In solidarity, Golden Apple STEM Institute will be rescheduling our spring follow-up session from April 22nd to May 6th, because we have schools that will be participating in the Chicago march and some of our teacher participants are planning to march on their own. We will be joining them. STEM Institute coach and faculty member Wayne Wittenberg  and his family will be marching in D. C. Some of us will be marching in Chicago.

But there are ways for you to march other than literally going to Washington D. C. or to downtown Chicago on Earth Day.

Every time you create opportunities for your students to understand and appreciate the work of scientists, you are marching for science.

Every time you create a unit, with lessons and activities, to help your students understand that global climate change is largely caused by human activity, and that this is not opinion, not conjecture, but settled science, you are marching for science.

Every time you create after school opportunities for students to do more science and engineering, you are marching for science.

Every time you raise your voice to tell your principal and colleagues that students need more science time, that science must not be marginalized or wait until 4th grade, you are marching for science.

Every time you help a colleague who is struggling to teach science effectively and is not quite sure how to do it, you are marching for science.

Every time you support a science organization with your membership and your participation, from NSTA to the AAAS, from NRDC to the International Crane Foundationyou are marching for science.

Every time you write to your legislators or sign a petition to protect the work of scientists from those who wish to silence them and to demand evidence-based policies, you are marching for science.

But most importantly, every time you inspire your students to develop a passion for science and aspire to become STEM professionals, or at the very least, to become informed, science-positive citizens, you are marching for science.

Will you march for science?

Please leave us a comment to let us know how.

~ Penny

You can read more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under AAAS, International Crane Foundation, March for Science, NRDC, NSTA, science teaching, Uncategorized, war on science

Guilty of Inadvertently Promoting A Stereotype?

I love visiting classrooms, watching teachers facilitate inquiry-based lessons, and seeing our future STEM professionals roll up their sleeves and dive in to the work of science and engineering, marshaling technology and math to be successful in conducting scientific investigations and in meeting engineering challenges. And I love looking around the classrooms that I visit, seeing photos of kids doing science, collections of science themed books, and models from their science and engineering projects. I especially love seeing our Wheel of Inquiry tool in use and the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices posted.

Occasionally, however, I see things that I hope will eventually go away, things that reinforce our cultural stereotypes about scientists. You know the prevailing one. A scientist is old, male, white. He wears a white lab coat, sports a mustache, and has wild hair and crazy eyes. The beaker places him inside, in a laboratory, not out in the field. In fact, that old white science guy is a cartoon Einstein. If he could talk, he’d undoubtedly have a German accent.


If you don’t fit any of those demographics … let’s say you are female or black or Latino or young … then “scientist” is automatically “the other,” and we seem to have a problem these days in the U.S. accepting and trusting those who are different from ourselves. At least some of us do.

These stereotypical images make me wonder if part of the distance between science and our society doesn’t spring from our general stereotypical conception of scientists as being everything we are not. I wonder if our societal aversion to and downplaying of science aren’t linked to our sense that science has no particular relevance to our own lives. And if that’s so, do these same stereotypes make it easier for those with an anti-science agenda to drive a wedge between the public and its scientists?

Humanity has been in that wedge place before. During the Middle Ages, there were three distinct and separate estates, each with its own sphere of operation, its own norms. You belonged to First Estate, the Clergy or “those who pray,” Second Estate, the Nobility or “those who fight,” or Third Estate, the Commoners or “those who work.” And never the trine shall meet, because “during the Middle Ages individuals were born into their class and change in social position was difficult.”

After the French Revolution, the system changed. The press were designated “the Fourth Estate,” with the idea that they would remain independent of the other three. There are definitely barriers between these social groups and, as one authority notes, “Although the three estates were supposed to work together for the common good, their actual history is one of constant friction and conflict.” Funny, isn’t it, how everything old is suddenly new again?

Given the obvious rift between scientists and many in our legislatures and state and federal governments, not to mention many in the general public, perhaps we should acknowledge the existence of a Fifth Estate, comprised of the very highly educated scientists, engineers, mathematicians, technology innovator, somehow separate and distinct from “ordinary” Americans.

And that’s not good.

In this age when the discoveries and results of science and technology are speeding up exponentially and the need for the expertise of their practitioners has never been as critical, e.g., global climate change, we can’t afford to foster any notion that scientists are a separate estate and subject to being in “constant friction and conflict” with everyone else.

So anything we can do to educate against those stereotypical ideas of who and what scientists are would be helpful in letting the majority see common cause with that essential minority. Anything we can do to help our young people see themselves as scientists is all to the good.

The truth is that scientists come in all shapes and sizes, genders, ethnicities, and ages. Witness Hidden Figures (2016), the story of three African American women who were instrumental in getting the U.S. into space, or as the New York Times review headline proclaims, who “Helped NASA Soar.” One line in that review is particularly compelling for me, “Katherine Goble is the central hidden figure, a mathematical prodigy played with perfect nerd charisma …” Mathematical prodigies come in all colors, both genders, and can emerge anywhere in the world. We need them to soar. And we also need to acknowledge and value their contributions.

But what if our cultural stereotypes get in the way of that emergence?

It seems to me that we should cast a critical eye around our classrooms and consider the messages we send to students through the choices we make about what to display and how to arrange things. Those decisions form a hidden curriculum that also teaches, that teaches in tandem with our lessons and our words and perhaps more powerfully because subliminally. So, let’s be thoughtful about those images, those messages.

I think our classrooms should communicate: “Anyone can be a scientist, an engineer, a mathematician, or a technology innovator. ANYONE. In writing we say, showing is better than telling. Isn’t the same true in classrooms? So what can you do to show students that STEM is for ANYONE? For EVERYONE?

Here’s how teacher Brenda Martinez at Tonti Elementary delivered that message, and it’s an image I’ve featured before in this blog.

Who is a Scientist

Brenda Martinez told me, “I do a 2 week unit on what is a scientist and print out pictures of all sorts of different scientists in their fields so that students don’t just think of someone in a lab with a lab coat. We talk about what they do and what tools they use. Then I take pictures of my students doing science so they can see that they are also scientists, and post those photos on the same poster.”

For me this collage is worth a thousand words. I love how the pictures of the children doing science are intermingled with a very diverse representation of actual scientists … in the field, in white coats or not, young, and female, and black and white, Asian and Latino. Anyone can be a scientist. Everyone is.

Now let’s help them get that message and see themselves as future STEM professionals who will help solve the many challenges humanity faces in the 21st century.

And this, gentle reader, is my 100th blog post.


You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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