Category Archives: resources

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 confidant 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

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

TGISF … Happy Science Friday!

Earlier this year I reviewed The War on Science by Shaun Otto. While the author spends most of the book recounting how corporations, making common cause with religious groups and supported by a corporate media that has come to believe that being “fair and balanced” means giving equal weight to the settled science on such issues as anthropomorphic climate change and patently false opinions, Otto also reserves some of the blame for the public’s distance from science to the scientists themselves. Scientists, he contends, have not done a very good job of communicating with the public, both about the nature of their work and about their findings.

Enter Science Friday, as one means by which that dynamic is changing.

images-1On this last Friday of 2016 and just in case you haven’t stumbled on it yet, it seems particularly appropriate to spotlight this great resource for teachers, students, and the general public, and a vehicle by which scientists can share their work beyond academia. Science Friday airs every Friday on National Public Radio (NPR) from 2 P.M. – 4 P.M. Eastern Time, and you can also subscribe to podcasts or go to their website to listen to previous shows.

Science Friday, which boasts 1.7 million public radio listeners per week, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. For 25 years, Ira Flatow and the Science Friday staff “have been devoted to helping people understand the world around them, and to making learning fun for everyone.”

In 1991, Ira Flatow, a young journalist whose initial forays into science reporting were stories about the first Earth Day in 1970, brought the idea for Science Friday to NPR as “a weekly conversation with researchers who discuss their discoveries in depth.” The show broke new ground as the first talk show dedicated solely to science. Now, as then, Flatow interviews scientists, mathematicians, inventors, technology innovators, and other researchers, “giving them the time they need to explain their discoveries and inventions. Over the years, Ira has spoken with some of the most celebrated thinkers and doers in the world of science, including Carl Sagan, Jane Goodall, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Sylvia Earle, Oliver Sacks, Richard Leakey, and many more.”

Ira Flatow, host of IPR's Science Friday, discusses communicating science in his keynote address.

Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s Science Friday, discusses communicating science in his keynote address for the 50th Anniversary of NIH Environmental Health Research, November 1, 2016.

Flattow has written three books that popularize topics in science and technology: Rainbows, Curveballs, and Other Wonders of the Natural World Explained, They All Laughed… From Light Bulbs to Lasers: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions That Have Changed Our Lives, and Present at the Future: From Evolution to Nanotechnology, Candid and Controversial Conversations on Science and Nature.

For a taste of Science Friday programming, give this conversation a listen — “How Much Math Should Everyone Know? (Show Your Work.)

I also love their science year in review and their science books of the year recommendations.

More recently, Science Friday has expanded to include opportunities and resources for participation and education. You can, for example, take a virtual field trip to explore the Columns of the Giants in California, complete with opportunities to collect evidence and apply your geological skills to other sites around the world.

And educators are offered free STEM activities and resources developed by the Science Friday Educator Collaborative, a group of six creative and highly accomplished teachers from around the country. “Starting in the spring of 2016, educators in the collaborative worked with one another and with Science Friday’s staff to create ready-to-use educational resources, all of which were inspired by the work of scientists and engineers featured in Science Friday media. The result is a collection of challenging and fun STEM resources for a variety of educational settings. And like all of the resources we share at Science Friday, they’re totally free and don’t require expensive materials to implement, so use as many as you’d like, and share them with your colleagues and friends.

Here are some of the ideas that these talented teachers developed:

  • Backpacking into the Columns of the Giants to create an immersive virtual field trip;
  • Drenching Colocasia plants to demonstrate hydrophobicity in nature;
  • Painting watercolors to bring climate change data to life;
  • Planting thermometers in a school parking lot to gather data on the urban heat island effect;
  • Building kites to visualize and demonstrate Newton’s Second Law; and,
  • Creating scale models of mud cores to simulate a timeline of tropical cyclones and hurricanes.

As you will see, each activity is unique. But they’re all designed to develop students’ critical thinking skills and encourage scientific exploration.”

Applications are now open, due Sunday, January 8, 2017, by 11:59 p.m. EST, for the 2017 Science Friday Educator Collaborative. You can learn more about that opportunity here.

Educators, you can sign up here to receive a monthly newsletter with free experiments and lesson ideas.

You might also be interested in the Science Friday weekly newsletter. It will let you stay up to date on all the fascinating science topics they’ll be covering on the program. You can sign up here to receive it.

In addition to being fascinating to listen to each week, Science Friday offers wonderful opportunities to build your science content knowledge in a fun way. They say, “We make science an ‘action’ verb.” But what I find particularly impressive is the fact that children as young as six can become addicted to the show. A mom recently tweeted “@scifri podcast is amazing. My 6 yo has binge listened to 4 hours of it. He loves it.” Why not introduce your students to Science Friday? Who knows, it just might inspire them to consider a STEM career. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under Ira Flatow, mathematics, professional development, resources, Science Friday, scientist, Shawn Otto, teacher resources, Uncategorized, war on science

Further Confessions of a Science Fair Judge (and a Very Cool Resource)

It’s that season again. Many teachers, anticipating science fairs later in the year, are beginning to think about making their science fair assignments.

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you probably know that I am not a big fan of science fairs as they often play out. One reason for my antipathy is the fact that I often find myself discussing a science fair project with a student who doesn’t have any real personal connection to the work. Invariably, the student has found the project on the Internet and it seemed quick and easy to do. The problem for me in that is that without real engagement, a specific personal connection, the whole process seems more likely to turn a student away from science than generating any long lasting enthusiasm for doing science. Based on those experiences, I’ve tended to dismiss the Internet as a resource for students to use in developing a science fair project, leaning more toward having students build on scientific investigations they’ve done with their teacher but exploring a new variable or investigating something about which they’ve become curious through personal experience.

But ideas should be revisited in the light of new evidence. And students sometimes do need help in coming up with an interesting topic.

Enter Science Buddies’ Topic Selection Wizard. And with that, I’m confessing I was wrong about Internet generated science fair topics.

The Wizard begins by asking 3 questions with pull down menus. How much time do you have for this project? What grade are you in? Did your teacher assign you a specific area for your project? I responded as a 5th grader, said I had a month to do my project and that I could pick my own topic, rather than a teacher assigned one in physical science, or life science, or engineering/invention, for example.

I then answered 26 question about my own interests with either Yes, Sometimes, or No, and 3 demographic questions. I didn’t make up these interests, by the way. When I hit the Make Recommendations button, I was presented with 459 project ideas matched to my preferences.

A simple fun questionnaire gets students to projects that reflect their individual interests.

A  fun questionnaire directs students to projects that reflect their own interests.

Here’s the thing: As I read the recommendations, I could feel my heart race (yes, I’m a geek) because they sounded genuinely interesting to me! Paw Preference in Pets: I have three at home I could test right now, and I really wonder about what I would discover. Are Merlin, Cacie, and Elvis right or left pawed, and what, if anything, does that mean in terms of other aspects of their personalities? Movie Music: I’m a lifelong movie buff and have bought my share of movie soundtracks, beginning, when I was a teenager, with the lush Max Steiner score for Gone with the Wind. Pedigree Analysis: A Family Tree of Traits: I joined a couple of months ago to see where the Wilsons came from, not to mention the Tkachs. I never thought to look at photographs to check ear lobes to find if our tend to be connected or not. But the first project idea I opened was Testing Ant Repellents because, guess what?, I just went into the kitchen for a hot cup of coffee and noticed that the ants were back, after I thought the coffee grounds I had tucked around had worked to drive them away, garlic to their relentless, aggravating vampiric march.

Another thing I love about this tool is what happens when you open up a topic that has captured your interest. There is so much there to draw on.

The tool provides a summary, which includes an abstract and a citation of the project in either MLA or APA style. The “Background” tab includes a bibliography and terms. There are also tabs for “Materials” and “Procedure,” which includes a sample data table. “Help” connects you to “Ask an Expert,” along with related links, and “Learn More” suggests science careers you might like if this type of project appeals to you. My favorite tab is “Make It Your Own,” which offers ways to adapt the project or extend it.

Science Buddies’ Topic Selection Wizard solves one problem I find with science fairs — that they fail to engage students in ways that are genuinely relevant to the student. They are also really good science, and the “Background” page does an excellent job of teaching important concepts. You could get lost for days exploring this site and learn a great deal of science in the process.

But I do have a caveat. While I think the Wizard is a good starting point for students new to science fairs, students who may not have found their science investigation chops quite yet, Science Buddies’ thoroughness in providing all the parts of the typical science fair project requirements, even down to the proper MLA or APA citations, could lead to it becoming a crutch and to outright plagiarism, the student simply copying the abstract, for example, if the teacher is not on top of the assignment and aware of the tool.

I think we would want students to use the Wizard suggested projects as models that they would eventually grow beyond, once they’ve had the positive experience of investigating something in which they are genuinely interested. Then they could simply apply the model to their own topics. Also, as teachers, we would want to facilitate and guide their experience with the Wizard, using it as a means to have substantive conversations with students about the topics that fascinate them. This borders on personalized learning. Used appropriately, Science Buddies Topic Selection Wizard is a great resource and if it’s new to you, it’s definitely one you should explore so that you can decide whether or not or how to share it with your students. Guaranteed, you will have fewer of the same project, fewer formulaic projects, and, mercifully, no more testing of paper towel absorbency. And those will be blessings indeed, at least to this science fair judge.

Which Paper Towel is Best? Do you really care?

Which Paper Towel is Best? Do you really care?

A big thanks to Mary Bianchi-Chlada, one of our amazing STEM Institute coaches, for calling my attention to this great resource.


You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Filed under children as scientists, resources, Science Buddies, science fair, science fair projects, teacher resources

A New Tool for Teachers and Principals from STEM Institute

If you are looking for clear evidence that a classroom, including your own, is on its way to becoming inquiry-based, NGSS aligned, and just plain supportive of students developing their science and engineering skills, ask yourself these questions

  • Are the students seen as scientists and engineers by themselves and by adults?
Sending a Clear Message That Students are Engineers

Sending a Clear Message That Students are Engineers (Kozminski Elementary Community Academy, Chicago)

  • Are the students gathering, organizing, and analyzing data and in other ways experiencing the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (SEP)?
NGSS Science and Engineering Practices — Are Students Using Them?

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices — Are Students Doing These Things?

  • Is the science instruction inquiry-based and hands-on rather than textbook based? (You know, the old memorize the vocabulary, read the book out loud, and answer the questions at the end of the chapter?) How often are students engaged in hands-on, minds-on work? (This should be frequent, not once or twice a month.)
  • Are the students keeping science journals/notebooks, recording their observations, doing scientific drawings or designing solutions to engineering challenges, and reflecting on their observations and experiences, and is this a consistent practice? (For example, “Three months into the school year, when I look at their science notebooks, do I see pages and pages of recorded experiences of the children doing science rather than simply content notes, vocabulary, or pasted in worksheets?”)
  • Are the students using the Wheel of Inquiry to develop investigable questions? Are they asking, “How does ________ effect ________?”
Student Developed Wheels of Inquiry (Steven Taylor, Crowne Community Academy, Chicago)

Student Developed Wheels of Inquiry (Stephen Taylor, Crowne Community Academy, Chicago)

  • Are there photos in the classroom of students doing science? Are students’ scientific drawings posted? Are their engineering solutions on display? In other words, is there a visible documentary record that these are valued activities and engaging to students and that the students are doing hands-on, inquiry-based science/engineering on a regular basis?
At Tonti Elementary in Chicago, Photos of Students Doing Science are Nested Among those of Adult Scientists, Answering the Question "Who is a Scientist?

At Tonti Elementary in Chicago, Photos of Students Doing Science are Nested Among those of Adult Scientists, Answering the Question “Who Is A Scientist?”

  • Is the science/STEM question-driven? Is there a central question being explored through the activity? (This might be called the framing question, essential question, or focus question.) Are there more high-order questions (Bloom’s Taxonomy) being asked? Are students asking high-order questions too? Is there appropriate wait time so that all students have the opportunity to reflect and respond? Is the classroom management conducive to the questioning process and to students conducting scientific investigations or responding to engineering challenges?
  • Are the lessons based on the 5 E approach? Are they Engaging the students in an intriguing observation or question, giving the students ample time to Explore the materials up front before proceeding to have them conduct an investigation and Explain what they observe? Are students given opportunities to Extend their investigation (possibly by using the Wheel of Inquiry and reflecting in their science notebooks) and Evaluate their results and understanding?
  • Are the students excited when they hear they are going to be doing an investigation? Do they know what to do and immediately spring into action? Do they clearly understand the process and procedures because they are doing science and engineering on a frequent, preferably daily, basis? How much ownership do you see students taking for their own learning? Are students framing questions? Are students suggesting other possible investigations? Can students discuss their learning or communicate their understanding in a variety of ways?
Tonti Children

Tonti Elementary Students Learn about the Properties of Water by Building Pencil Rafts … Hands On and Engaged!

  • Was the lesson or unit constructed using backward design? Is there evidence of a clear instructional goal, an assessment, and something to hook the interest of students … rather than simply an activity? Are the NGSS and CCSS clearly identified and tied to the lesson or activity in a meaningful way and with multiple standards addressed? Are the subjects integrated in such a way that more science and engineering can be done because language arts and math support them and vice versa?
  • Are students generally working in groups with clearly defined roles for each student in the group? Is it clear that the students know what to do, the protocols and procedures, when it’s time to conduct an investigation or meet an engineering challenge? Are materials managed in a timely and efficient way?

Using an inquiry-based, constructivist approach takes time because it’s a new way of teaching for many teachers. Seeing four or five of these success indicators in a classroom is a good sign. With enough time and encouragement, teachers are likely to build out their repertoire of inquiry-based activities and lessons into entire units of study and to increase student ownership of learning. Getting to that point is a multi-year process even for highly talented, committed, and experienced teachers. So be prepared to give it time and patience. Working with colleagues as a team to develop a lesson or unit can help speed the process along. To assist you along the way, our Partners in Inquiry website includes many activities from our summer institutes and school year follow-up sessions that teachers are free to use, activities that are already aligned with the above principles.

To make it even easier to gauge whether or not the principles STEM Institute promotes are present in a classroom, we’ve developed an infographic that can serve as a reminder of the things we think you should see.

Our New Info Graphic Reminder of What to Look For

Our New Infographic Reminder of What to Look for in a Great STEM Classroom

I hope it proves useful to you. I’d love to hear from you if you do use it or have suggestions to make it better.

Have a great start to your new school year!


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

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Filed under 5 E Model, children as engineers, children as scientists, Crowne Community Academy, inquiry science, Kozminski Elementary, NGSS, professional development, resources, science teaching, STEM education, teacher resources, Tonti Elementary School, Uncategorized

Dumpster Diving for Science (and Engineering)

Summer is a great time for teachers to plan for the coming school year and gather materials for all the great learning experiences you are developing for your students. In the spirit of “Recycle, Re-use, Re-purpose,” and in recognition of the difficult financial straits so many schools find themselves in, I’d like to propose “Dumpster Diving for Science.”

Our intrepid STEM Institute faculty has made an art form of it, all in the name of giving their students richer learning experiences and the teachers in their professional development sessions some creative solutions for those limited budgets they face.

Jim with Box

Jim Effinger with the Dumpster Box that Started It All — We Needed a Box Large Enough to Hold Wayne Wittenberg

To inspire your own participation in this soon to be Olympic sport, somewhat akin in a twisted sort of way to Pokemon Go, here are a few of our faculty’s favorite memories, their most fabulous finds.

Wayne Wittenberg said of the dumpster dive strategy for equipping his science armamentarium, “that’s how I got my first science equipment. My district just got rid of a whole bunch of science equipment and I grabbed it. That was 30 years ago, and I still use the equipment. Magnets, aquariums, and electric circuit boards, all of it was there. Districts have stopped doing this because it’s taxpayers’ money. But when a school transitions from one program to another, you can still snag some pretty good things.”

Howie Templer told me, “I’ve never gone dumpster diving except at my school when people throw random stuff away at the beginning of the year, but on days when people throw things out in their alleys in my community, I pick up things I can use in my classroom. You can’t ever look for something specific, but you can find things you can use. My best find was a tent. It’s the only thing I used intact. Everything else I used for parts in building stuff. Ice keeper stuff, for example, like foam, foam floaters, cardboard, bubble wrap. The tent was a discarded IKEA pop-up tent that I challenged my students to find the volume of. Then my students used the poles as a framework for building a structure they had to engineer to be freestanding. It was an architectural design problem. I’m always just looking. One of the most useful typical finds is the plastic storage containers people put things in to dispose of. I dump the contents and use the containers to organize and store my science supplies. Cardboard bankers boxes for paper storage are also easy to find in the alley.”

John Lewis said, “It’s pretty much my life. It’s pretty amazing how someone else’s garbage can be a treasure for your classroom. I find some stuff around schools — mine in particular. Anything from projector cart parts to an old overhead projector, last century’s technology. When the school throws it away one day, I retrieve it the next. The overhead projector, for example, is perfect for the color mixing activity I do, and Jim Effinger uses it to project the results of the hand washing experiment, the bacterial grown in the petri dishes. You wouldn’t want to buy something like that for one or two activities, but finding an old overhead in the dumpster is great!”

John Lewis with Salvaged Overhead Projector for Color Mixing Activity

John Lewis with Salvaged Overhead Projector for Color Mixing Activity

Referring to the related sport of alley picking, John commented, “An annoying thing taking up space in someone’s garage could be the perfect illustration of the scientific principle you’ll be teaching next week. Just cruising down the alley, I’ve found hot wheels cars, furniture, and other cast offs that have found a perfect place in my classroom and curriculum.”

And he concluded, “Many of our giveaways at STEM Institute workshops have come from others’ castoffs, which can be used to enrich classroom experiences and supplement scarce resources.”

Not everyone feels comfortable dumpster diving. While Ron Hale has never done it personally, some of his best friends are dumpster divers. Ron has a teacher friend who looks for old electronics he can deconstruct for STEM activities. Ron is a bit averse to the sport himself.

Elizabeth Copper uses dumpsters in a unique way. Noticing that dumpsters tend to attract flies, she captures maggots in collection jars and flies out of a flytrap for forensic etymology. Students get to see the life cycle of flies and understand the life death continuum. Elizabeth advises, “Just like universal precaution, always carry your gloves with you.” She’s hoping this year to get Ron Hale to help her collect.

Bill Grosser’s first experience with the sport started after working at Amoco Chemical Corporation. He recounted, “They had a room there that was full of no longer used custom made research lab equipment. Some of it was bizarre looking, and you had no idea what it was designed to be used for, however it was obvious it related to science. When I started teaching my Amoco friends at one point called me up and said ‘If you want any of this junk, come over and get it.’ Lee Merrik, another Golden Apple Fellow, and I took our vans and we came away with two vans full of equipment and materials. 25 years later I still have a lot of it and use it for class. When it’s on the counter and the kids come into the room, they know that something spectacular is going to happen.”

Bill’s advice: “Always be on the lookout for cool looking stuff that will spark the inquisitive nature in kids.”

Jim Effinger and Bill Grosser often snag excellent finds together. By far best thing they ever got out of a dumpster was a full-sized cow from the old farm exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. They couldn’t resist the temptation to whisk it away from the MSI dumpster because they saw the potential for humor. With Wayne Wittenberg’s help, they had to cut the legs down to get it into the van, and they drove down Lake Shore Drive with the cow clearly visible in the window. They put in in the research prairie where the students would be collecting bugs. It was worth all the trouble when the kids came running back shouting “there’s a cow in the prairie!”

Dumpster Divers Extraordinaire: Wayne Wittenberg, Bill Grosser, Jim Effinger, Louise Huffman.

Dumpster Divers Extraordinaire: Wayne Wittenberg, Bill Grosser, Jim Effinger, Louise Huffman.


Bill Grosser and Wayne Wittenberg Load Van with Rescued Cow

Bill Grosser and Wayne Wittenberg Load Van with Rescued Cow

And that reminds me of what Jim Effinger always advises us on the first day of Introduction to Inquiry — “Have fun.” Some of those dumpster, alley, thrift store, garage sale, basement, or attic finds have great potential for humor. Certainly their primary purpose is to spark curiosity. They can make excellent hooks. And some can contribute to your students’ scientific investigations and engineering projects. But they can also contribute to making learning fun for you and your students.

To the dumpsters everyone!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under creativity, dumpster diving, resources, teacher resources, Uncategorized

Tell Them Stories! ~ An Interview with Science Teacher and Aviculturist, Jason Crean

Yesterday evening at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, during our final STEM Institute follow-up session of the year, I had the privilege of chatting with one of ten 2016 Golden Apple Award winners, a 2009 Presidential Award Winner (presented by President Obama), the President Elect of the Illinois Science Teachers Association, and a guy who built a 300 square foot aviary on the back of his house. They all happen to be one and the same person, Jason Crean.

Jason Crean with one of his avian friends.

Jason Crean with One of His Avian Friends, an Aracaris Named Bonito.

Reading about Jason in preparation for this conversation, I was struck by the lifelong passion he’s had for living things and the impact he’s had on his students. By way of introduction, I found the following passage on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) website, on the occasion of Crean winning an award for his genetics curriculum, Who’s Your Daddy?

“Growing up, I really wanted to become a veterinarian,” Crean said, “but the further through my education I went, the more I wanted to share my love of biology with others. Now that I have taught biology for about 15 years, I have the best of both worlds.”

Former student Allison Kihn has fond memories of the XY-ZOO and the school zoology club founded by Crean. As a second year vet student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she says she is “exactly where I want to be in life right now,” thanks in part to Crean’s encouragement.

“My time in the lab was truly treasured, and really gave me a grasp on genetics that has really helped me in the classroom and laboratory setting,” Kihn said. “I pretty much can thank Mr. Crean for single handedly helping me achieve my dream career.”

And so I asked …

What experiences from your childhood or youth set you down the path you’re on … being a science teacher, being an aviculturist and zoologist, being a writer.

I played outside ALL THE TIME. From morning until night, I was outside exploring: climbing trees, laying in the grass, digging in the soil. When kids play outside, they can’t help but encounter organisms and these experiences led to my interest in science. My parents allowed me to get a cockatiel as a kid and this sparked my lifelong interest in birds. I now have many different species as part of my live animal education program that serve the same purpose as that first bird: allowing kids to make connections with living animals which sparks not only an interest in science, but compassion towards nature as well.

Connecting Kids to the Natural World

Connecting Kids to the Natural World

What is one lesson or activity you’ve designed of which you’re especially proud?

I have worked with Dr. Jean Dubach, wildlife geneticist, for several years and I have authored curricular activities that make use of the fascinating work she does in her lab. We have published these activities free for teachers. One of the activities that best shows my transformation as an educator is the Lion Investigation (Who’s Your Daddy?, an AAAS award winning lesson). The traditional lab activity, which is handed to students in its entirety, as well as the updated version, which allows students to work with individual data sets one at a time and in sequence, are both available. I have found the “controlled release” of data allows students to become further immersed in the driving questions and allows them to alter their hypotheses as new data becomes available.

Jason Crean with Dr. Jean Dubach

Jason Crean with Dr. Jean Dubach

How do you get your best ideas for new lessons?

I always start with an engaging phenomenon which usually begins as an interesting story. If the story is engaging, it’s going to hook more students from the onset. If they’re interested, they’re more likely to answer those driving questions. This could be a human interest story I see on the news, a particularly engaging article I read, or something I actually encounter. As a zoo consultant, I have had the opportunity to interact with some fascinating animals and their stories can lead to some engaging phenomenon for the classroom. The animal nutrition lab came out of an idea I had while feeding a rhinoceros by hand!

In working with students, what is your primary focus? What are your aspirations for them?

I want my students to have the skills to make sense of the natural world. I want them to be able to reason through data and make sense of it. I want them to be able to investigate problems and come up with viable solutions. I want them to be informed citizens and make good choices. These goals can lead them to pursue careers in science or, at the very least, act as a responsible citizen living on our planet.

What advice do you have for beginning science teachers?

Tell stories. Your life as a teacher will be richer and more meaningful if you can tell your students stories. They will be more easily drawn in and, at the same time, you’re providing the context for the idea you are presenting. Students have trouble learning concepts when isolated and only learning the ‘what.’ But when you tell the stories, the context provides them more of the why. Narrative learning has made my life as a teacher and scientist so exciting and that definitely rubs off on my kids.

Jason Crean received his B. S. in Biology (1996)  and his master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction (2001), both from St. Xavier University. He also has an M.S. in Biology and a graduate certificate in Zoo and Aquarium Science from Western Illinois University. He is certified in high school biology, chemistry, zoology, and other topics. He is a biology teacher at Lyons Township High School in La Grange and does research/service work for the Brookfield Zoo Conservation Biology Department’s Genetics Lab. In addition to the award mentioned above, he won the National Association of Biology Teachers’ 2009 Ecology/Environmental Science Teaching Award and the 2009 Drug, Chemical and Associated Technologies Association “Making a Difference” Award sponsored by the National Science Teachers Association among others.

To connect with more of Jason’s work, check out Beaks Birdhouse to learn about avian nutrition and various kinds of hand-reared softbills, the Illinois Science Teachers Association, to join with other science educators to share knowledge about science and teaching, and see his list of accomplishments and publications in his online resume. There’s lots to explore!

Jason Crean with Golden Conure Chicks

Jason Crean with Golden Conure Chicks

Given the enormous impact that playing outside had on shaping Crean’s lifelong passion for living things, I’d like to recommend a favorite book of mine which advocates that children have more opportunities to do just that, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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Filed under genetics curriculum, Jason Crean, Last Child in the Woods, new science teacher, resources, science teaching, scientist, teacher as scientist, Uncategorized