Category Archives: teacher resources

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

The Care and Feeding of Science Fair Judges: It’s in the details …

Organizing a science fair is no small undertaking, particularly given the many demands on a teacher’s time. I like blogging about science fairs in the hope that sharing good practices across schools can help all of us create a better experience for students without having to reinvent the wheel school by school. What one school/teacher does well may not have occurred to another school/teacher to do. Perhaps you’ll find something helpful in the ideas below that you can incorporate in your own science fair planning.

Earlier this month I served as a science fair judge at Emiliano Zapata Academy in Chicago. Zapata’s science fair team did a great job of reaching out in advance, sending an email to prospective judges over a month before the event.

“It’s that time of year again! We need your help in attaining Science Fair judges. The Science Fair will be on Tuesday, December 6, 2016 from 8:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. We will be providing our judges with breakfast and a lunch that will not disappoint. Attached is a letter for the judges. Please feel free to forward this email to someone who might be interested in judging. College students are welcomed.

Thank you in advance.”

Attached to the email was a more formal letter. The letter reassured us that “everything you need to know will be easily explained to you during breakfast before you hear student presentations.”

Formal Invitation Letter to Judge the Zapata Science Fair

Formal Invitation Letter to Judge the Zapata Science Fair

To help insure that all judges showed up, the organizers also sent several reminders during the lead up to December 6.

That morning, judges convened in the library, where breakfast was indeed served. Over coffee and pastries, we were given a presentation about the learning needs and styles of the adolescent children whose projects we would be judging, a primer on the science processes (scientific method) that the students were using in developing their projects, and a review of the rubric we would be using to judge. And, more importantly, we were provided with a list of questions we were encouraged to engage students in answering to reflect on their work. The students of Eliza Ramirez, 8th grade science teacher, had developed the questions with her, based on previous science fair experiences and the questions that judges had asked them that helped them think more deeply about their work.

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016
Emiliano Zapata Academy Gym

This is a list of questions for visitors to ask participants. If there are other questions you want to ask, please do! Our participants are ready to share about their research and experiment.

What is your project about?
Why did you choose this project?
Where did you get the materials for your experiment?
How much time did each part of the process take you?
Who helped you with your experiment? How did they help?
What part of this project made you feel like a scientist?
What was a fun part of doing this project?
What was the hardest part of doing this project? What was the easiest part?
How did the project add to your knowledge of science?
What did you learn from this project?
How did your research influence your experiment?
Was there anything that went wrong in your project? How did you adjust or fix the problem?
What ideas for other projects can you get from this one?
If you were to do this project again, what would you change? Why?
How did you prepare to present?

Zapata put on a well-organized Science Fair. Students had been working on projects since the first month of school, and that showed in the quality of their work. All students had papers, and judges had the opportunity to read the papers in advance of hearing the students present. And the breakfast and lunch definitely did not disappoint.

Eliza Ramirez, Zapata Science Teacher and Co-Organizer of the Science Fair

Eliza Ramirez, Zapata Science Teacher and Co-Organizer of the Science Fair

These are my takeaways from my experience at Zapata:

The adults at Zapata honored their students and supported their success by being thoughtful in their own planning and organization. They took the enterprise seriously enough to not make a last minute affair of it, an all too common occurrence. They took the time to reach out well in advance of the Science Fair to secure judges, and they set aside time and created a presentation expressly for the judges to make sure that we too approached the task in a thoughtful and prepared manner. No surprise, Zapata is designated a Level 1+ school by CPS. It’s in the details …

And here is something to consider: If the experience is a good one for judges, they are more likely to agree to come back in subsequent years, making it easier for you to secure experienced judges in the future.

Kudos to teacher-organizers Carmen Reyes and Eliza Ramirez and to principal Ruth Garcia for organizing and hosting an exemplary Science Fair. And kudos to their students for doing a great job on their projects!

If asked, I will definitely be back next year.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Filed under science fair, science fair projects, teacher resources, Uncategorized, Zapata Academy

Performance Expectations: The Key to Your NGSS Planning

Earlier this month, President Obama spoke to students at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. It was a broad and encouraging talk, lauding the school for its 100% graduation rate, praising teachers for their dedication to their students’ learning, encouraging the students to go on to college, and recounting his administration’s accomplishments in education.

But it was also a cautionary tale. The President warned his student audience, “We live in a global economy. And when you graduate, you’re no longer going to be competing just with somebody here in D.C. for a great job. You’re competing with somebody on the other side of the world, in China or in India, because jobs can go wherever they want because of the Internet and because of technology. And the best jobs are going to go to the people who are the best educated — whether in India or China, or anywhere in the world.”

We once led the world in education, the President told them, but unfortunately other countries have caught up to us.

“It used to be that a high school job might be enough because you could go into a factory or even go into an office and just do some repetitive work, and if you were willing to work hard you could make a decent living. But the problem is repetitive work now is done by machines. And that’s just going to be more and more true. So in order for you to succeed in the marketplace, you’ve got to be able to think creatively; you’ve got to be able to work with a team; you’ve got to be able to work with a machine and figure out how to make it tailored for the specific requirements of your business and your job. All those things require some more sophisticated thinking than just sitting there and just doing the same thing over and over again. And that’s why you’ve got to have more than just a high school education.

In a nutshell, the President was encouraging the Banneker students to be creative, to learn how to work with a team, and to solve engineering problems, all things that require sophisticated thinking, all things that the Next Generation Science Standards promote and expect.

But the NGSS can be a daunting document, and many teachers are unpacking it on their own.

Where to begin?

I’d like to suggest that you begin with the Performance Expectations for your grade level band and the particular Disciplinary Core Strand of Life Science, Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, or Engineering, whichever your unit of instruction will focus on. A Performance Expectation, as defined by NGSS, is nothing other than “a set of expectations for what students should be able to do by the end of instruction (years or grade-bands). So, the performance expectations set the learning goals for students, but do not describe how students get there.” There are anywhere from two to five performance expectations for each grade level/disciplinary core idea band. Getting students there is the creative part of your work as an instructional designer, i.e. teacher. And, incidentally, this is exactly the approach that Finnish teachers take in their own planning. It requires essentially using a backward design process (you can find an example at the bottom of the page) originating in the goals, or performance expectations, those things we hope students will know and be able to do.

So let’s access those Disciplinary Core Strands here:


A Good Starting Point for Your NGSS Aligned Units

When you click on the Disciplinary Core Strand and grade level your unit will focus on, you are taken directly to the performance expectations for that grade and strand and find, not only the performance expectations, but suggestions for how to understand it … the different forms a model can take, for example … and vetted suggestions for how you can get your students to successfully achieve those performance expectations through hands-on inquiry-based activities.

Easy to access and free to use guide to Performance Expectations from NGSS.

Easy to access and free to use guide to Performance Expectations from NSTA.

Far too often, the textbooks teachers are working with are outdated and are not NGSS aligned. They contain way too much content for any given year. NGSS emphasizes the principle that “less is more,” so you have to significantly streamline to keep to the spirit of the NGSS. As one teacher I spoke with recently noted, “The textbook is no longer the curriculum.” Further, in most of these texts there is no story line threading the Science and Engineering Practices, the Crosscutting Concepts, and the Disciplinary Core Ideas into a comprehensive and engaging whole. So we have to cut ourselves free from those traditional but outdated maps, reserving them to supplement our own planning, and more independently chart a course for our students through these new waters.

And then, if you find that throughway, you get to see these beautiful results of your work in the rapt faces of your young scientists.

Ms. Soto's 2nd Grade Students Planned and Conducted an Investigation

Ms. Soto’s 2nd Grade Students Planned and Conducted an Investigation

This blog post is dedicated to two passionate and wonderful teachers with whom I’ve recently had the pleasure and privilege to work, Lisa Vaughn, 5th grade teacher at Pershing Elementary in Chicago, and Maria Soto, 2nd grade teacher at George Washington Elementary, also in Chicago. Thank you both for your inspriration.


You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here. We are currently seeking partner schools in the Chicagoland area for our 2017 cohort.

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Filed under George Washington Elementary in Chicago, NGSS, Performance Expectations, Pershing Elementary in Chicago, STEM lesson planning, teacher resources, Uncategorized

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