Wednesday, February 5, 2014

NGSS and teaching science

Wow...five years between posts! In that time, 'A Framework for K-12 Science Education' was commissioned and published. I was very excited to read the draft in 2011, see the revisions in 2012 and the book finally being published by National Academies Press. One of the most significant milestones was the recognition that a coherent elementary science progression was essential to progress in overall science education. Just this moth, NSTA adopted an early childhood science education statement. This is what I've been hoping for since first writing this blog. Coupled with this commonsense realization was the recognition of the need for design ad engineering to integrated in all aspects of K-12 science education. My excitement knew no bounds until the excellent 'Framework' book was set to the NGSS folks for 'unpacking' into curricular gobbledygook. As a consultant, I'm spending time repacking and restating the excellent work done by the original study group. NGSS notoriously downplays the D/E piece of the puzzle and overplays the upcoming 'Smarter Balance' testing regime. In the 31 years I have been teaching science,l I've found my colleagues to be very proactive in what they do because they believe in what they do. We know when kids miss the boat, and if the administration leaves us alone, we fix what is broken! I'm refraining from drinking the NGSS cool aid for the time being, reserving my right to teach in the best manner possible. I will rejoice, though, if students with a stronger foundation begin to percolate up with some sense of why science is important!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hands On Science

What does 'hands on' mean?

The drive for more 'hands on' activities in science has been a largely misunderstood cliché for decades.
The notion may come from the old saying 'idle hands, idle minds', but really isn't reflective of
the processes of much of science. Is there a 'hands on' cosmology, DNA strand or bacteria? Much of what we know is from models of what we can't see or encompass and from extrapolations based on inferential experiments. At the least, very elaborate instruments are needed to enhance our senses so we can observe the micro and macro scale. So, what is the bridge between the obscure realities of hard science and the most basic introductions to understanding the world that we face in elementary science? My sense, after many years experimenting on students, is that a person needs a real solid grounding in the skills of sensing, observing, and measuring at the most basic level so that one can make the leap to the inferential and abstract world of science models. I would prefer to refer to my lessons as 'directed multi-sensory engagements' (a bit cumbersome) rather than 'hands on' . I've always tried to engage my students with projects, challenges, and unusual experiences. Some of them may have accidentally qualified as 'hands on'. On reflection, the best experiences have been the closest to
a real world situation, condition or scenario. Challenging students in this way provides a lasting
framework for thinking which persists for a long time. Sensory stimulation of this sort involves all of the senses, skills involving design and fabrication, and artistic rendering. Reducing all this to 'hands on'
is akin to teaching math by only using worksheets. How about 'senses on'?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Returning to full time work has kept me from writing until a bit of forced convalescence provided some time!

There are stirrings of real change in the way that science education will proceed in the
next few years. There is a recognition that STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) is crucial to recovering our leadership in the world economy and to solving critical environmental challenges. Restoring funding to primary research will provide an incentive for our students to be on STEM tracks in high school and college. Funding ‘green’ initiatives will provide an economic pull which will hopefully get curricular juices flowing at all levels.

With all this excitement, I’m hoping the K-5 realm will be remembered in the deliberations of where to expend resources. Science is a natural complement to the native exploratory bent of elementary students. Piggybacking literacy, writing, and math on this native interest only helps streamline the complicated curricular challenge of the teacher. Did I mention the natural rhythms of sound, or the skills of drawing and design? There is huge potential in STEM as a focus for what we do with early learners.

In order to achieve some of this potential, K-5 teachers deserve the same intense support that NCLB has engendered. A regional model for supporting teachers is the Maine Math and Science Alliance which as its name implies, provides a wide range of workshops and leadership support to teachers and administrators. The past director of MMSA, Dr. Francis Ebersole, is now the Exec. Director of the NSTA, and another MMSA leader is President of NSTA this year! Bringing experienced STEM educators into the planning, inservicing, and modeling of good teaching practice requires resources
and support from administrative leadership at district, state, and national levels. There is a huge talent pool capable of providing the support K-5 teachers need.

Science can no longer be considered a vestigial appendix - I hope losing mine will be a harbinger of STEM curricula
becoming part of the core of elementary education!

Maine Math and Science Alliance

At the national level, the NSTA has begun a campaign to promote ‘Leadership, Learning, and Advocacy’

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The World is Flat

Thomas Friedman’s book about the convergence of technologies changing the nature of
the world has been revised three times since it was published early in 2005. The ‘flattening’ Friedman refers to is the leveling of the economic ‘playing field’ between the developed west and the growing powers of rapidly developing economies like India and China. ‘Flattening’ is characterized by faster communication worldwide, the development of alternative ways of sourcing and producing goods and services, and the shifting of expertise to a mobile and highly educated cadre of knowledge workers from the second world. During the past eight years, most of the effort in education has been focused on
the tool of literacy as if it were the reason that the United States was falling behind
economically and technically. Friedman points out that the lead the United States had in producing engineers during the post Sputnik years has evaporated and that we are actually not keeping up with the demand for highly trained STEM workers. The average age of practicing engineers in the US is over 50, while India is turning out tens of thousands of highly qualified engineers every year. No Child Left Behind has sucked the air out of any efforts to prioritize science in elementary schools, even though this is a critical period for students becoming excited about career paths. I recommend every STEM educator read The World is Flat (ed 3) and try to get the information in this book disseminated to administrators and colleagues ASAP.

Friedman, Thomas. The World is Flat. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005-7. ISBN 978-0-312-42507-4

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Climate Change 'Debate'

As an Earth Science teacher for many years before becoming involved in elementary science, I have always been interested in long term climate change. I have steered away from the term 'global warming' and have shuddered when the term 'greenhouse effect' was used to describe insolation trapping gases. I am a fan of James Lovelock and his 'Gaia' feedback mechanisms, which make the issue of climate change more complex but still understandable in a fundamental way. The political issue revolves around whether humans are in some way responsible for climate change, and therefore obligated to put it right. I don't care for that reasoning, because even if we do make a short term change, the global feedback mechanisms will correct those changes in non-human time scales. But, this begs the question of whether humankind should pillage fossil fuel resources, terraform for precious metals, and produce radioactive waste for our own short term excesses. In the US, it is clear that the consumption path is not a good economic choice, and beyond that, the impact on daily city life of carbon pollution may spoil the Olympics in China. It is rather self serving to suggest that climate change isn't an issue: us humans need to respect that we are 1. part of a greater bio/geochemical system 2. in need of the flexibility to change our lifestyles to accommodate cooling or warming 3. in need of greater understanding of climate feedback systems like el Nino/la Nina 4. becoming ignorant of the basic sciences necessary to deal with changing weather and climate. As a teacher of elementary students, I feel it is more important to give them the tools to understand weather and climate than to burden them with the politics of the issue. Climate variability has been a culture changing event for the Anasazi, North Africans, Romans, Vikings, Easter Islanders, and potentially many other groups. Climate change is a historical and present reality which needs our student's attention free from pay per view polemics and popular hype. The 'debate' is over how society should behave with regard to using resources: do we use them sparingly and in a respectful manner for the benefit of future generations, or do we justify their exploitation for immediate consumption with little regard for any future humans or other living things on Earth?

'No brainer' for me.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Teaching Climate Change

Now that the IPCC has cleared much of the smog from the climate change stage, moving it from debate to issue status, its time for US schools to begin the process of integrating weather and climate change into our curricula. The developmental window for this is upper elementary school, when students are beginning to become interested and aware of the greater world. California has already begun the process of developing materials for elementary teachers, and the UK has one of the best sites for teachers and kids on the topic of climate change ( The teachable moment for this effort is as early as possible, allowing for later challenges and enhancements in middle and high school curricula. The goal of climate education is not to strike fear in the hearts of our students, but to give them knowledge and tools for understanding the tasks which lie ahead for them as citizens of the world. Learning about climate requires observation, data collection, math analysis, graphical interpretation, and geography to name a few related topics. These are not static skills, but tools which can be used in teaching and learning science throughout the K-12 experience. I call upon the educational leaders in our public and independent institutions to incorporate climate change and weather studies in their science curriculum frameworks.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Full Circle

At the NSTA conference I had the opportunity to hear Barbara Morgan speak about her
flight on STS 118 last summer. She was still full of enthusiasm and awe of the experience
which brought some closure to the tragedy of the Challenger so long ago. One of the things which struck me about her experience was her persistence in achieving her goal of getting to space. Another is how fresh and exciting it was to her after such a long process. The potential for spaceflight to engage our students is still there, and clearly it has some amazing ‘engagement’ potential – it kept Barbara going for 22 years! I encourage teachers to promote what astronomers and space travelers do, especially because it combines so many areas, from engineering design to ecology. Having such a multi-disciplinary magnet is a great advantage to upper elementary and middle school teachers looking for ways to do science while hitting other areas like writing and math. Watch the International Space Station go over your house – check out for the best viewing times. Share the excitement with your students!