Developing an Understanding of Light Energy through PhET Models

“Light moves in the form of waves” and is “reflected, refracted, and absorbed” are all traditional statements of light energy that become staples of assessment for student understanding. But whether students can apply this understanding is a big question. The NGSS asks students to “use and develop models to describe phenomena and demonstrate understanding.” Knowing that the concept of light as a wave requires an abstract understanding of electromagnetic radiation, I challenged students to demonstrate their knowledge using a model of light moving as particles with the help of the “Color Vision” PhET simulation.

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“Color Vision” PhET simulation produced by the University of Colorado – Boulder

Before introducing this model, students had observed several other light phenomena including prisms and spectroscopes splitting white light into the visible spectrum, water filled cups “breaking” a pencil, and mirrors reflecting their own image. They had also read about light energy and how light “moves in straight lines” and can be “reflected, refracted, and absorbed.” With students broken down into four groups, I challenged each group to explain how the “particles of colored light known as photons” behaved when they approached different materials of familiarity: a transparent window, a stained-glass window, a magnifying glass, and black construction paper.

Students argued within their groups, challenging eachothers’ ideas before coming to a consensus which was explained before the class. While the model did not have windows or lenses to drop in the way of their light photon stream, we were able to draw these on the board, and students were able to explain their understanding with some confirmation at the end through the instructor. The black paper and stained-glass was easy enough to observe and check for understanding through the PhET model.

The videos speak for themselves! Students were more than up for the challenge and seeing students apply their knowledge to new models only confirmed that the practice of using models is more than manageable for upper-elementary students, its a boost to instructional opportunities and assessing student understanding!

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Implementing Elementary Science Standards: The Burlington Approach


With the next generation of Science, Technology, and Engineering standards for Massachusetts adopted this past week by the MA Board of Education, a great deal of buzz was in the Grandview ballroom in Burlington, the site of Cambridge College’s second “Science Colloquium.” While all were there to hear from Director of STEM, Jake Foster regarding his thoughts on implementation, Wendy Pavlicek and I were honored to present Burlington’s take on how to go from new standards to new curriculum immediately after. The thoughts below were our takeaways for those who were tuned in to what we had to say:

1) Build Knowledge

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Two resources through National Academies Press well worth the read.

There are a growing number of resources available for those transitioning to NGSS or some derivative thereof like Massachusetts. Our knowledge started with the Framework for K-12 Science Education and was moved forward through additional resources made available through the DESE and NAP, such as the Guide for Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards. Equally important for us is the need to provide or point toward sustainable professional development for our teachers that can meet them at their level of need.

2) Define (Realistic) Goals and Make a Plan

The Guide for Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards is a good go-to for guidance when it comes to realistic goals. It shares several overarching principles a facilitator must consider and pitfalls to avoid like (surprise) providing inadequate time for implementation. It was with this mentality in mind that we went with a five-year roll out plan, providing more opportunity for teacher support, feedback, and professional development. From there, take time and consideration to examine current curriculum and determine what is in and out. Even if topics seem to overlap, it is important that each unit be given the same attention and consideration to the development of its learning plan to ensure that the practices are well intertwined in the more traditional science content that is likely already present.

3) Identify Resources

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These are just a few of the many resources Burlington is using to revise and implement the new Massachusetts STE standards.

Their are plenty of resources out there that are a great boon for teachers and coordinators just venturing out on this path or already well on their way. I always point out the NGSS@NSTA Hub because of my involvement in the project and the first-hand knowledge I have about the amount of time and thought that goes into the review and curation of the resources that are ultimately shared there. Better Lesson and PBS Learning Media have been particularly valuable to me as well. Our district has also identified materials from FOSSEngineering is Elementary, Science A-Z, Teacher Created Materials and BrainPOP as paid tools we intend to use.

4) Move Forward

There are lots of reasons not to necessarily push forward with the implementation of new curriculum, but at the end of the day progress now means students better prepared for a world where scientific literacy is more important than ever before!

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Balancing Bird: The Perfect Stocking Stuffer Science Phenomena!

This year’s holiday giveaway from the Science Center not only makes for a fun stocking stuffer, but is a gateway toward exploring the science phenomena of forces and balance with your kids or students. The “Balancing Bird” is very affordable, a toothpick, two pennies, and a piece of cardstock (though copier paper will do) is all you need.

Introduce our video before building the bird to get the students excited… but be sure to pause before the explanation and elicit your young minds’ ideas on how it works first! The link above to Ellen McHenry’s Workshop provides a template and simple illustrations to follow for construction.

Have a great holiday and have a little physics fun with your family! I’m looking forward to sharing more from the Burlington Science Center in 2016.

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Unsure Where to Begin with New Science Standards? Try these “Crib Sheets”

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This past week I met with a classroom teacher passionate about science, so much so that she had written her growth goals around making changes to better align with the draft performance expectations of Massachusetts’ updated science standards. With her new goals minted and approved, the teacher was left caught in the “now what?” space that can paralyze those willing to make positive changes in their classroom but unsure where to begin.

Fortunately, recent experiences at both the Massachusetts Science Teachers Associations annual conference and NSTA had brought to my attention a few great resources that can really help teachers and administrators looking for guidance in the still-uncharted waters of the NGSS (and its adaptions like those found in Massachusetts.)

#1: “Foundations Pages” on the NGSS@NSTA Hub

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The Foundations links are found in the right column of the NGSS@NSTA Hub’s Standards page.

While expected learning progressions for science practices, disciplinary core ideas, and cross cutting concepts can be found in many places, (including the Massachusetts Department of Science, Technology, and Engineering’s own page) for ease of use and visual simplicity my favorite is the NGSS@NSTA Hub’s own “Foundations” pages for the three dimensions. Here teachers can easily identify the elements that embody every Science Practice, DCI, and Cross Cutting Concepts. By referring to the Foundations pages teachers can cross-check themselves to ensure the expectations they are putting forth in their classrooms are grade-appropriate.

#2: Massachusetts’ “What to Look For” Observation Guides

For those not yet prepared to dive into the details of each dimension (or simply lacking the time!) the Massachusetts Department of Curriculum and Instruction’s “What to Look For” Observation Guides provide users with a quick snapshot of the disciplinary core ideas expected to be explored at grades K-8. Each guide also includes a listing of the eight science practices, of which at least one students should be using during any given science lesson. While these tools are ideal for administrators doing walkthroughs, responsible for observing several grades and/or subjects, the department has made it clear these are not evaluation tools. That said, on the backside of each guide users find a checklist of elements found in Standards I and II of Massachusetts’ Model Teacher Rubric. These elements are practices that can be spotted in any classroom, no matter what the grade or subject. Tailoring classroom curriculum and instruction to these elements will therefore boost the effectiveness of one’s science classroom experience. As an added bonus, the state has also made these observation guides for mathematics (available on the same links page.)

#3: NGSS Evidence Statements

For those further down the curriculum rabbit hole, making adjustments to lessons and units as a whole, the NGSS K-8 Evidence Statements are great tools to self-check one’s expectations for students with concrete examples of what students work should look like. Each performance expectation has its own evidence statement document, keeping them easy to read. The evidence statements make for good reminders to teachers that while teacher modeling plays an important role in helping students better understand and reach for performance expectations, a classroom is not NGSS aligned until the students in the classroom are performing the science practices while engaged in the disciplinary core ideas.

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Discovering NGSS: A Facilitator’s Experience

I’ve been spending a lot of time of late examining boxed “NGSS ready” curriculums that might serve as the backbone to my district’s elementary curriculum-in-development. The sales experiences have often left me with more questions than answers about what me and other curriculum coordinators will need to do to fully implement and facilitate NGSS classrooms and curriculum. It was with this backdrop I left Burlington for NSTA Philadelphia to participate in a “Discover the NGSS Train-the-Trainer” workshop designed specifically for science education coaches, administrators, and PD facilitators. The workshop provided opportunities to connect with educators like me and wrestle with the NGSS and its implications for classroom curriculum and instruction. I left the conference mentally exhausted from the densely-packed two-day experience, but carrying with me some important takeaways:

#1: Cohesively intertwining the NGSS dimensions into classroom lessons and units is a labor of love (with the potential for fabulous results!)

High school science teacher (and science edu social media mogul), Tricia Shelton kicked us off with an immersive experience in three dimensional learning, by watching short clips of her own students engaged in articulating models of the urinary system.

In order to better understand what three-dimensional learning was, we had to immerse ourselves in an NGSS classroom experience!

In order to better understand what three-dimensional learning was, we had to immerse ourselves in an NGSS classroom experience!

Everyone in the room was impressed to see the potential understanding students command when teachers step beyond teaching to the content and structure their classroom and lessons to deepen student understanding of the practices and cross cutting concepts as well. After identifying the three dimensions her students utilized during the lesson we  “immersed ourselves” in an erosion investigation where we able to both see and “feel” a three dimensional lesson.

Through this see it, hear it, live it experience facilitators (and the teachers that stand to benefit when we bring our experiences back) are more apt to be able to identify the presence of three dimensional learning in their own classroom and/or craft three dimensional learning experiences in the future.

#2: Modeling and exploring phenomena is at the core of NGSS curriculum.

It can be challenging to identify “phenomena”, events that are both comprehensible to students and rooted in one or more disciplinary ideas. “Anchor phenomena”, however take it one step further. These events must be complex enough and engaging enough for students to yearn to develop their own explanations of over several lessons, while leading students toward achieving bundled performance expectations (more on that later.) For Tricia’s class, students tried to come to a scientific understanding of how a healthy high school athlete was able to die due to a water overdose. For my breakout group exploring the topic of climate change, we bounced between several phenomena, from extreme weather patterns and temperature data in various regions of the world, to glacier calving, to changes in animal migrations, to the conflict in Syria.

#3: Storylines will take you from constructing strong NGSS lessons to constructing strong NGSS units.

It is a disservice to our students and ourselves to teach disciplinary core ideas in isolation, even if we are masterfully doing so using the practices while looking at them “through the lens” of cross cutting concepts. Not only will students miss out on making connections across core ideas and the larger science disciplines, but teachers will likely run out of classes to meet all of the performance expectations! Effective storylines combine the exploration of anchor phenomena and additional phenomena through the eight science practices. They examine these phenomena using the cross cutting concepts during their practice in the business of “sense-making”. Storylines carry the content over several weeks and help students draw connections between several disciplinary core ideas. Storylines ultimately lead students to be capable of completing multiple performance expectations under their umbrella, sewing connections between science disciplines and the interconnectedness of all the practices when “doing science.”

#4: Science educators are collectively on a proverbial white-water rafting excursion.

Halfway through our workshop, the moderators used photographs to formatively assessed our comfort with both seeing how three dimensional learning could take shape in our classroom and how comfortable we were with facilitating such changes across our school or district. There were several extreme sports photos to choose from. I ultimately selected the white water rafting photo, mindful of the fact that everyone in the room was “paddling furiously” with an endpoint in the back of our minds, but openly aware of the strong “currents” pulling on us and the obstacles (both hidden and observable) in our way. The workshop was mentally and physically taxing with long hours pouring over documents, appendices, and flow charts. Facilitating professional development designed to meet similar goals in our own districts with educators less familiar with coming science standards changes will be a challenge. It is important for all of us to not become overwhelmed with the challenges and pressures placed upon us, and stay focused on keeping the best course possible, mindful of our long term goals of a scientific literacy for all students.

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Kinesthetic Astronomy 2.0

Dating back to my years as an 8th grade earth & space science teacher, one of my favorite lessons with students has been the kinesthetic astronomy investigation from the Space Science Institute. A wonderful interactive model for students: it puts the learners front and center, pushing them to model the motions of Earth’s orbit and rotation that lead them to make connections between the patterns of change in the sky and seasons.

As an elementary science specialist, I’ve been using the “Astronomical Meaning of Day and Night” lesson for two years, and during that time I’ve seen ways to improve the lesson in an effort to squash some of the recurring challenges that I’ve been faced with while facilitating the model and to bring it into stronger alignment with Next Generation Science Standards that not only ask students to use models but to develop them as well.

Improvement #1: Fixing the East-West Mixup

At first glance this may seem all wrong, but when held by students it provides orientation for modeling Earth's motion's as they observe the sky from the North Pole (their head!)

At first glance this may seem all wrong, but when held by students it provides orientation for modeling Earth’s motion’s as they observe the sky from the North Pole (their head!)

The Kinesthetic Astronomy lesson provides E-W cutouts that teachers are told to glue to sticks that students then hold in their hands. This is all well and good when facilitating the model… until students start absent mindedly swapping the East and West sticks and incorrect rotations. To combat this I created a simple print out of North America. Students use the printout by holding it against their chest (their belts = the equator!) Labels such as the United States, Cananda, Mexico, and the oceans are labeled upside-down so that students can read them from their line of sight at the “North Pole.”


 Improvement #2: Build the Model as You Go

To setup the light bulb (sun) and celestial sphere along with the equinox/solstice labels takes time. So instead, we build the model as we go. As a teacher, I first ask students to model the motions of day and night, and the orbit of the Earth. Once these motions have been established we provide some additional context of where students are by posting “Orion” on the wall and informing students that “Orion is a constellation that can be seen high in the sky at midnight on the winter solstice.” From there students begin to piece together the location of the summer solstice and equinoxes along their orbital path before constructing explanations for why constellations like Orion can only be seen during some seasons of the year. We checked for understanding by challenging students to find their birthday on the orbital path of the earth.

Can you find your birthday on Earth's orbital path?

A post shared by Burlington Science Center (@burlingtonsciencecenter) on

Improvement #3: Save Moon Phases for Later

Like many teachers, I have fallen prey to the sin of jamming too much content into one class session. In the past I’ve used the opportunity of having the light set up to also explore how the moon reflects like off its surface and back to Earth’s to explore the patterns of change in the moon phases. No more. This model is strong enough to deserve two or more class sessions, with one focused on day/night and rotation/orbit and entirely separate day for moon phases. This will also free up the time needed to put out and change manipulatives in the students hands as well as the riot act required to keep students from using the moon balls as make-shift drum sticks and juggling pins.

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Exploring Heat Energy with an Infrared Camera

At this year’s Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers or “MAST” Conference I shared the Science Center’s FLIR One infrared camera purchased last year through Burlington Education Foundation grant funds. Over just the past month teachers at the Marshall Simonds Middle School and Burlington High School have borrowed the tools to enhance their heat investigations. Sixth grade teachers at Marshall Simonds pointed their camera at their convection current demonstration boxes while a Burlington High physics teacher put the camera to work to more accurately collect temperature data of “mystery matter” during a specific heat lab investigation.

During the hour orientation and Q&A we pointed the camera at our audience of science educators before exploring how kinetic energy transfers into heat energy through friction. We also pointed the camera at a classic endothermic reaction between water and alka-seltzer tablets where the crowd observed the absorption of heat energy from the water, observing the temperature decrease without opening the system and letting out the gas created as using a thermometer would inevitably lead to.

The dozen or so attendees were definitely amused and impressed by the cameras ability to engage and shed light on an otherwise invisible form of energy!  After “playing” around with some ice and investigating how well the camera worked through glass and other transparent materials, I wrapped up the presentation by sharing some other possible investigations the camera would enhance by better visualizing the heat energy flow and model its transfer. These investigations included:

  • Investigate what kind of materials absorb the sun’s energy best.
  • Unequal temperature differences along coastlines and local wind implications.
  • Identifying temperatures of “unknown” materials to calculate specific heat.
  • Observational differences between warm / cold blooded creatures.
  • Visualization of kinetic energy transfer to heat energy through friction.
  • Observe temperature changes in exo/endothermic reactions in real time.

Later I connected with David Kujawski who shared with me another fabulous infrared technology resource through the Concord Consortium. He also suggested a conduction experiment where students place their fingers on different strips of materials to see how quickly the temperature dissapated through the materials (or not!) It is a great investigation I can’t wait to try!

If you have additional ways you might use an infrared camera like this I’d love to hear from you! Consider sharing your thoughts in the comments section below.

On a final note, a hat tip to the MAST Executive Board for putting together a great conference. Learn more about the association and their spring professional development opportunities by visiting Also, you can check out the Burlington Science Center’s blog for more pictures from the infrared camera purchased with the help of the Burlington Education Foundation.

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