Developing Learning Strands: The Making of a NSTA National Conference – Part 1

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A crude rendition of our title and theme for the #NSTA2020 National Conference

It can be a surprise to many (including me!) but a conference as big as the NSTA’s National Conference takes more than two full years to develop. As the chairperson for the upcoming 2020 NSTA National Conference in Boston I joined a half-dozen New England educators and NSTA brass this week hammering out the focus strands on which many of the conference’s workshops, presentations, and guest speakers will be aligned with.

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Taking the results of our peer input request and turning them into strands.

Blessed with some advance notice of this volunteer assignment and great leadership in our state’s science teacher organizations our team of educators and administrators was able to draw on a diverse set of voices with the help of Google Forms and the list servers of MAST, MSELA, NSSSA, and MITS. Despite only about a week of advanced warning we received 44 thoughtful responses to our call for suggestions in building out the four learning strands that would dominate our conference. Suggestions ranged from engineering to computational thinking, to human impact, to three dimensional learning and assessment, all of which we were determined to weave into our strands.

Almost two days of conceptualization, revision, and peer feedback reviews sessions with our Area Conference planning colleagues formulated the goals of these strands. With the added touch of a “20/20 vision” theme they boiled to the surface as:

  • The Long View: Building a Lifelong Passion for Science 

  • Aligning the lenses: Authentic, Three-Dimensional Measurement of Student Learning

  • Thinking, Acting, and Communicating like Scientists: A Focus on Disciplinary Literacy

  • Learning Science in all Spaces and Places: Near and Far

Exciting, right?! Though flights needed to be caught and over a dozen hours of work had already been put into place, I left our table in a poorly ventilated conference room with team members still chattering about possible speakers and potential educators to recruit for future conference development stages.

Speaking of which… are you interested? The draft threads have been completed, but you can still share your interest in volunteering your time and support for the conference by adding your contact information to our NSTA Boston 2020 Google Form. Be a part of NSTA Boston 2020 and help us expand our vision of what this conference will offer and be to its participants!

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My New Favorite Way to Say “Stop Using the Scientific Method”

For generations human civilization presented the model of Earth as flat. Sure, it seemed to work under specific scenarios, like when you stood at a high point and looked out to the horizon. No curve? Must be flat. Model works.

But students developing their understanding of science use and develop models regularly in their classrooms. Before leaving elementary school, they understand that while models are used to describe phenomena or a process (like answering a question about our world) they also have limits. These limits lead to some models being better suited than others to explain the world around them.

So while the Scientific Method might fit into this neat little box to define for students how scientists and engineers do their work, it is a severely limited model that undercuts the amazing amount of community collaboration and non-linear ways scientists go about their business.

Take this outstanding example of the announcement of a new species and family of spiders with the discovery of the Trogloraptor, produced by the California Academy of Sciences:

This video uses a “scientific process” analogous to a pinball machine, with the process pinging between different modes of discourse. The static image below has been modified to use elementary-appropriate language, but before you go printing a giant version of this model to plaster up in your classroom, ask yourself…



What do I really want my students to know?

Do I want them to memorize this model, like they might memorize the parts of a cell in a traditional biology class or the sequence of planets in our solar system?

Or do I want to focus on the bigger ideas?

Scientists and Engineers…

  • Ask Questions and Identify Problems
  • Use and Develop Models
  • Plan and Conduct Investigations
  • Analyze and Interpret Data
  • Use Math and Computational Thinking
  • Construct Explanations and Design Solutions
  • Engage in Arguments from Evidence
  • Obtain, Evaluate, and Communicate Information



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‘Unoriginal Ideas’ that Improve our “Ability to Share a Message”

In the midst of holiday merry making and Christmas cleanup I was able to take a bite out of my podcast backlog; including several episodes of the “Innovator’s Mindset” MOOC series currently being chewed on by teachers and administrators in Burlington. And while the word “innovation” can be defined as “a new method, idea, or product,” synonymous with buzzwords like “breakthrough” it was episode 4’s guest and Burlington’s own Patrick Larkin who bluntly admitted, “I don’t think I’ve ever had an original idea.”

That said, author and podcast host, George Couros’s 12 minute #thoughtsfromthecar episode “The Ability to Share a Message” kept reverberating in the back of my mind, connecting with the work that I do as a science specialist and professional development facilitator and leading me to reflect on ideas not originally my own…

Unoriginal Idea #1: Learn how to present by watching other presenters

We can become better presenters of anything we venture to share our thinking on by watching excellent presenters share their own.  For me this has included over 100 TED Talks on ideas not necessarily of high intrigue to me, but shared by those who are passionate about it themselves and often excellent at sharing that passion with others. The ones I came to appreciate the most often displayed only pictures (or sound) while they shared their message in the form of a story. Participating in local #edcamps and becoming acquainted with teacher-famous PD innovators like MTA’s Dan Callahan didn’t hurt either. I’ve also stolen my fair share of analogies to better communicate the paradigm-shifting Next Generation Science Standards from presenters at national and regional NSTA conferences featuring cutting edge science education researchers and lead standard-writers.

Unoriginal Idea #2: Recognize and be able to respond to multiple perspectives on your message

Format matters but just as important is to develop what Couros calls, “a 360 view” of what it is you’re presenting. In my field that includes knowing and being able to respond to the “sticking points” preventing others from acting on the shifts NGSS requires to clear the bar they have set. Having an understanding of the several perspectives one might be examining our messages through leaves us prepared to respond to them while further refining our own understanding and message. Fellow science education PD designer, Eric Brunsell outlines several of these sticking points in Chapter 3 of his Facilitators Guide, which guided me early on in sharing the Massachusetts revised Science Standards. Equally important to developing my message was listening to my fellow Burlington educators and their own classroom or school level concerns, bringing us to…

Unoriginal Idea #3: Take the time to build repoir and connect with your audience

Whether a room of teachers at the Boxboro Regency or reflecting on a lesson with a  teacher in the hall, talking in ways that build rapport can be the difference between our message planting root or being lost among many other messages rushing past our educators via email, intercom, or broader initiatives. At national and regional conferences, it can be easy for presenters to want to launch forward, fearful that they may not have enough time to deliver everything they want to share or possibly losing their audience’ engagement. But failing to first connect with one’s audience means we don’t know where our audience is and what they hope to gain from us. Making efforts to get to know our audience pay dividends when we can connect our message with common experiences that we share.

Talk that puts our audience on the defensive can also leave our audience disconnected and our message unheard. Couros’s separation between “arguments vs. discussions” stuck with me most, laying out how arguments suggest an inevitable winner and loser with the idea or message going no further. Discussions on the other hand “go back and forth,” in which case the “idea is the winner” as perspectives are shared, the idea or message becomes more deeply understood by both parties, and the idea and its potential for implementation moves forward. By staying open-minded to others perspectives and empathetic to their experiences keeps our audience open to our message, and respects the often shared but not always genuine, “we are all here learning together.”

I am a believer in the ideas (100% not my own) I deliver to audiences and understand the power they can have, particularly on pre-service teachers and others willing to adapt their craft and classroom. Keeping these ideas in mind and putting them into practice will help me continue to improve my craft as a professional developer and move our community and country toward an increasingly scientifically literate society.

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Behind Every “Outstanding Teacher” is an Outstanding Community of Educators


Honorees at the MAST 2017 Awards Banquet

During this year’s MAST Conference I was honored as the “2017 Science Teacher of the Year for Middlesex County.” I sat beside fellow educators from across the state being recognized for outstanding accomplishments, humbled by their stories of bringing their experiences on Antarctic expeditions to their biology and oceanography students, and their dedication toward some of the most diverse and neediest populations in the state. Descriptors like “exemplary” and “outstanding” were used in sincerity. But when reflecting on each of the merits for my own award I could not help but acknowledge that none of them would have come to fruition without the outstanding community of fellow educators and staff I work and collaborate with everyday.

The acknowledgement of my role as “facilitator of the K-8 robotics programs” could not be so without Chrissy Sheppard, Elana Snyder, and Krystel Anderson, classroom teachers who were willing to jump in and help facilitate our annual summer robotics programs, often  learning alongside the students. Nor would there be a FIRST Robotics LEGO team at the middle school without the dedication of Jourdan Marino and Jane Lynch, who offer hours of their lives after school for months during competition season.

The open source K-5 curriculum Wendy Pavlicek and I so proudly share on the Burlington Science Center website would not be nearly the quality product it needs to be for our students without countless educators from Burlington and beyond. Such educators include classroom teachers, specialists, and administrators who have spent time on both the Burlington curriculum teams and the North Shore Cross District Science Mapping initiative. Their work investigating the quality of small-group readers, facilitating curriculum pilots, analyzing student work, and providing feedback on student scaffolds and notebook designs has informed so much of the work our K-5 students now do in Burlington and elsewhere.

My own knowledge of classroom and curriculum best-practices as well as the exemplary resources that use them would be a fragment of itself without the tireless work of friends and colleagues from across the country. Volunteers like Massachusetts teachers, Janet MacNeil, Judith Hebert, Kathy Renfrew, Martha Harney, and Meaghan Cells who share their time with me on behalf of the the NSTA, participating in trainings while curating resources for their NGSS@NSTA Hub. Even the eBook I recently penned for NSTA Kids would not have been as rich in scientific content or multimedia without support from research and education institutions such as the Blue Hill Observatory and their programs coordinator, Don McCasland.

So while the plaque reads “Sean Musselman,” the application for me (submitted by my incredible partner-in-science-crime, Wendy Pavlicek) and every future “Teacher of the Year” will be a story of community and collaboration, people and partnerships, professional learning networks, critical friends groups, or whatever else you want to call them.

That being said, if you’re a Burlington teacher or resident reading this and you’d like to learn how you can promote, improve, and advocate for the expansion of collaboration amongst our teachers, administrators, and community members, don’t hesitate to email or tweet me… The district’s “Expanding Collaboration” committee is always looking for additional members!

One final word: Thank you to the Director of the Burlington Science Center, former EPA Environmental Educator Award winner, and dear friend, Wendy Pavlicek. Outstanding work in schools across the country goes unrecognized everyday without advocates and I am truly grateful for your voice and our partnership.

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EcoTarium Exhibit Engineering Challenge!

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 3.46.22 PMBefore heading out for summer break, my partner Wendy Pavlicek and I put together a pair of videos designed to drive an engineering challenge for our Grade 2 students who will be investigating habitats next year. The challenge is designed to meet the Massachusetts disciplinary core idea elements in life science and engineering:

  • Plants and animals depend on their surroundings to get what they need.
  • Animals obtain food they need from plants or other animals. Plants need air, water, and light. Plants do not eat food; instead, they make their own “food.”
  • Different places on Earth each have their own unique assortment of living things.
  • Solutions can be conveyed through visual or physical representations

The first video introduces students to the engineering challenge with the help of EcoTarium’s wildlife director, Johanna Black. She graciously offered her time on an extremely busy field trip day to set the stage for our student inquiry around different plants and animals of their choosing.

The second video serves as a tool for providing more concrete information about the main needs of living things (to be shared after students embark on their own investigation of specific habitats related to the animal of their choosing’s needs).

The videos have been designed so that any classroom or age group could potentially pick up the challenge and aim’s to blend the needs not only of the animal to be researched for the exhibit but also the needs of the EcoTarium visitor looking to learn more about the animal. It is our hope that this project might also be paired with some informational writing, possibly in the disguise of an infographic panel board that would be attached beside a full scale enclosure as seen in zoos and aquariums.

We’ve shared these videos publicly in hopes others might take on the challenge. More concrete lesson plans will be written over the summer with our summer curriculum team and will be added to this post in the future. In the meantime please add a comment below if you end up using these videos in your own classroom!

Special thanks to the EcoTarium for their time and willingness to participate in this engaging engineering experience!

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Beyond Toothpicks and Marshmallows: Engineering Earthquake Resistant Structures


I’ve been searching high and low for an earthquake engineering design challenge that gave students more control in planning and evaluating their earthquake-resistant constructions than the common “toothpicks and marshmallows” challenge often seen in primary and middle grades. So I was thrilled when I finally stumbled upon a string of videos from the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology or IRIS titled “Build a Better Wall” featuring a hinged craft stick structure that would do just that.

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Videos demonstrating construction and use of the prototype can be found on the IRIS website by searching “IRIS Build a Better Wall” for using the link above.

While IRIS construction called for bolts and screws, I found brass fasteners to be effective replacements that dramatically cut the projected cost for a class set and got to work! With 5 working shake structures able to be produced from a single 2×4 we were ready to go!

Day 1: Introducing the Challenge

Because we were piloting this lesson for the first time, students were plunged into the earthquake setting head on. We watched the opening minutes of a YouTube film on the 1989 San Francisco Quake, where students were prompted to watch closely the behavior of the hanging lights and glassware in the opening scenes. These objects oscillate back and forth, which students were able to associate with waves despite no prior lessons on waves and communication (as intended in future years!) From here I gave them a brief introduction of quake waves, demonstrating the compressional wave behavior of P-waves and then “side-to-side” S-wave motion with the help of a slinky and a piece of string tied to the center, showing how the matter did not advance forward or backward, but rather returned to its original location after the wave energy had passed.

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Using the presentation above and linked to here students were introduced to substructures, a grade 3-5 “Structure and Function” Crosscutting Concept NGSS element, drawing comparisons to the substructures of different parts explored in their life science unit completed prior to. Students were introduced to three substructures commonly used in buildings, shear walls, cross members or beams, and gussets. Students were also informed that a structurally resistant building might not be enough, land developers are also looking for affordable and low-weight designs too!

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Day 2: Planning and Building our Structures

Day 2 was a full day of student driven work. Students worked together to plan their structures while I worked the room with classroom teacher, Holly Weinberg probing students for the thinking behind their designs. With the pieces cut out of basic copy paper and attached with alligator clips materials were cheap! Limited time led to construction being pushed into the beginning of the third day. Before moving on to the construction part, students had to calculate the cost and additional weight of their substructures to their wall.

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Day 3: Testing and Evaluating our Structures

Test day! Despite tight time I introduced the wave thinking once again in an effort to help students develop a “repeatable, fair test” when evaluating all of their structures. With the help of a free metronome app students practiced creating a consistent motion pattern with their hands before being charged with delivering 8 long wavelength and 8 short wavelength seismic vibrations to their prototypes. Before structures were tested, students entered their cost and weight data on to a class table. Would the lightest, cheapest structures hold up to the test?! When the results came only 3 of the 5 structures met consensus that they had survived the quake. Of those three 2 “bids” came in strikingly close with the 3rd effective, but costly and heavy.

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The improve page of the student notebook

Day 4: Reflecting and Redesigning

While unable to help on the final day, Mrs. Weinberg held down the ship and had top teams share their successes and teams with structural failures “lessons learned”. In the future I plan to have students complete this challenge after exploring the patterns of locations where earthquakes occur (to tie in with their “West Region” Social Studies Exploration) and perform some sort of “Earthquake Program”  that would introduce the different wave formations and some of the more curious challenges to quake-resistant structures such as harmonic resonance and foundation liquefaction that I would not expect 4th graders to actively investigate and prepare for. I might also introduce the challenge across all the classes at once in this way to save time for the classroom teacher to focus on the planning stages exclusively in the first day.

Thanks to Holly Weinberg for allowing me to pilot this investigation with her students and to IRIS for sharing their resources publicly for all! More detailed lessons, the presentation, and student notebook can be found by following many of the links above and will also be available in an organized way by the beginning of September 2017 on the Science Center fourth grade curriculum website.

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Facilitating a Weather & Climate Unit with my new NSTA Kids eBook

ebook-wcNSTA is unveiling a new “Think Like a Scientist” series of eBooks at the #NSTA17 Conference in Los Angeles for elementary age students. While NSTA has been producing eBooks for teachers and older students for some time now, these eBooks may be new to the elementary eBook audience so I’m taking this opportunity to share some of the advantages to this eBook that separate it from a traditional text and how teachers can use the eBook in their everyday classroom.

#1: Interactive Graphs

While most climate books for kids focus on sharing facts about a specific climate or climates, this eBook is designed to get students engaging with data to draw conclusions about the given climate they are investigating. Finding climate charts openly available on the internet designed for children can be a near-impossible journey, so all of the charts used in this Weather and Climate eBook have been made with the third-grade elementary student in mind.

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Tapping a bar on the graph highlights the corresponding data point on the table. The graph background associates weather descriptors with different ranges of temperatures to help students describe patterns in the weather data across days, months, and even seasons or years. Highlighted words in the text link to a visual glossary with student friendly definitions.

To help students with computing graph quantities many of the graphs include numerical information embedded or alongside the graph so students can spend more mental energy uncovering and analyzing the patterns that exist in the data. Line plots and pictographs are also used in the book with scales and unit values aligned with Mathematics Common Core learning standards in mind. A tap of the “metric” button associated with most of the graphs provided also gives students a glimpse of how their climate data would look in metric form, unveiling the simplicity of visualizing above and below freezing temperatures when using celsius instead of fahrenheit.

#2: Scaffolded Data Analysis

Embedded alongside the graphs and text are formative assessment questions on nearly every page, encouraging students to consider the patterns evident in the data and breaking down the fundamentals of how a scientist might systematically break down a chart in search of patterns and evidence to support or refute their claims. Tapping the answer checks gives students immediate feedback on their thinking and how they might rethink a particularly challenging data point or points. The Teacher’s Guide includes an appendix of sentence starters for the teacher and students to use when dissecting the graphs provided.

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This page on polar climates includes both formative assessment questions that ask students to consider similarities and differences between conditions in the arctic and antarctic along with a metric units button that immediately turns fahrenheit charts into celsius ones.

#3: End of Chapter Investigations

No book, paper or digital, can provide students the experiences needed to become scientists and engineers of the next generation on their own. That’s why I poured a great deal of personal time and energy into a Teacher Guide to accompany the eBook every page of the way. The Teacher Guide explicitly outlines how each page of the eBook addresses the three dimensions of NGSS and outlines end-of-unit investigations to perform as a class to reinforce and assess student understanding of the eBook’s text and interactives. In some cases background information is provided to support the teacher to give them a greater understanding of climate patterns beyond those outlined in the book. Between using the eBook and the end of unit investigations I am confident teachers will be supporting their students in being able to personally perform the Performance Expectations associated with weather and climate at the third grade amongst their peers.

#4 Exploring the Nature of Science Together

Whether students are using this eBook independently, in pairs, or as a classroom read-aloud, the “story” told through this tale is one of the nature of science and how science is a human endeavor of collaboration and that our way of knowing comes from the use of a variety of tools and techniques that have evolved over time.

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Each chapter opens with fun pop-ups students can explore to learn about weather and climate data collections technology used over time. From the kites and meteorographs used at the Blue Hill Observatory featured in the opening pages of the book to the GOES-Satellite just launched by NASA in 2016 being calibrated for atmospheric weather data collection as I type. Such fun facts will capture the imagination of your students without distracting from the narrative along the way.

I’m excited to hear from teachers like you (who have no doubt reached the end of this post because you either purchased or are thinking of purchasing the book) about how you have used the eBook and what features have stood out to you as unique and valuable to your students. Please share your feedback in the comments section below, especially if there is something you think I failed to share here that should be included in this feature!

I want to add that a very special thanks goes out to Don McCasland of the Blue Hill Observatory for supporting this eBook with data and multimedia. The Blue Hill Observatory has a wonderful website for all to explore their trove of data and class programs with tours for those within busing distance. Sincere thanks and gratitude to my fellow Burlington educators, Jane Lynch, Renee Sacco, and Carrie Fortunato for their guidance and support in making this book a tool that will genuinely serve third graders from a science, math, and language arts perspective!

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A more practical approach to self-assessment rubrics (?)

Self-assessment rubrics sound like a great idea in theory.  [My] thinking goes something like this… “I’ll have my students complete the rubric themselves first! It will make them reflect thoughtfully on their work and will save me some painful conversations about why a student scored poorly.” The rubric is distributed. Time is set aside in class or expected to be submitted along with the final product. And then the scores come in and oh-no…

This winter I’m trying something different with my adult learners. Using Google Forms, I created a self-assessment checklist of sorts, where students are more deliberately walked through the meta-cognitive work I previously imagined students would do, but often found myself completing anyway. The link to the original rubric is public and I’m interested in receiving feedback from other educators who have had their own experiences with this work and/or tried their own versions of what I’m calling a “scaffolded rubric.”


The header to my Online Participation Self-Assessment, viewable here.

This particular rubric focuses on “participation”, a score included in Standards Based Grading classrooms at their own peril, but a critical part of any online learning classroom like the ones I facilitate a few times a year. The rubric focuses on five participation components. Instead of having students simply read and score themselves outright on a full page rubric, students first work through a series of questions that require them to actively think about each component, such as contributions to the learning community, references to respected data or literature, and relevance to the questions being asked. Some questions ask them to look back on their work specifically and quote their text. Others simply have them consider simple yes/no questions. Each question is meant to have the student actively engage in thinking about the specific criteria to be scored before self-assessing and submitting their scores.


I have no illusions that this will satisfy every grading discrepancy to be encountered. Some students will continue to quick click and score themselves highly whether they are pressed for time or hedging that I will be too busy myself to reflect and construct counter-claims to their scores. But by asking the questions in this way I’m making my best effort to simulate the conversation a teacher might have with their students in a classroom setting before asking students to self-assess.

I’m very open to feedback on this process and will likely return to this post again in April after I’ve worked through a four week module using the new Google Form assessment. I’m also interested in hearing from teachers of younger students who have applied similar methods to their rubrics. Please share your thoughts, ideas, concerns, or links to your own such rubrics in the comments below!

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A week of learning as @NGSS_tweeps

This past week I was honored with the title of “guest tweeter” for @NGSS_tweeps, a rotating account of K-12 science teachers and administrators managed by middle school teacher and NGSS implementer, Patrick Goff.


So after updating the account’s avatar and personal information I got down to sharing with the followers of #ngsschat. Of course you can’t spend a week tied to a dedicated community of NGSS pioneers without learning some things yourself. Here are a few of my week’s takeaways.

What does an NGSS classroom work like?

My own thoughts on everything from identifying and using student-relevant phenomena to utilizing PhET Sims as models in the classroom received lots of RTs and “likes”, but the fact that Monday was also halloween kept #NGSSchat fairly quiet. Still, I got this always-right thoughts from Brian Klaft and Greg Prater:

What does good leadership look like in our science departments? Supervisors? Chairs?

Tuesday’s conversations were more spirited, possibly because so many have their own ideas and opinions on what makes a great leader in schools, whether they are science-oriented or not! Many liked my message about the importance around “growing our people.

The previous week’s @NGSS_tweeps moderator, Cathy Boland spoke up when conversation came around to what NGSS teachers needed evaluators to understand about the shifts taking place in their classroom. Paula Burkhart also had an important message to share…

What does PD to ready teachers/admins for shift to look like?

On Wednesday afternoon I was performing some professional development double-duty, facilitating an elementary methods workshop for teachers in the evening while sharing a few posts on what we were up to through #NGSSchat. As Peabody teachers were challenged to explore matter models and engineer a bridge using materials best suited for their intended job, my #PLN supported my “learn by doing” approach:

How are we using PLNs to better our understanding of NGSS?

I wrapped up my tweeting for the week by bringing my PLN to the Massachusetts Science Teachers Association‘s annual conference, featuring formative assessment guru, Page Keeley. A resident star at NSTA conferences, it was great to meet her in a more local and intimate setting. I even got to share in an extended small group conversation with her about the many different ways probes are being used across grade levels and science disciplines. She shared a dirty secret with a few of us who were willing to spend a little time with her outside of the standard workshops taking place…

I also took in a workshop by Stephanie Burnett from Lab Aides who shared a few of her own experiences as a classroom teacher and pilot facilitator of her organization’s own formative assessments.

As if an all day conference was not enough, I participated in Thursday evening’s regular #NGSSchat hosted by high school science teachers, Fred Ende and Tricia Shelton. It was there that I shared in a great conversation around assessment and advocated for how standards based grading would be an ally to any teacher K-12 looking to shift their instruction and assessment to better meet the NGSS.

Friday featured an icing on the cake experience, visiting a Pine Glen teacher’s fifth grade class where she was facilitating Burlington’s new “Matter and its Interactions” unit. It was thrilling to see students engaged with the Concord Consortium’s matter models page while flipping effortlessly back and forth to their digital notebooks on Explain Everything, recording their observations and drawing comparisons to the own understanding of states of matter and what they observed through the model. Students were engaged, constructing particle models of matter, and constructing explanations with help of some of the models more distinct features. I made sure to share with my PLN, just as I had been advocating for all week long. What a way to head into the weekend!

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Using PhET Simulations to Explore the Cause and Effect Relationship between Forces and Motion


One of my goals this year is to develop a third grade forces and motion curriculum with a team of Burlington elementary teachers.  While this work is only in its infancy I am optimistic then at least one of the activities to be built into our scope and sequence will be the use of a PhET Forces & Motion model. Constructed in HTML5 (and therefore usable on our students’ iPads) the tug of war model and friction model provide great opportunity for students to test multiple scenarios using a varied amounts of forces, leading to more opportunities for the students to predict and explain the results of their trials.


Students exploring how forces impact the motion of the candy cart within the HTML5 PhET Forces and Motion model.

An opportunity arose the very first week of school when fourth grade teacher, Todd Stead invited me to come help shake up his “Forces, Motion, and Flight” unit. Mr. Stead gave me additional time beyond the normal 40 minutes to pilot the lesson, which was helpful because it allowed us to setup their notebooks before diving into more fundamental questions like “What is a model?” and make up for some lost time getting all students to the correct URL. Once things got going the classroom was immediately abuzz with students exploring the tug of war model, adding and subtracting red and blue avatars from one side of the rope and the other, running the model frequently, only to pause it mid-way and change the avatars around once again.

I built a lesson around the question, “How do balanced forces affect an object’s motion?” designed to integrate the following elements from the NGSS (and new Massachusetts standards.)

  • Develop and/or use models to describe and/or predict phenomena.
  • Forces on an object have both a strength and a direction. An object at rest typically has multiple forces acting on it, but they add to give zero net force on the object. Forces that do not sum to zero can cause changes in the object’s speed or direction of motion.
  • Cause and effect relationships are routinely identified, tested, and used to explain change.

I quickly recognized that my first crack at this lesson was a bit too ambitious. Asking students to simply explore “balanced” forces proved difficult as we hadn’t gone over the difference between balanced and unbalanced. In hindsight, changing the lesson to simply explore how forces affect an object’s motion in any setting would have been preferred and students could likely come to some explanation of balanced versus unbalanced during classroom discussions. Also, my sentences starters (or lack there of) in the observations section left students expressing difficulty with turning all of their great observations and oral explanations into written expression. I will definitely be improving the data table so that all students must first explore a few basic force systems before exploring on their own. This will give all students common experiences to discuss in their class science circle before exploring on their own with some more complex arrangements.

Aside from the challenges, this experience affirmed by belief that the model would be a great fit for our classroom. The students manipulated the force systems easily and were firmly engaged. The video demonstrates students sharing some fairly sophisticated assessments of what’s going on in their simulation, albeit with some less than sophisticated terminology. A science circle or “Socrative Circle” provided a great time to introduce some of these terms to students as they shared their explanations of what was happened in different forces scenarios. The lesson also provided a great opportunity to squeeze in a very observable cause and effect relationship, one that is at the foundation of forces and motion and one of the seven NGSS crosscutting concepts to boot.

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