Assessing Human Impact in the Cafeteria

Hundreds of mouths stood agape as six students in white “haz-mat” suits picked through a mountainous pile of trays, plastic wrappers, tater tots and pizza sticks. Shrieks and “ewwwwwww”s carried through the gymnasium. Students and teachers collectively held their noses. Meanwhile, piles labeled “Trash, Food Waste, and Recycling” grew steadily taller.


While most children are told at an early age that one should recycle and not let things food go to waste, the reality in cafeterias across the nation (Burlington included) is quite different. A trash audit is visceral. It speaks to the students sense of sight AND smell. With the Next Generation Science Standards explicit attention to human impacts on earth systems, Wendy and I at the Burlington Science Center wanted to bring this disciplinary core idea to light in a way our students would connect with. Inspired by the NSTA 2010 article, “Trash Pie: Is Your School Serving?” We picked up some small size sanitation suits and booties at the local hardware store before putting together a multimedia presentation that would orient students to our essential question: How do our choices affect our community? How do our choices affect our world?

Our Science Center ‘show’ would not be like the norm. No large scale props (with the exception of a tarp) or “science magic.” Instead, Wendy and I collected a Monday’s worth of trash at each elementary school and stored it away to be opened and revealed a day later in the gymnasium with the entire student body and faculty present. After the initial shock of over 100 pounds of waste before them, we introduced the “Our Trash, Our Choices” challenge: a week’s worth of trash sorting, data collection, and data analysis to reveal the patterns in our waste and the choices we make, aimed to inform and change behaviors in a way that will lessen our demands on natural resources and the steady growth of our world’s landfills.

Results were immediate. At all four elementary schools waste (combined totals of trash and food) dropped between 30 and 50% on the very first day. Much of the reductions came in how students managed their food waste, choosing to bring uneaten snacks home, or polish off bottles of water and cartons of milk instead of simply throwing them (and their recyclable containers) into the trash. Days afterward waste reductions had leveled off (and on breakfast for lunch day even increased) but did not reach original levels. At three of the four schools, custodians took to heart the pleas by children (and some teachers) to make recyclable containers more prominent and accessible during the lunch, dramatically reducing the rampant disposal of plastic water bottles.

During the week teachers took opportunities to read children’s books exploring the importance of protecting earth’s resources and recycling those already put to work in our various products. Kindergarteners at Francis Wyman read about turning old materials into toys and mobiles while fourth graders read of a child’s dream world where his future is overrun with trash and insufferable pollution. Other teachers used the resources shared on the Science Center blog to further the conversation in the classroom and send the learning home.

To see the Burlington Cable Access channel’s news brief on our program click here. To see the silent video we shared with students while they took their seats in the gymnasium click here.

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Engineering Pollinators (and Next Generation Engineering Curriculum!)

To bolster our curriculum council’s understanding of how engineering will be better integrated into our science curriculum, the focus of today’s extended PD was an agricultural engineering challenge to be implemented into our future 4th grade “Structure and Function” unit. The council meeting’s was primarily designed to immerse teachers into learning experiences designed to integrate life science disciplinary core ideas and engineering integration. The agenda also provided time to give our teachers practice with evaluating correlations between newly adopted state engineering standards and engineering models that are currently in use in our district to encourage adaptation of current engineering challenges to better meet those standards.

Teachers were provided a rough overview of the lesson sequences intended to bring students to the front edge of the engineering challenge. Such lessons include flower dissections, explorations and research through informational text, and careful examination of both plant and animal external and internal structure that facilitate pollination, reproduction, and overall survival of the organism. How these lessons included both disciplinary core ideas and scientific practices was explained, but was not the primary intention of this council meeting.

All of our teachers were familiar with the plight of pollinators due to the light, but steady stream of news, data, and warnings for environmental impact. It was therefore easy for our teachers to identify the problem requiring an engineering solution: How to pollinate plants in the face of rapidly declining pollinator populations!

Teachers were provided engineering limitations through materials available and the time provided to build. Before construction could begin, teachers needed to test the materials to determine pollen pick-up and drop-off effectiveness for each. They also studied the shape of the flower they had been charged with pollinating. After planned investigations had been executed and results shared, design and construction began. Prototypes were tested as instructed by the Science Center and results were communicated to determine which designs worked best.

Transporting the pollen from one flower to another. #elemscience

A video posted by Burlington Science Center (@burlingtonsciencecenter) on Mar 2, 2016 at 1:15pm PST


In the final 20 minutes, teachers analyzed their grade bands engineering standards and the lessons as described and conducted, looking for examples of where the standards had been worked towards and gaps in the lesson sequence that had to be addressed. Because the lesson was a model of engineering application, life science core ideas were also checked to determine that the performance expectations put forth by the life science standards had also been met.

Overall, the experience was a bit of a scramble as teachers were initially hesitant to dive into the challenge given the lack of actual classroom experiences that building up to it. This also led many teachers to share concerns about translation to elementary students in the vision vs. practice discussions that took place during the investigation and in our teachers, “tickets to leave.” Fortunately, the vision for a next generation science and engineering curriculum goes beyond more than one rushed engineering experience in an after school council meeting. Teachers were reminded that as a part of our curriculum revamp, engineering would be included to play a significant role in the curriculum at each year, so the challenges being poised and the practices required to complete them would grow in complexity over time and not simply pop-up. This message was the same for science practices, particularly as teachers worked to determine what a “fair test” looked like and worked like in the stage leading up to the construction of the pollinators.

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Capturing teacher thinking during the council meeting has immediate impact on ways to improve the design of our curriculum and helps us identify the thinking they are walking away with. Such remarks also help us as coordinators identify possible partners in piloting and reviewing curriculum.

Almost all teachers agreed that the engineering projects would engage students and lead to stronger outcomes of understanding and participation. Many also cheered the collaborative nature of the challenges despite acknowledging openly that such work can be difficult for students. Several wondered aloud what such work would look like at their specific grade levels, leading us to assume they are excited to engage in such experiences with their students (or wary that such lessons may descend into chaos!) Either way, I am excited to bring more engineering to the curriculums at each grade level so our students may apply their scientific thinking and learning to problems that demand solutions in the 21st century!

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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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