CSTA Classroom Science

Next Generation Science Standards: Jump Right In

By Jennifer McGranahan

In the midst of all that is new this year - implementing Common Core for Language Arts and Mathematics, the new ELA/ELD Framework and our district’s Personalized Learning Plans - we are also hearing more about the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS). As a 6th grade classroom teacher, when I heard the acronym “NGSS,” I quickly put it out of my mind. My brain couldn’t face one more new expectation. However, I had majored in biology in college and had decided I wanted to focus on improving my teaching in science, and NGSS kept creeping back into my thoughts no matter how hard I tried to ignore it. Before I knew it, I was part of a team of teachers in my district selected to be part of the California K-8 NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. With the honor of being an Early Implementer came trainings during the summer and regular school year, and hours crafting and planning “beautiful” NGSS lessons that include 3-dimensional learning that I am not familiar with. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Actually, it is!! 

I was terrified at first, one more thing to do, right? However, I decided the best way to approach NGSS was to jump right in. Fortunately, I was not alone. All of those hours of trainings I mentioned earlier were with educators who are pioneers in NGSS implementation and are passionate about not only science, but education in general. I was able to learn the reasoning behind the new standards designed to help students develop and use models, collaborate to problem solve, make real world connections, and use science practices.  I was also fortunate enough to participate as a student in a three-day, K-12 Alliance cadre that gave me a springboard to start my science teaching this year.

Photo by Jennifer McGranahan[/caption] 

In the cadre, we were exposed to a lesson series that covered the water cycle and thermal energy transfer. Because engineering is a component of the NGSS, as a culmination to the lesson we were expected to take what we had learned about both subjects and apply them to building a Mars habitat. Our habitats consisted of old two liter soda bottles, various materials to put inside (rocks, bark, etc.), and additional materials like aluminum foil, saran wrap, water, etc. Our habitats had to be able to absorb and hold heat while also demonstrating the water cycle in the form of precipitation or condensation. Precipitation would have been AWESOME to achieve, but my group was only able to produce a little bit of condensation. We deduced that we had not included enough water in our initial model. Considering that we, as adults, were not particularly successful at accomplishing all the requirements for our habitat, I wondered how 6th graders would handle the task, but what the heck… I decided to give it a try. Jump right in, right?!

What took adults nine hours to do in our cadre took my 6th graders 4 weeks (45 minutes a day/4 days a week). To prepare my students, I challenged them to participate in many of the same activities I had participated in during the time with my cadre. For example, students reviewed the water cycle by doing a “Water Cycle in a Jar” experiment. Students put water into a jar, dropped a match into the jar, covered the jar with plastic wrap, and then put ice on top of the plastic wrap. They could then watch the water molecules in the air move to the top of the jar and notice condensation on the sides of the jar. My students also participated in an activity where they ‘became’ water molecules and traveled to stations such as a river, ocean, cloud, animal, glacier, etc. At each station, they rolled modified dice that told the students where they would end up next. Another preparatory activity involved investigating heat transfer by placing ice on thermal blocks after which they read and did a Quick Write about the three types of thermal energy transfer and kinetic energy. We cloze read small chunks of our existing textbooks, read supplementary materials, watched videos, and researched conditions on Mars. I was also able to bring in science-related current events by showing students some online video clips of the Curiosity Mars Rover.

Photo by Jennifer McGranahan[/caption] 

Each step of the way I was very focused on specific, clearly defined principles I wanted the students to master and the Science Practices (part of the 3-dimensional learning of NGSS) that would help them reach that goal. The scope of the science can get complicated quickly and I did not want to overload the students. To avoid that, I previewed all of the texts and narrowed down the content, concepts, and practices the students needed to know in order to successfully engineer their Mars habitat.

I had introduced the habitat project at the very beginning of our unit and the students were eager to get to it. When the day finally came to design and build the habitats, I was nervous. Did they have the understanding and skills they needed? Would they be successful or just get frustrated? Well, I didn’t need to worry. They amazed me!!! I witnessed them working collaboratively in groups creating and problem solving. When we tested our habitats (taking heat measurements in the sunlight to absorb heat and then in the classroom to see if the habitats retained the heat), not every group was successful. But here is the best part… they had the opportunity to modify their models and them test again! The conversations I heard were amazing!!! (Application of Common Core Speaking and Listening Skills.) At the end, I asked each group to present their models and their results and give their hypothesis about what the results meant. I honestly could not believe 10-12 year olds were using science vocabulary so confidently about science concepts and engineering practices. The concepts they were able to discuss with conviction and the problem solving strategies they employed to better their habitats were amazing! I will never doubt the ability of my students again.

Photo by Jennifer McGranahan[/caption] 

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would love it if all of the NGSS lessons were already created, if it was already established what 3-dimensional learning really looks in a classroom, with all the materials already on site, and it was neatly packaged in a ‘Science for Dummies’ teacher’s edition. I can also tell you with certainty that I would not trade jumping right into NGSS for anything. My students are excited about science. They look forward to it and are genuinely disappointed if we don’t have it one day. My students are speaking and writing about scientific concepts that I had mistakenly thought would be over their heads. They understand those concepts in the context we learned them in, but are also transferring that understanding to other, real world, situations. My teaching has improved, their ability to learn has improved, and I am more excited than I have ever been about science. I encourage all my elementary colleagues to jump right into science.

Jennifer McGranahan is a 6th Grade Teacher at Marango Ranch Elementary in the Galt Joint Elementary School District. She was invited to write for eCCS by CSTA President Elect Lisa Hegdahl.



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