CSTA Classroom Science

Personalizing NGSS Learning Sequences for Your Students

By Lori Corona and Lisa Hegdahl

Since the California State Board of Education’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in Fall of 2013, science educators across California have sought out curriculum to address the shifts they demand. Almost five years later, three-dimensional learning sequences built around phenomena have been developed by a variety of groups including the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementers and the CA NGSS Rollout partners.

Most often, teachers are introduced to the learning sequences at professional development events where they can experience NGSS as students. In addition, participants reflect on the critical components of NGSS, where those components are strategically placed in the sequence, and how they contribute to the overall sense-making opportunities for students. While these experiences are valuable, and teachers should take advantage of the available resources, they should also look at learning sequences with a professional lens. Doing so may lead to the decision to make adjustments so that the experiences provided to students best suits their unique needs. What follows is just one example of how minor, thoughtful changes to a learning sequence can personalize the experience for your students.


In December 2016, three California Middle School teachers, as well as the 8th-grade science team at our site, McCaffrey Middle School in Galt (a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative District), piloted the 6-8 Integrated Learning Sequence presented at the Fourth CA NGSS Rollout. The learning sequence guides students through an examination of a real-world phenomenon and engages students in three-dimensional learning at a high level. During the second year of implementing the sequence, we decided to make minor changes, in order to suit the needs of our particular population of students while keeping intact the critical features of the sequence that align it to NGSS.

The Rollout Learning Sequence centered around the anchor phenomenon of varying beak size in the Galapagos Island finches, documented by Charles Darwin and later studied in depth by Peter and Rosemary Grant. Though our students ended the unit with a deep understanding of adaptation and natural selection (MS-LS4-4, MS-LS4-6, MS-ESS3-4), they were not fully invested in the phenomenon. We thought that perhaps our students didn’t connect to the phenomenon because it was far removed from their lives; if we could find a phenomenon directly observable in their local environment that was connected to their everyday lives, they would be more invested. According to the 2016 document, Using Phenomena in NGSS - Designed Lessons and Units, 

“The most powerful phenomena from an educational perspective are culturally or personally relevant or consequential to students”.  
We were on the lookout for a similar phenomenon occurring in California, preferably one in the California Central Valley.


It wasn’t long before we ran across a KCET Redefine online article entitled “California Has Two New Bird Species. One's in Your Yard Right Now. that peaked our interest. The article summarizes a recent decision by the American Ornithologists’ Union to recognize two populations of the Western scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) as different species. We wondered if these raucous scrub jays, that our students encounter on an everyday basis in their backyards and even on campus, could be the phenomenon we were looking for. Was their story directly related to the story of the Galapagos Island finches? Did the scrub jays go through an adaptive radiation process similar to the finches? Did the scrub jays evolve different beak shapes because they ate different food, just as the finches evolved different beak shapes due to available food sources? Did a physical barrier isolate the scrub jay populations, just as ocean waters isolated the finch populations? If we could answer, “yes” to all these questions, we could anchor the learning sequence to a “culturally” powerful phenomenon for our students.

After examining several scientific research studies on California scrub jays and consulting with recognized birding leader, David Yee, we found that the story of California scrub jays did indeed parallel the story of Galapagos Island finches:


As we modified the Rollout Learning Sequence to include this California phenomenon, we followed the strong line of thinking laid out in the original learning sequence. The original sequence starts with students observing the structures of a few different Galapagos finches. In the modified sequence, the students do the same, except with two different scrub jays. They then read a modified version of the KCET Redefine article referenced above and are surprised to learn that the two scrub jays they observed are considered different species. We introduce this as the phenomenon for the learning sequence, guiding them to ask, “What caused two populations of scrub jays in California to become so different from each other that they are now considered different species?”

The students create an initial explanation for how they think the populations separated into different species and are informed they will revise this explanation periodically throughout the sequence, using what they learn about another well-studied, and very famous, group of birds -- the Galapagos finches. Moving forward in the sequence, students explore the story of the Galapagos finches as laid out in the original learning sequence. Periodically, they pause and use what they have learned about the finches to revise their initial scrub jay explanation. For their final evaluation, they construct a formal explanation for what caused the two populations of scrub jays in California to become so different from each other that they became different species, using evidence from the Galapagos finch explorations to support the explanation.  

Our students were very much engaged by the scrub jay phenomenon. Throughout the unit, and even long after the unit ended, they wanted to share stories such as how they saw a scrub jay at the park during their baseball game, or how one very annoying individual scrub jay woke them up early on a Saturday morning with its squawking. One student even commented that she saw one eating her dog’s food, proving that its strong beak was good for more than just acorns, leading to a teachable moment on generalists vs. specialists. Clearly, students related what they were exploring in the classroom to their everyday lives.  

Kayakers watch as bats fly over Cosumnes River (Photo by Lisa Hegdahl)[/caption] 

Another revision we made was to put a more local spin on the human impact on the environment connection. Instead of students participating in a town hall style debate regarding the impact of the renovation of Camp Roberts on the San Joaquin Kit Fox in Monterey County 234 miles from Galt, we had the students debate a scenario where part of the Cosumnes River, one of the last undammed major rivers in California located eight miles from Galt, might be dammed to provide more water for local farms. They weighed the economic importance of farmland in their town and the responsiveness of wetland wildlife to changes in their environment. As most students had visited the river at some point during an elementary school field trip, and many come from farming backgrounds, the students were very invested in this debate. One student said that before this activity she wanted to be a lawyer, but after the debate decided she wanted to be an environmental activist. We discussed how environmental lawyers can do both!


High-quality NGSS learning sequences have been created, and continue to be created, by highly talented and dedicated educators across California. Many of these sequences have been highlighted over the past few years in California Science Teachers Association’s California Classroom Science articles. These sequences are valuable resources and show how to facilitate a classroom where students are engaged in the three-dimensional work of scientists as they try and make sense of phenomenon. It is important to remember that the sequences were likely written, at least in part, for a particular population of students and that, as professional educators and stewards of our students’ educational experiences, we consider if slight modifications to the sequence might allow our students to become engaged on a more personal level.

Want access to great CA NGSS Learning Sequences? Attend the California Science Education Conference in Pasadena, California November 30 - December 2.   

Support this online newsletter - California Classroom Science -  by becoming a member of the California Science Teachers Association (CSTA)

Lori Corona is an 8th-grade science teacher at McCaffrey Middle School in the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District; a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementer; and a member of CSTA. She can be reached at lcorona@galt.k12.ca.us.

Lisa Hegdahl is an 8th-grade science teacher at McCaffrey Middle School in the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District; a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementer; and Past President of CSTA. She can be reached at lhegdahl@galt.k12.ca.us



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