CSTA Classroom Science

Learning Across the Village: Planning K-12 Projects

By Matthew Leader, Shelley Glenn Lee, Chris Olivas, Kelly Jacob, and Ryan Gallagher

“ The most interesting thing I learned about trout was how much work it takes to keep them alive and in good health.” -Emma, 3rd Grader

It certainly takes a village to ensure that our students are learning about content that matters to them. Content that is rich in phenomena, allowing students to see the relevance of science in their lives, and preparing them for the real world. The High Tech High core principles of equity, personalization, authenticity, and collaboration help govern how projects are planned.  As all teachers know, it can be challenging to develop projects that push ALL students to produce high-quality work to the best of their ability levels. With an opportunity from The Escondido Creek Conservancy to raise trout in the classroom, the High Tech High North County K-12 schools saw a chance to do just that by communicating and scaffolding methods developed as teachers in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative.

Simon Breen, Education Manager of the Escondido Creek Conservancy, getting students excited and informed on trout release day.[/caption] 

The first elementary, middle, and high school collaboration of the project started at the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative Summer Institute in 2016 while immersed in developing a phenomena brainstorm. In further preparation for this project, a cross-section of High Tech High teachers from elementary to high school, Shelley Glenn Lee, Chris Olivas, Kaylyn Oates, Johnnie Lyman, and Matt Leader got together to see how they could unite around the idea of raising trout in the classroom. With the acquisition of a small grant to allow for necessary equipment, as well as immense support with all stakeholders at the Escondido Creek Conservancy, the project began to take shape. Throughout the course of the project, the different grade levels completed different products and shared their learning with each other. Ultimately, all grade levels had the same goal of raising and releasing trout, which they achieved together with our partners from the Escondido Creek Conservancy.

Elementary (Shelley Glenn Lee)- Great Migrations: Using a large-scale phenomenon and collaboration to engage elementary students 
As part of a third-grade project, Trout in the Classroom provided an opportunity to use science as a context for an interdisciplinary investigation into why animals (including humans) migrate. Along with my third-grade teaching partners, the “Great Migrations” project was designed to provide opportunities for authentic research and writing about animal migration and to allow students to investigate the needs of living things through fieldwork, collaboration with middle and high school students, and three-dimensional NGSS-aligned science lessons and experiences.

The California Science Framework (2016) calls for third graders to formulate answers to questions such as How do organisms vary in their traits? and How are plants, animals, and environments of the past similar or different from current plants, animals, and environments? Raising trout in the classroom requires the setup of a large freshwater aquarium that mimics ideal natural conditions for trout at all stages of their life cycle. Trout are delivered as eggs and are raised to the “fingerling” stage before being released into the wild. The water in the tank is required to be cold, clean, and chemically well balanced. These parameters required students to understand that dynamics of a freshwater ecosystem (3-LS4-3) and develop models for the unique life cycle of organisms (3-LS1-1.)

An elementary school student investigates trout anatomy.[/caption] 

Students learned that animals such as rainbow trout, monarch butterflies, hummingbirds, and whales migrate to reproduce, find food, and avoid harsh weather conditions. Additionally, Rainbow Trout and their close cousins, the salmon, migrate between fresh and saltwater habitats. The behavior and physical traits that allow animals to live and thrive in a variety of environments are passed down from their parents (3-LS3-1) and the physical changes trout undergo throughout their life and as they transition between salt and fresh water provide advantages in survival, finding mates, and reproducing (3-LS4-2.)

By visiting our local creek and learning about the environmental conditions that exist, students also learned how the habitat has changed over the years and how these changes have resulted in the absence of native trout in San Diego. Students collected water quality data from the creek, looked for evidence of runoff and effects of erosion, and learned how macroinvertebrates play a role in the ecosystem and can serve as environmental indicators (3-LS4-3.)

Elementary students collect macro-invertebrates from a local creek.[/caption] 

Throughout the project, our elementary students worked with middle and high school students to maintain the tanks, to conduct fieldwork, engage in lab activities, and, ultimately, to release the dozens of trout that were raised collaboratively. Elementary students benefited greatly from the collaboration, guidance, expertise, and encouragement from the older students. The project allowed students to take turns being experts, clients, teachers, and learners as they worked to transform their experiences and deep learning into products. The collaboration resulted in elementary and middle school students creating stories and publishing a book, while elementary and high school students designed games and lessons about water, watersheds, and trout biology. Further, the elementary student team designed a 7-station lab experience for a public exhibition (where families and community members are invited to attend) that included water chemistry (red cabbage indicator/pH,) the effect of the sun and shade on water temperature, runoff and erosion, live macro-invertebrates, trout life cycle, trout anatomy (fish dissection,) and tank setup.

Middle (Chris Olivas, Kelly Jacob) -  The Ripple Effect: Human impacts on our ecosystems
When planning this project, there was no doubt that middle school students would be engaged with the science and responsibility of raising trout in the classroom. The focus for middle school would shift to a broader perspective from elementary and include not just the local watershed, but its connection to the ocean. The project would provide both rich opportunities for experiential learning and the opportunity for students to develop proficiency with the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices while providing context for the Performance Expectations within MS-LS2- Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics.

The trout tank is transformed for exhibition to show how humans impact our aquatic ecosystems.[/caption] 

After a few meetings with the collaborating elementary and high school teachers, it was decided that the project had a lot of room for students to see how human actions not only affect the water quality of our nearby watersheds but the overall health of the oceans and humankind in the long term future. With raising trout as one key element, the teachers became very excited to start brainstorming ways students could learn about and bring awareness to the many different impacts humans have on our local ecosystem as well as the ocean. All students were responsible for learning all of the material, but they would produce products in a team that tackled different areas of research, awareness, and action related to the health of our oceans. Teams chose focus topics such as trout monitoring, ocean acidification, a sculpture team that would make a life-size whale from recycled plastics, a children’s storybook team, media team, Ocean Friendly Restaurant team (that would work to certify restaurants who utilize sustainable practices), and a fundraising team (for water bottle refill stations at the school). This gave each team an opportunity to collaborate with and share their learning with the other schools in our village, and the community, in a meaningful way. When it came time to prepare for our culminating exhibition (where families and community members are invited to attend), the teams had different products they were responsible for producing and different information they were to disseminate to the guests.


The entire process focused heavily on  NGSS Science and Engineering Practices to help students develop science understanding. With the help of their high school counterparts, they practiced developing and using models about the nutrient cycles in the trout tank and shared their learning with their elementary school counterparts. They asked questions and defined problems related to the health of our trout, our local watershed, and ocean environments during various fieldwork experiences (work with whale watch naturalists, a trip to the recycling plant, and an H2O Trash Patrol waterway clean up). Students planned and carried out investigations on the effects of ocean acidification on shellfish (working in partnership with scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and the litter/marine debris produced by our school (with the help of the 1 to 1 Movement). Students analyzed and interpreted the data on the health of their trout tank and shellfish investigations. And finally, students obtained, evaluated, and communicated this information with our local community (with the help of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation) and our school on an exhibition night. The focus on scientific practices helped students understand the bigger picture of the cause and effect of our actions as humans on our local and global environments.

11th Grade Biology (Matthew Leader) - Schooling Trout: An In-Depth Study and Dissemination of the Southern Steelhead Trout as a Model Organism
Trout ready for release at Lake Miramar.[/caption] 

Upon hearing that my elementary and middle school colleagues were interested in writing a grant for the Trout in the Classroom program, I immediately jumped on board as I had worked with the Department of Fish and Wildlife and The Escondido Creek Conservancy with previous projects and knew there were many points of inclusion for high school and to make concepts in biology and chemistry relevant to students.

As the project planning started, the chemistry teacher, Johnnie Lyman and I decided to center curriculum for high school around what is going on with the aquarium. There was so much rich connection in biology that it was a matter of carefully choosing topics and an appropriate NGSS framework that would fit into a 2 month period of time from egg delivery to exhibition and fish release. We made it a point for student groups to research deeply and articulate chosen disciplinary core ideas. To prepare, we had collaborative meetings where three-dimensional conceptual flows were generated to develop a coherent storyline and where projects and the exhibition could be planned in detail. Storyline themes that were decided on included interdependent relationships in ecosystems in the watershed, structure and function on a molecular, cellular and system level with the trout, inheritance of traits as relates to trout husbandry in California, and evidence of natural selection, common ancestry and diversity with divergent trout species in North America. (Performance Expectations that were partially addressed: HS-LS1-2, HS-LS2-3, HS-LS1-5, HS-LS1-6, HS-LS1-7, HS-LS2-6, HS-LS2-7, HS-LS2-8, HS-LS3-1, HS-LS3-2, HS-LS3-3, HS-LS4-1, HS-LS4-2, HS-LS4-3, HS-LS4-4, HS-LS4-5, HS-LS4-6.)

After building weekly plans to support the three-dimensional conceptual flow/storyline, we then focused on identifying how the lessons would progress within the project to create meaningful products. This process was done WITH students, in a guided manner, after the project launch. We chose to create student generated lessons specific to the breadth of the DCI topics that could be disseminated to students in our 10th grade and at other high schools and would also be shared with the Department of Fish and Wildlife and other stakeholders of the Trout in the Classroom Program. Twenty groups of 3 students each developed a lesson to include a presentation of current information for the topic researched, a model to demonstrate their learning, a hands-on activity and a check for understanding or exit card that is tied to each lesson.

Middle and High Schoolers teaching elementary students about water, the water cycle, and human impacts on the environment.[/caption] 

A struggle in planning and implementing this was ensuring a depth of understanding while exploring so much about trout as a model organism. To extend their experience, all of the biology students read the book, An Entirely Synthetic Fish (Halverson, 2010), analyzed the text through collaborative discussions and writing, and made comparisons of the current predicament of southern Steelheads to historical perspectives of rainbow trout. They also interviewed and worked closely with a researcher from a university or governmental organization that studied trout in a way that aligned with their own topic of study. They reached out to these researchers on their own and collaborated with them to deepen understanding of their lesson presentation and wrote a novel research proposal that might be used by biologists for future funding and experimentation. This was an intentional effort to bridge language arts with science. The reading, discourse, and writing done by students was a vehicle for sensemaking in science. Lastly, while working through the lessons and research proposal papers, the students conducted daily behavioral observations of the trout in the aquaria to compare to work completed in Johnnie Lyman’s chemistry class that was published online for the Escondido Creek Conservancy.

High Tech High students, working in partnership with other students, scientists, and community stakeholders, became field biologists. Students could see the relevance of the science they learned to better understand migrating populations and the influence humans have on the ecosystems in which these species rely on. Students were empowered to have powerful conversations with adults (whether parents, scientists, or other community members) on these issues. The experience provided students with an authentic context for the science they learn.

 “One of the most meaningful parts of the project was learning that I can make a difference, even though there’s just one of me. I used to think that, ‘Oh it’s only me, not like I can make much of a difference or that things will change because of me.’ But I now realize what positive changes I can make to help out the environment. Even if it’s something small like just picking up that piece of trash, or maybe on a larger scale, like creating a storybook for children, or fundraising for two water bottle stations. No matter what size of a positive change I make, I now see as an important change. And I believe this is a very important mindset for our generation to have. Through our project, that was our goal, to change how people think. And we have done so very successfully.” - Canon, 8th grader

Mixed grade level group on trout release day at Miramar Lake that includes high school, middle school, and elementary students working together to share months of hard work.[/caption] 

(2016). Science Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade 12. Sacramento, CA: The California Department of Education. Retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/sc/cf/scifwprepubversion.asp

Halverson, A. (2010). An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Matthew Leader is a high school biology teacher, a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for High Tech High, and a member of CSTA. 

Shelley Glenn Lee is an elementary science teacher, a Core Leadership Team member and Third Grade Cadre for the CA NGSS Early Implementation Initiative at High Tech High, and a member of CSTA.

Chris Olivas is a middle school math and science teacher, a Core Leadership Team member for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for High Tech High, and a member of CSTA.

Kelly Jacob is a middles school humanities teacher at High Tech High.

Ryan Gallagher is a Project Director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative at High Tech High and a member of CSTA. 



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