CSTA Classroom Science

NGSS Implementation: A Leap of Reason

By Jeff Schmitz

Any transformation in an organization, like a school or a district, can be a painstaking process of professional learning, creating buy-in, and fund sourcing. But the transformation swiftly gains momentum when individuals at the grassroots level begin jumping in with both feet. Our California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative Teacher Leaders in Vista Unified are starting to jump.

The jump is no mere leap of faith; it’s more like a “leap of reason.” Our Early Implementers spent time in the summer immersed in NGSS content and pedagogy under the tutelage of science education gurus from the K-12 Alliance and supporting institutions that include universities and other institutes of higher education. They also will participate in 2-day TLCs (Teaching Learning Collaborative) this academic year, lesson studies where NGSS-aligned lesson sequences are collaboratively planned, delivered, and evaluated for effectiveness. Consequently, Early Implementer teachers are developing a deeper understanding of how three-dimensional design, the 5E model of instruction, and phenomenon-based investigations align with how people learn. The NGSS makes sense to them, they are seeing how it makes better sense for students, and so it makes sense to make the leap.

Despite having no fully aligned NGSS curriculum or materials, Early Implementers are leading the transformation. They are implementing the NGSS in their classrooms armed with only their standards, the Framework for K-12 Science Education, a draft of the California science framework, and the unit conceptual flows and lessons they are collaboratively developing with their colleagues. It is the very action of going through this process that is helping our teachers better understand the NGSS and grow.

Our middle school Early Implementer teachers are taking on the additional challenge of integrating the science disciplines, which is the preferred model in California. Allison Bowcock, an 8th Grade Science Teacher and Early Implementation Teacher Leader at Roosevelt Middle School, is currently wrangling with all of this. I spent a couple of days with her recently so we can share with you the journey she is undergoing.

As it happened, Allison’s class was exploring claims about what caused a prehistoric extinction event. They were amidst a multi-day lesson sequence where evidence was being gathered to either support or refute competing claims related to this phenomenon. After analysis of their findings, students will be charged with constructing a written argument on the claim they have determined best explains the phenomenon.

Students evaluate which of these claims best explains the extinction event.[/caption] 

On this day, in particular, the claim that an asteroid’s collision with Earth caused the event was being investigated by the students. The class opened with a lesson-level phenomenon, a spectacular video clip of a fiery meteor streaking across the Russian sky in 2013. Talk about engaging! Students shared questions and wonderings about the Russian meteor. In a clear attempt to integrate physical science into the discussion, Allison gave time for her students to consider what caused the meteor to hit the Earth. Then, it was time to observe the effects of meteor impact via simulation. Allison climbed a ladder and chucked objects into a small plastic pool full of sand.

[gallery type="rectangular" ids="13731,13732,13733"] 3 IMAGES, NO URL

Students had opportunities to be excited, ask questions, make observations, and make predictions, all the while recording in their sense-making notebooks. Allison then asked her students to consider how they could find evidence of meteor impact for a prehistoric extinction event. Following their discussion, Allison cued into an important question: could they compare the chemical composition of Earth’s crust with that of a meteor? Students shared their ideas in table groups, and the class consensus was to sample rock strata that would have been present on Earth’s surface at the time of the extinction event to see if elements of a meteor are present. Allison agreed with their logic and assured the class they would conduct that investigation the next day. Students left the classroom excited, already looking forward to what they would discover tomorrow.

When reflecting on the lesson, it exemplified the spirit of the NGSS in a number of ways:
•    It was phenomenon-based. The “big” phenomenon for the unit was the prehistoric extinction event; the “little” phenomenon for the day’s lesson was the 2013 Russian meteor impact. Both are engaging to students, promote wonder, and are something the students can build understanding of.
•    It was integrated. Force and motion of Physical Science meets the geology and climate studies of Earth and Space Science, which meets the biological evolution of Life Science (later in the unit).
•    It was three-dimensional. The Disciplinary Core Idea of “evidence for extinction” was explored using Science & Engineering Practices (Asking Questions, Modeling, Engaging in Argument from Evidence, and Planning Investigations) while the Crosscutting Concept of Cause & Effect was used to help push student thinking.
•    It stemmed from a collaboratively-developed conceptual flow for an entire unit.

Conceptual flow developed by the Southern California 8th grade cadre for Summer Institute, year 2. Background image from Earnst Haeckel, Artforms in Nature, retrieved from http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nQaKjURiO_A/TO_QoTqrcpI/AAAAAAAAAXY/_vFWhhYuGfA/s1600/Haeckel_Thalamophora_81.jpg[/caption] 

Talking with Allison, she is embracing the opportunity to innovate during this time of transition. She has particularly latched on to the idea of using anchor phenomena in her instruction. “It’s engaging, and it promotes the kind of thinking that real scientists do.” Allison is also seeing the benefits of bringing the engineering component of NGSS into science class. “Students are challenged to use a different part of their brain, and it’s not always the straight-’A’ students being successful. Engineering opens the door for more students to blossom.” She concedes that limited planning time and curriculum availability pose a formidable challenge to her NGSS implementation efforts. Creating integrated units of instruction, as opposed to teaching each science discipline in discrete “silos” is also a mindset to which she is adapting. But, she is taking the “leap of reason” nonetheless, and the lesson I observed is evidence that she, and her students, are going to land comfortably on two feet. The transformation is underway!

Jeff Schmitz is an NGSS TOSA in the Vista Unified School District, a member of the Core Leadership Team of the K-12 Alliance California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA.



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