CSTA Classroom Science

A Partnership Between Formal and Informal Educators Through Environmental Literacy

By Jenny Chien & Lori Walsh

NGSS is about three-dimensional learning intended to have students work as scientists and engineers do: to explain phenomena and solve problems. Scientists and students do this through the use of practices (Science and Engineering Practices) and thinking tools (Crosscutting Concepts) and thereby construct knowledge (Disciplinary Core Ideas) needed to understand their world.

If we want teachers to shift instruction, teacher training designed to prepare educators must change. One example of a truly successful integrated STEM and NGSS experience in one where phenomena are at the centerpiece and includes a partnership between informal and formal educators, offering coordinated in and out of classroom experiences. It is especially pertinent that experiences are linked to California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs) so students can practice science not just in the classrooms, but out in the world around them. In 2016, the California Department of Education published the California Science Framework to support the California Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS) and as part of the publication, the EP&Cs were included to “highlight the deep relationship between humans and the natural world” (California EEI, 2018).  

To help engage our students to explore the world of science and environmental literacy, educators should have open conversations and be willing to try new things. This may involve stepping out of comfort zones for both the formal and informal educators. Both parties bring unique perspectives to the table. Linking informal science institution (ISI) educators with the formal educators before the students' visit creates tailored programming to meet the needs of students, educators, and the modern curriculum including the EP&Cs. The following illustrates two perspectives on how to bring formal and informal educators together to bring depth to NGSS teacher training.


Formal Educator Perspective (Jenny Chien):
Being part of the California NGSS Early Implementer Initiative, I recently had the privilege to be part of a summer institute leading 5th-grade teachers in the Vista Unified School District. The audience included teachers who ranged from having had three years of NGSS training through the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd to teachers new to the NGSS, also known as the “expansion teachers.” Regardless of the range of expertise, the teachers were curious and ready to learn. 

There were two types of sessions offered at this Summer Institute. One involved the pedagogy of how to make the shifts with NGSS implementation. The other session was the content with pedagogy woven into the sessions. This was called “Cadre,” and it included a content specialist/scientist who was from an institute of higher education (IHE) and an education practitioner like myself.

I was teamed up with a research biologist from an IHE who tags white sharks and studies the patterns of their movements to learn more about the sharks. In order to get teachers to understand the importance of sharks, it was necessary to dive into learning about a balanced, biodiverse ecosystem, as linked to the 5th-grade Disciplinary Core Ideas of NGSS. In order to mirror the practices of scientists and engineers, we wanted our teachers to develop a model of the cycle of matter and flow of energy of an ecosystem, specifically one that pertains to the marine ecosystem. My partner and I brainstormed a variety of ways to get teachers to be hands-on and develop the model in an inquiry-based approach. We immediately thought of a mutual expert from the informal education industry at the SEA LIFE Aquarium at LEGOLAND California Resort in Carlsbad: Lori Walsh. 

Informal Educator Perspective (Lori Walsh):
In the world of informal science institutions (ISI), NGSS workshops often focus on classroom teachers. ISIs often have animals and simulated ecosystems, and teachers can use behavioral observations and data for comprehensive lessons to launch or use as the exploratory NGSS experience. This can be achieved with teacher groups at the ISI before students visit so learning can begin pre-visit and continue after the trip.
ISI foundations are often built on conservation. How do we link this to the real world and integrated STEM, including the science component (NGSS)? That’s where the ISI/formal process thrives. In a case study, 5th-grade teachers from the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative visited an aquarium to determine how to integrate a visit to an informal science institution into a lesson.

Formal Educator Perspective (Jenny Chien):
5th-Grade teachers from the Vista Unified School District developing a model of a balanced ecosystem.[/caption] 

The group of 5th-grade teachers was studying human impact on ecosystems. It was an integrated approach in bringing environmental literacy to the life science discipline through the lens of the EP&Cs. We inquired into how matter is cycled through the ecosystem through the crosscutting lens of energy and matter.

Instead of utilizing a field trip at the end of a unit, as facilitators, we decided to have teachers visit the SEA LIFE Aquarium at LEGOLAND California Resort in Carlsbad with Lori Walsh towards the beginning of our unit of study.

Informal Educator Perspective (Lori Walsh):
At the aquarium, teachers made observations and photographed the exhibit animals. They also noted potential implications for plastic interactions in the wild. In some cases, aquarium educators have access to resources not as accessible to formal teachers. The teachers would use these photographs and notes back at their training. 

5th-Grade teachers dissecting a Laysan Albatross to learn more about stomach contents in relation to a food web in an ecosystem.[/caption] 

The teachers also engaged in a unique experience. For the visit, the formal teachers participated in dissections of an unknown source. The teachers worked in cooperative groups to sort the items from their mystery source into organic and manmade. Through this inquiry-based approach, the teachers made claims on the organism based on the evidence from the dissection. It was revealed that the source was a Laysan Albatross, a near threatened seabird found in the Pacific Ocean over 1,000 miles from any city. The teachers visiting the aquarium dissected a bolus containing the indigestible pieces of an albatross’ diet. Microplastics and fishing net were found, in addition to, the natural components of the bird’s diet, such as squid beaks. Despite the birds’ limited (or nonexistent) interaction with people, plastics are often digested from marine debris in the ocean or washed ashore on the remote Midway Islands.

While boluses may not be available for every teacher, there are other tools to help students visualize the effect of plastic pollution in our ocean. Virtual bolus dissections and lesson plans are available online. Students can predict which other animals could be affected by plastic ingestion based on the size of pieces found in the bolus. Current research has revealed other large concentrations of debris aggregations worldwide. Predictions can be made about which animals and ecosystems might be impacted.

Formal Educator Perspective (Jenny Chien):
Teachers captured photos of organisms from SEA LIFE Aquarium in Carlsbad on their devices. Following the photography experience, teachers worked in teams to develop a model of the aquatic ecosystem and find limitations of their organisms in the food web model.[/caption] 

As a 5th-grade NGSS Teacher Professional Development group, we returned back to our training center to dive into the three new learnings that we experienced. First, we took the photographs of the aquatic organisms that we captured at SEA LIFE and created a model of the ecosystem. Organisms included sharks, phytoplankton, octopus, jellyfish, stingrays, and other aquatic species. Teachers had to draw from their previous experience of what would constitute a healthy ecosystem to add elements that they did not witness or capture with their cameras or phones. One dimension of the 5th-grade NGSS is the science and engineering practice of developing and using models which in the 3rd-5th-grade grand band includes revising the model. Teachers grabbed sticky notes and visited other models that were developed by another group of teachers to give feedback. The feedback was posed as questions and when teachers returned back to their own models, they revised the models based on the new perspectives.

Taking part in the unique experience of the albatross bolus dissection, teachers noticed that some of the items in the dissection were inorganic and derived from humans. Witnessing how an albatross can digest something that humans have made or utilized alerted many of our teachers to encourage their students to take action. 

After teachers dissected the stomach contents of the Laysan Albatross, the 5th-grade teachers began to sort the inorganic and organic items.[/caption] 

Lastly, by walking around SEA LIFE Aquarium, teachers noticed the exhibit stations that highlighted the variety of ways that humans impact marine life. Teachers were able to document ways that humans can take action to prevent or have a positive influence on our ecosystems. Teachers took this information that they gathered from the aquarium and created advocacy posters and letters targeting different stakeholders.

Many different paths can be taken from a human impact unit like the one described above. Digging into the Environmental Principles and Concepts to anchor the humans and the natural world connections will help to organize lesson designing. Potential lessons can examine how currents bring debris into “untouched” ecosystems. Students can further their conservation impact by pledging to change one behavior for a greener planet for at least a month; the unit can conclude with beach or street cleanup and a pledge to take schools zero waste. The unit can also lead to deeper levels of advocacy, allowing students to be the voice of our natural world.

Connecting informal and formal educators to make teacher development more relevant and richer will help teachers shift their NGSS instruction, which will ultimately provide more meaningful scientific experiences for our students. Reach out to local organizations to bring environmental literacy into your classrooms.

Jenny Chien is a K-5 STEM Specialist at Casita Center for Technology, Science, and Math in Vista Unified School District; a 2017 California Teacher of the Year; a Core Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative; and CSTA’s Primary Director.

Lori Walsh is the Education/Operations Manager at the SEA LIFE Aquarium at LEGOLAND California Resort and CSTA’s Informal Science Education Director.



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