CSTA Classroom Science

Taking It to the Field—Where Students Become the Experts

By Nancy Taylor, David Polcyn, and Terrie Perez

Most teachers would agree that field experiences are invaluable teaching tools.  Given that, at the 2015 CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative south summer institute held in Vista, CA, just north of San Diego and a couple of miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, we took advantage of nearby Batiquitos Lagoon, one of the few remaining tidal wetlands in southern California.  Besides being a beautiful site and an exceptional educational destination, the lagoon is undergoing a restoration project to maintain the integrity of the coastal wetlands and to mitigate human impact on this precious ecosystem. Instead of engaging the help of one of the local experts, the “students” (southern California 7th grade teachers, in this case) became the experts and led the field trip themselves.  At this point, you might be asking “how do students become the experts?”  The answer is through three-dimensional learning supported by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) using a method that could easily be duplicated by a classroom teacher.During the institute, we were using “ecosystem structure and function” as a means to view the world through various “lenses” integral to the NGSS with the phenomenon of an ecosystem undergoing restoration.  These lenses are packaged into two of the three dimensions of NGSS, “Crosscutting Concepts” (CCC) and “Science and Engineering Practices” (SEP).  We could have easily chosen any of the CCC’s and SEP’s to investigate ecosystems, but the particular “lenses” we chose to focus on (pun intended) for this week-long institute included “developing and using models” (SEP), “constructing explanations” (SEP), “patterns” (CCC) and “energy and matter” (CCC).  We wanted to employ multiple lenses for several reasons.  First and foremost, this is how scientists view the world.  Second, we wanted the participants to see that the same phenomenon, the same data set, the same circumstances, can be viewed in slightly different ways, and to experience the fact that the insight gained from each “lens” is similar yet different.  One asks slightly different questions when viewing through different lenses.  And last, but not least, we wanted to model to the teachers that bouncing between lenses is not only NOT difficult, but makes for more effective teaching and learning.  Rather than say “today we are using this lens…”, we wanted to show that lens choice is fluid, and sometimes viewing the same phenomenon through multiple lenses enhances the learning experience.

The third dimension of NGSS is the science knowledge called Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI’s).  By focusing on “an ecosystem”—examining how energy and matter are gained by, move through, and are lost to an ecosystem—we were able to integrate a number of related DCI’s from both Physical Sciences and Life Sciences (there were plenty of opportunities for Earth and Space Science DCI’s as well, but we chose to stick to PS and LS for this institute).  We began by having students look at a sketch of an ecosystem and label various components, and then discuss (first in small groups and then as a whole) their view of ecosystems.  Since the participants were all middle school science teachers, their knowledge was far deeper than the typical middle school student, but there were still some misconceptions and gaps in understanding.  We then began to take the ecosystem apart and look at its component parts, generally from small to large but always with an eye on “the ecosystem”.  For three days, participants explored states of matter (PS1: Matter and its interactions), the cellular and molecular basis of matter movement in food chains and food webs (LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes), and the interactions of organisms in food webs with their biotic and abiotic environment (LS2: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics).  For example, in classroom activities the days before the field trip, participants had the opportunity to model (using miniature marshmallows and toothpicks) the building of sugar molecules during photosynthesis and their breakdown during respiration. Participants also modeled the movement of energy and matter through the food web by first taping photos of components of the food web (plants, herbivores, carnivores, decomposers, etc.) to the wall, and then “tracing” the movement of energy and matter through the food web with yarn; one color of yarn represented energy, another color represented matter, and participants visualized how photosynthesis brings matter and energy into the food web, and then how it is eventually broken down by respiration at some point, to be lost to the environment as heat (energy) or “recycled” back through the food web via photosynthesis (matter).   In a word, they were becoming “experts” on ecosystems.

To put their new found (or newly organized) knowledge to task, on day four of the institute participants (in groups of two) were assigned a particular “station” along a self-guided trail at Batiquitos Lagoon (trail map and station highlights available at: http://www.batiquitosfoundation.org/2011/lagoon/trail-guide/).  Using the information from the trail guide, and what they knew about ecosystems, they were to prepare a 3-5 minute presentation to the class about “the ecosystem” at that particular site.  Because the nature of the stations was variable, there weren’t a lot of guidelines besides a focus on ecosystem structure and function, patterns, and constructing explanations.

We arrived at Batiquitos Lagoon on a slightly overcast but gorgeous day.   Participants had a short time to find and get acquainted with their stations and practice their presentations, then we regrouped and the experts had the stage.  And what a stage it was!  As we moved from station to station, the experts took their turns at brilliantly explaining the world around us through various lenses (without ever using the word “lens”).  By scheduling time for questions and answers at each station, we could assess not only how well the experts knew their stuff, but whether the rest of the participants were employing their new found lenses to ask deeper, richer questions.  When answers weren’t apparent, we did some thinking out loud about what might be.  In short, we had a wonderful day of teaching and learning in the field.  Which is only fitting, as “the field” is where questions about ecosystems, and life itself, were first pondered.

Nancy Taylor was a part of the Exploring STEM Careers Initiative with San Diego State University. David Polcyn is a Professor of Biology at California State University, San Bernardino, and can be reached at dpolcyn@csusb.edu  Terrie Perez is a science teacher at EmSTEAM Middle School.


Summer 2015 was the first opportunity that Nancy, Terrie and David had the pleasure of working together on “cadre”.  We had a wonderful time planning the summer institute, each of us learning immensely from the others as we developed the first of three summer institutes devoted to working with the seventh grade teachers from across southern California.  And we thoroughly enjoyed working with each other and with a wonderful group of devoted seventh grade teachers during the week-long institute. It is with great sadness to report that, not long after our 2015 summer institute ended, Nancy Taylor lost a long, determined fight with cancer.  She was a scholar among scholars, a dear friend and role model to countless educators, and above all a dedicated and skilled teacher who touched the lives of countless thousands of students.  She will be missed by many, and although our world is impoverished by her loss it has also been enriched beyond description by her presence.

Nancy Taylor, science education and community leader, 1954-2015[/caption] 

Editor's Note: Nancy Taylor’s motto, Onward, was the inspiration for the California Science Education conference pre-conference day, Onward – Leading the NGSS Implementation Your District, debuting this year. We are proud to name this day, intended to support science leaders, in her honor.

Link to article on Nancy http://sdsa.org/the-loss-of-a-stem-education-and-community-leader-nancy-taylor-3/.



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