CSTA Classroom Science

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

By Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. The rooms lack counter space, sinks, outlets, or even flat desks or tables for the students to work. Secondly, many of the 6th and 7th grade teachers are cored, which means their time is split between teaching science and another subject, typically math. Set-up and clean-up from experimentally-based lessons is difficult as they switch from period to period. These challenges have forced teachers to come up with creative solutions that allow them to balance the students’ need for developing their science skills while still maintaining the teacher’s sanity.

One solution has been the incorporation of online science simulations, especially on days where hands-on work would be a management challenge. Although the district is not a 1:1 district (one electronic device for each student in the district), most of the middle school teachers have a Chromebook cart in their classroom or have easy access to Chromebooks for their students. Technology can be a powerful tool for learning science concepts beyond the typical research project or PowerPoint presentation. Virtual labs and online simulations allow students to develop necessary skills or SEPs. These simulations are definitely not a substitute for laboratory experiences, but teachers are finding them a great way to supplement and even extend the hands-on learning happening in their classrooms.

Example from a 6th-grade classroom:
MS-LS1-3 Use argument supported by evidence for how the body is a system of interacting subsystems composed of groups of cells.

Students in Mr. Nikkel’s 6th-grade classroom were exploring body systems. Through multiple activities, students explored, researched, collaborated, and communicated information related to specific body systems and how they interacted with each other. Mr. Nikkel wanted students to understand that the different body systems are made up of organs that must all work together in order for the system to function properly (Crosscutting Concept: Systems and System Models). He found an online simulation from Gizmos called “Digestive System” where the students investigated the order and function of the organs involved in the breaking down of food, absorption of nutrients, and the elimination of waste. Based on their previous knowledge from earlier in the unit, students made a prediction as to the correct order of the organs. Then they used the simulation to test their created digestive system. Their failed attempts at completing a working digestive system encouraged them to redesign their system and try again. Students were engaged in the challenge and were seeking out more information about the organs in order to get their system working properly. Mr. Nikkel observed that as the students were working on this simulation, they were noticing that different foods they were “feeding” to their simulation person were affecting the system differently. Each food had a different calorie count, amount of water absorbed, and difference in the nutrients provided to the system. This added information had the students asking more questions and doing more experimenting with their system beyond what Mr. Nikkel had initially assigned.

While working on the online simulation, students were engaged in multiple SEPs. The students developed a model of a working digestive system using qualitative data collected from multiple trials they designed (Planning and Conducting an Investigation). Students used their data analysis to construct an explanation and communicate that information to their peers. Mr. Nikkel enjoys the fact that the online simulations gave his students opportunities to explore something they couldn’t experience any other way. Plus, he was able to extend the activity over multiple days and it was easy for students to pick up and resume where they left off each day. His students enjoy the simulations as they appreciate opportunities to use technology, especially if it involves a challenge or problem to solve.

6th-grade students from Mr. Nikkel’s class work on an online simulation to gather data.[/caption] 

Example from an 8th-grade classroom:
MS-ESS1-1 Develop and use a model of the Earth-sun-moon system to describe the cyclic pattern of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons.

Ms. Eastham’s 8th-grade students were working through a unit on Earth and space science incorporating the SEP, Developing and Using Models. Through multiple explores, students created a physical, movable model of the Earth-sun-moon system. Students used their model to construct and explanation by making a claim about the movement of celestial bodies within the Milky Way Galaxy using the evidence they collected and including their reasoning for using the supporting evidence. At this point, Ms. Eastham had the students use the online simulation from Gizmos called “Seasons in 3D.” Using a few guiding questions, students investigated the causes of the seasons by observing Earth as it orbits the Sun (Analyzing and Interpreting Data). Students began to notice patterns as they manipulated the path of the sun across the sky. They manipulated multiple variables such as the date and the location of the Earth. The students recorded data into their notebooks, communicated their data with each other, and then came up with a final model of the seasons.

While working on the online simulation, students were engaged in multiple SEPs. Students were gathering data, creating graphs of solar intensity and day length, and interpreting that data to find patterns. Students used their analysis to create an explanation of seasonal changes that they communicated with their peers. Ms. Eastham believes that online simulations are an extremely useful tool that provides the visuals students need to comprehend challenging science concepts that are difficult for students to grasp. Many of her students are visual learners and the simulation enabled them to manipulate variables and actually see what happened. Her students enjoy the online simulations and are always engaged with the learning that is incorporated with the challenges.

An example of how an 8th-grade student summarized her learning after two days of exploring an online simulation.[/caption] 

In developing lesson sequences using the 5E Instructional Cycle (developed by Biological Sciences Curriculum Study with “concept column” addition by the K-12 Alliance), teachers have found multiple ways to incorporate online simulations. Typically, a teacher does not use an online simulation at all points of a 5E lesson sequence, but instead carefully chooses one or two appropriate moments where it best supports the student learning. Here are some examples of how a teacher could “plug in” use of an online simulation at different points of the 5E learning sequence.

Engage Phase: Teachers could use a simulation in this phase as an introduction to an investigative phenomena where they present the simulation to the whole class while asking guiding questions to get students thinking and asking their own questions.

Explore Phase: Students could use simulations in this phase to explore the topic. Depending on the simulation, students design experiments and collect data or manipulate variables to determine the different outcomes. Students can work individually or in partners which encourages collaboration and communication.

Explain Phase: Students use a simulation in this phase to create an explanation that can be used as part of an “arguing from evidence” class activity.

Elaborate Phase: Students could apply the knowledge they have learned throughout a learning sequence to a new scenario presented through a simulation in this phase.

Evaluate Phase: Teachers could use questions provided with the simulation to formatively assess the students at juncture points within the learning sequence.

For more information on the use of the 5E in the NGSS, check out “Instructional Strategy for 3D Learning: 5E Instructional Cycle”, pages 12-16 of Chapter 11 (Instructional Strategies) of the California Science Framework: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/sc/cf/scifwprepubversion.asp

Using simulations in the middle school classroom allows students to experience investigations that are not commonly done in a classroom because of equipment or safety issues such as dropping a bowling ball off a 300 foot building or studying a nuclear reactor. Simulations provide a risk-free environment where students are free to experiment, make mistakes, and rethink and redesign without fear of breaking or destroying something that cannot be easily replaced in a traditional setting. And, simulations allow students to experiment and collect data by taking out the time constraints.

Kings Canyon Unified middle school teachers have seen an increase in student engagement and in the learning of Disciplinary Core Ideas with the incorporation of online simulations in their lesson sequences. Most important, the teachers are seeing a growth in their students’ abilities to do science as they focus on the Science and Engineering Practices of the Next Generation Science Standards.

(2011). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from https://www.nap.edu/catalog/13165/a-framework-for-k-12-science-education-practices-crosscutting-concepts

(2016). 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

Lesley Gates is a Project Director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative in Kings Canyon Unified School District and a member of CSTA.

Loren Nikkel is a 6th grade science teacher, a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative in Kings Canyon Unified School District, and a member of CSTA.

Kambria Eastham is an 8th grade science teacher, a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative in Kings Canyon Unified School District, and a member of CSTA.



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