Monday, December 15, 2014

Learning the Engineering Design Process in Kindergarten: Just Add Mud and Sticks

My apologies for not posting lately. Curriculum writing takes a lot of time.  As described earlier,  the first kindergarten unit focuses on "Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems: Animals, Plants, and Their Environment".  The storyline that evolved centered on our native insect, the Baltimore Checkerspot, and its relationship to the White Turtlehead.  Using these two species as the backdrop, the needs of plants and animals are experienced.

Toward the end of the unit, we delve into how plants and animals change the environment to meet their needs.  As the Turtlehead lives in wetlands that are sometimes created by the actions of beavers, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to tie some of the dimensions together.  Reaching back to my previous life as an outdoor educator, I resurrected a lesson I used to do with fifth grade students.  Construct a beaver dam to hold back as much water as you can.  When I first wrote this lesson, I figured on a squeamish response to the traditional materials of mud and sticks.  To this end, I wrote it so students would use clay and wooden coffee stirrers.    You will imagine my surprise when all of the field test teachers insisted on using mud and sticks.

Earlier today, one of the schools in the system decided to give this lesson a try.  I forgot how much fun this lesson was and had fun watching many of these students experience the wonder of mud for the first time.  Beyond the absolute engagement mud and sticks present, it was very clear from the first part of the lesson, that the students understood the connection of beavers to the Checkerspot.  What's more, they applied the engineering design process.


Refinements centered on adding sticks vertically.  Some of the dams looked like porcupines 
Note the tarps on the floor.  Have to keep the custodian sane.  

 Many hands make mud work.

Students had to imagine what their dam would look like in order to develop a plan prior to building.  Shortly after this, the interactive notebooks had to be put away to avoid being encrusted by mud.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

NGSS Assessments and the Sword of Damocles

Inevitably the question of assessments come up when I talk to teachers, parents, and administrators about the NGSS.  We have lived with the education world's variation of the  "Sword of Damocles" hanging over our heads for the last 12 years so it only natural to be concerned about the next iteration.  However, my response to this may seem flip but it is none the less accurate.

For elementary science, the ultimate assessment is called middle school.  

Far more than ever, the standards are developmental.  The physics instruction which starts at Kindergarten, builds through third, middle, high school, and then life.   Without the base knowledge at Kindergarten, it becomes more difficult to catch up with each iteration.   I then step off my soap box and start talking about what I know and what I suspect.

The National Academies Press released a report earlier this year entitled "Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards."  Before this was released, I participated in a webinar where details regarding this report were the focus.  Perhaps the most salient detail was that our "current assessment model was a non-example."   So, what is our current model?  Like everyone else, the ubiquitous #2 pencil plays an essential role.


This type of assessment was what it was- a means to an end.  Does it really measure what students "knew and were able to do" or just what they could memorize?

Now, I told you that story to tell you this one.  Once upon a time in Maryland, we had the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).  According to the state website, the assessment measured three things:

  1. How well students solved problems cooperatively and individually.
  2. How well students applied what they learned to real world problems.
  3. How well students could relate and use knowledge from different subject areas.
At the time, most teachers did not like them because they required a lot of set up and management.  However, with a few exceptions, they would also say that it really did measure what students knew and were able to do.  The downside was individual accountability was difficult.  

Reading between the lines of the NAP report, it feels like an assessment focused on performance will be the focus, but will be done in the digital world.  

Earlier this week, I stumbled across the Technology & Engineering Literacy Assessment (TEL).  Given the proliferation of computers in schools and the gauntlet that PARCC and Smarter Balance have dropped to be fully digital, I would start looking at the TEL as an example of what an NGSS based assessment system will look like. 

Finally, the future of science education comes down to one brutal question.  Will any science assessment count?  No mater how well the assessment is developed, if schools do not see it on an equal level with Common Core assessments, then will it really mater?  Unfortunately, we have moved from an intrinsically motivate institution to one extrinsically motivated.  In the end, do we want the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads or not. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Very Spatial Opportunity

Well, one unit down and eight to go.  The first "official" NGSS unit is loaded into our learning management system.   The unit is based on the kindergarten "Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems" performance expectations.  As you saw from the previous post, students learn about the Baltimore Checkerspot and its dependence on the White Turtlehead.  As part of the performance assessment, students have to locate a place on their schoolyard or community where they could plant the White Turtlhead.  To do this, the teacher gives students a printed copy of map generated by a simple mapping application I created using ArcGIS Online.

Shown below, the teacher can choose to use the aerial view or an abstracted view depending on the level of detail available.  All they need do is slide the bar in the middle back and forth to see what they want.

Developing maps and apps like this are available to every school across the U.S. because of the ConnectED initiative launched by the Whitehouse last year.  These are powerful tools.  In years past, these tools were confined to complex desktop applications, but the cloud movement has pushed a lot of their capacity to the online world.  Everyday, new maps and applications are created by users all over the world.  These can be brought into your classroom and used by your students to explore BIG DATA in unimaginable ways.  What is really amazing is that students can be the creators of these maps and applications as well.  

To get started, go to the ConnectED website and sign up for an account.  I would also recommend visiting the Esri EdCommunity page.  You will quickly find out that you are not alone.  If you need help, you should find the closest GeoMentor to you.  These are GIS zealots who love working with GIS and with kids (I have a dot on the map myself).  

Good mapping! 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Coming to a Classroom Near You!

I dropped a surprise on the curriculum teams this summer when I asked them to present an overview of their unit for video.  They turned out so well, that I thought I would share them with you.

Kindergarten Units

First Grade Units

Second Grade Units

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Look Back on Two Weeks of Curriculum Writing

The dust has settled on curriculum writing.  My regiment of writers have started their vacations and I am left with a full Dropbox Don't worry.  I also have everything backed up on at least two flashdrives.  You only make that mistake once.  The files include unit level documents such as the scenario, unit outline, and pre/post assessments.  More importantly, there are a series of files for each lesson.  This includes the teacher lesson plan, student storyboard, interactive notebook pages, and lesson assessment.  The student storyboard is a draft document I will use to create learning objects for our learning management system.

Trying out hands on experiments is one of the perks of curriculum development

The objects will be composed in SoftChalk.   This program allows me to embed a variety of media.  The variety allows for a more personalized learning experience.  This even extends to the text on the page.  When a student clicks on a highlighted word, a definition or image will appear.

As we begin to think about a fully digitized curriculum, one of the big rules we came up with was "Device When Appropriate" or DWA.  I initially found  that my writers felt compelled to develop some digital asset for each lesson.  After talking with them about their lesson, it quickly became apparent that it was really not needed in all lessons.  In a number of lessons, it could also be a huge problem.  Think about a hands-on lesson involving water, soil, or chemicals.  One spill and you lose a computer.  Additionally, I am loathe to replace hand-on experiences with digital ones.  Experiments always work in the digital world.  Kids need to grapple with the gremlins inherit to science and engineering experimentation.

Sometimes a mirror is the best device to use

Many of you are familiar with interactive notebooks and are probably confused by the inclusion of them in my list of developed materials.   I've worked to convert teachers from a worksheet based format to interactive notebooks.  Until I can get everyone acculturated to using notebooks, I wanted to provide some training wheels.  The sample below gives you an idea of what is provided.  These pages are copied and bound in small books for each unit.

Each lesson would use two pages.  It starts on the upper left side with students being asked what they already know about the topic.  The right side constitutes the instructional side of the lesson.  At the end of the lesson, the the student is prompted to show what they now know as a result of the lesson.  The beauty of this format is teachers can see where students started and where they grew by the end of the lesson.

Lastly, perhaps the most important realization I had was the tendency of teachers to write curriculum which directs students to a single answer for a problem.  All the problems we wrote into our units are fairly open-ended in how they can be "solved".  I have attributed this tendency to twelve years of brute-force convergent thinking where all problems were solved with A,B,C,D, or E.  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

How far does 2100 minutes go?

Back in April I created an estimate of how long each unit would be.  The ranges on those estimates were wide ranging due to not knowing how much classroom time we would have.  As of now, time for science is set at 30 minutes a day for 70 days in grades K-2.  For grades 3-5, it goes to 60 minutes a day for 70 days. Science alternates its units with Social Studies.  The bottom line for now is that I have 2,100 minutes of curriculum time.

With this in mind, the tables below illustrate the order of the units, a brief statement about the PBA, the current estimate of unit lengths and what I estimated back in April.  Keep in mind that these are still estimates.  Three weeks from now, I will have a better idea.  

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Look Back After Week One of Curriculum Development

First, let me offer my appreciation to the twenty-six members of my NGSS Transition Team that labored through the week to craft storylines, rubrics, unit outlines, and unit assessments.  My strong suggestion to anyone moving to the NGSS is to build a team of classroom teachers.  This group has worked with me since October and twenty of them will continue during curriculum writing starting on July 7.

The NGSS Transition team starts unit planning by thinking about how to reach all students.

In my last post, I discussed the unpacking document.  I can't emphasize enough how important a step this is.  It makes you really consider all three dimensions (DCI, SEP, and CC).  Once the team unpacked the PEs, they began drafting the performance based assessment using the GRASP.  

As the teams worked, I found them going back and forth revising the unpacking document as well as the PBA.   Once that process stabilized, the rubric started to evolve (insert collective groan).  Rubrics are the necessary evil of PBAs.  One tip on rubrics.  Maryland is a PARCC state so we used the four point rubric (0-3) format used throughout those assessments.  

Another tip.  Take advantage of pedagogies, templates, and vocabulary already in use rather than creating unique ones.  For example, the NGSS refers to argument in many of the performance expectations as early as Kindergarten.  The Common Core does not use argument until late elementary.  In the primary grades it is called opinion.  Yes, it is a nuance, but to elementary teachers already under intense change, any use of language they are comfortable with will gain you buy in.  At this point, buy in is really important.   We also realized with primary grades, we needed to really develop two rubrics.  One with teacher language and one with student language.  

The next step was to begin work on the unit outline.  This is where the poetry starts.  From the unpacking document,  all the enduring understandings and driving questions have to be organized to build a coherent storyline that leads to the PBA.  As I illustrated in my earlier post, the unit layout starts with students getting hooked by the scenario.  Right after that, they solve the problem as a form of performance pre-assessemnt.   As the teams worked on this outline a major obstacle had to be addressed.  After the third day of work, I reviewed the preliminary work on the unit outlines to see how they were addressing all three dimensions.  They were doing a great job writing the DCIs but the SEPs were almost absent.  This is the legacy of No Child.  We write to the content and "weave in" the process.  Alternatively, there were units that focused on the "scientific method".  So here is the book I want written:  

Learning to Do:  A Practitioners Guide to Building and Assessing the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices within Context.  

It is a working title.  

It is simply not enough to have students create an investigation, they have to be conscience of the fact that they are learning how to develop an investigation.  This is a real mind shift.  Teachers are becoming used to the hands-on side of science, but now they have to balance that with the "minds-on".  

By Friday afternoon, I had the teams evaluate their unit outlines using the EQuIP Rubric.  The preliminary evaluation shows a pretty good match.  The hard part will be when the lessons are written.  

So, in summary, here are your tips of the day.
  1. Get a team.
  2. Spend time unpacking the performance expectations.
  3. Make sure your curriculum speaks the same language teachers and students are accustomed.  
  4. Figure out how to teach the practices and not just the content.  Hands-on.  Minds-on.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with A Lot of Templates- Part 1

Schools are closing which means curriculum development work is spooling up for the summer.  Next week begins the official transition of my curriculum to the NGSS.  I am excited and a little nervous.  I equate it to going on vacation.  You are excited to go, but worry constantly about what you forgot.  Fortunately,  my regiment of curriculum writers has been prepped to be flexible as we go.  I have a plan, but it will undoubtedly need alterations.  With that said, let me reveal my current plan.

As stated in a previous post I introduced you to my cracker jack transition team.  They constitute the vanguard of this development process.  Their mission is to take a topic page full of performance expectations (PE) and mold them into a performance based assessment scenario.  These scenarios must be locally based and culturally relevant.   The odd workflow, shown below, will serve as our plan of attack.

First, my thanks to Peter A'Hearn for his post in California Science.  His notion of storytellers verified the direction I wanted to go and provided the basis for my first template. The NGSS is a very different species of standard.  There is a critical need to really dig deep into the NGSS documents as well as the Framework which caused them.  I evolved Peter's template a little and tried my best to match the colors.

This is a very non-linear process.  The storyline and driving question will actually come last, sort of.  A table like the one shown above has been developed for each performance expectation on a topic page.  I had initially thought we might need to split some of the topic pages into multiple assessments, but the K-2 pages hang well together.   The one exception to this is the grade 1 page on Waves.  I find it difficult to talk about light as waves without bumping into the fact that light also acts like a particle.  I know if I don't do this, I will have one of the local physicists on me.   Don't laugh, I've had a Nobel Prize winner complain about my treatment of gravity at grade 2.     Despite this, we will use them as is.

A couple of things about the document.  First, the PE  is colorized based on the three dimensions.  I liked how the NGSS webpage highlights the PE by its parts and links them to the boxes.  Below this are the prior knowledge (What they should know) and the terminal knowledge (What they learn next). As generalist, I find many elementary classroom teachers do not see the big picture of science and how it develops.  It also emphasizes how the NGSS is developmental. .  Without a firm foundation in science and engineering, students can not catch up (e.g. science has to be taught as a performance based content.  Reading about science is not enough).

The colored table below that simply breaks out each dimension of the PE.  Note the highlighted word in the DCI box.  I am also keeping spatial connections front and center as we develop the curriculum (See the three part series on why spatial thinking is important).  The writer's job is to think divergently.  Come up with as many enduring understandings and driving questions as possible with the goal of pulling all three parts together.  As they do this, I am hoping their minds are whirling on possible ideas for the scenario.  Cue next template.

GRASPS originated from Understanding by Design as a Mad Libs for developing performance based assessments.   Similarly,  the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) has a variant called the Tubric.  Whichever one you use, the premise is to establish the parameters of the performance.

You will note that my workflow is non-linear.  It was not always so.  I initially had a checklist of steps, but each time I read it found myself rearranging steps.  It then dawned on me that my source of consternation came from that fact that these early steps would not be linear.  The premise for the scenario will evolve while the PEs are unpacked.  Likewise the driving questions would need to focus on applying knowledge in order to create a solution to unit the problem.

I will let you know in a week how this step goes, before going to much further down the workflow. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Once Upon A Time and Why It Matters Today

Once upon at time, I was told to share my story and how it influenced my path in life.  When I was in Kindergarten at Lower Chanceford Elementary School (now demolished), I distinctly remember being asked to come into a small room with a strange little man and asked a lot of questions.  I even remember being asked when Columbus discovered America.  Afterwards, I would watch everyday as a small group of students would move to the back of the room, behind a chalkboard.  Something mysterious and magical happened back there that I was never part of.  Fast forward to my second year in college as an education major.  I was taking the obligatory educational psychology class when the inevitable discussion about IQ testing came up.  It sparked a memory.  I called my mother that night and asked how I did on what I deduced was an IQ test back in Kindergarten.  Her response was something to the extent that I had missed the "cut score" by two points and that I had an learning disability called auditory processing disorder.  In short, it means that unlike most men, I have non-selective hearing.  This was a lot of fun in the era of open classrooms.  As I would later learn in my special education courses, I am what is referred to as Twice Exceptional or GT/LD.  Yes, you can be "gifted" and "learning disabled".  

Once upon a time, this used to be called gifted, but the label was the primary focus rather than the service provided.  This takes us back to my story.  I put "gifted" and "learning disabled" in quotes because the terms are so nebulous.   For some reason we recognize that there are a variety of learning disabilities but less likely to recognize different types of giftedness.  We tend to lump gifted kids into broad categories with narrow expectations.   The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) defines gifted children as  "gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains."  I don't see this as a functional definition.  That is to say, I don't know how to meet the needs of those students or even if the curriculum is not meeting their needs.  The assumption is that we are not meeting their needs.  

So, what does this have to do with transitioning to the NGSS.  Well, it has more to do with the curriculum philosophy we are using to develop the new science curriculum.  As we work towards a personalized learning environment, the selection of student learning objects becomes very important.  Perhaps more importantly, will be what we decide to do for students who already demonstrate mastery of content.  Rather than coming up with elaborations after the fact, why not build them up front.  The great challenge we as educators face is seeing improvements in ALL students.  This includes those that have demonstrated competence in an area of study.

Historically, we spent vast quantities of time trying to bring the bottom up and leaving the top to fend for themselves.  However, in this age of "Student Learning Outcomes" where all students must show growth, what do you do for the students already performing at high levels of expectation.  For example, the student that comes into your class already able to demonstrate their knowledge of physics by building a paper rocket that can reach an expected height and discuss how forces influence the flight of the rocket.   If that student builds the same rocket at the end of the unit and shows no improvement, have we not failed that student?    It is not that we have to stop worrying about students with special needs, but we have developed great skills in having these students show growth.  Indeed, I believe Title I schools will get the recognition they finally deserve for the work they have been doing.  The shock will be when traditionally high achieving  skills do not show gains.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

So why change to the NGSS?

Long time no blog.  Sorry for the absence.  I've been a little busy with our STEM Fair.  When 2000 people show up to your house, it takes some time to prepare.  I will discuss the STEM Fair in a later posts and what its future MAY holds for us.   The reason I am not talking about it now is, well.  I have to get permission to do what I want to do first.  I'm sure many of you have been following the discussion on the NSTA listserv to teach the "SCIENTIFIC METHOD" or not.  Clearly the NGSS makes it clear that separating practice from content is not the way to go, but then what?  Stay tuned.  

My timidity in discussing it as this point is due to the fact that I have to make sure the principals (all 110) are on board before making the change.  STEM Fair is not small undertaking.  For those of you that have suffered through the science fair process as a teacher and/or parent can appreciate the consternation it can frequently wreak.  So, any change has to be proceeded with a input from all stakeholders.  A lesson I learned the hard way many moons ago.   

The webinar I am doing is to present the transition plan; most of which you have seen here.  It is also to seek input from principals for those things I have not considered.  Undoubtedly, time will come up.  It is as inevitable as death and taxes.  So here is my response at this point.  Expecting to teach science for thirty minutes a day is a waste of time (cue GASP).  If you go back to my blog entry on "Rough Estimates of Unit Length", I have some idea of how long it will take to teach all that is asked in the NGSS.  With these estimates in mind, I went back to our current suggested schedule and did some calculations based on a daily schedule and if the same time was compressed into longer times but less days during the week.  Would I like to have an hour a day?  Yes, but I know the demands of the elementary day do not make it feasible.  Instead of asking for more total time.  I just want the time allotted to be used for efficiently.  

Please do not take these times as suggested instructional blocks, but look at them as another way to think about the daily schedule.   

Please do not take these times as suggested instructional blocks, but look at them as another way to think about the daily schedule. 

With that out of the way,  the next inevitable question is "Why change?"  I won't take credit for this. The idea came up at our latest state meeting.  One of my fellow curriculum supervisors (name omitted to protect the innocent) reminded the assembled that the last standards were written in 1996.  Starting there, she took the principals on a little journey of what has changed since 1996.  I borrowed that idea and created a slide to illustrate some of  the changes.

Just for some context.  Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected to a second term. The other guy was our superintendent (which is only relevant if you are a local).  The gray scale picture is what NASA thought was evidence of life on Mars.  Coincidentally, the movie "Independence Day" where aliens come and try to take over came out.  Dolly the sheep was cloned.  Mad cow disease flared up in the UK.  The iconic Macintosh "blueberries" started appearing in classrooms.  Digital storage capacity swelled with the 100mb Zip Drive.  The cell phone of the age had to be shown.  Not the brick of "Wall Street", but close.  Lastly, gas prices went climbing past one dollar.  In another coincidence, Toyota brought out the first Prius.  So, why change?  The fact of the mater is science and now engineering are dynamic.  If progress continues, expect another set of standards by 2023.   If, I don't post again, you will know that I did not survive the presentation.      

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

An NGSS Symbaloo for Curriculum Development

I have been compiling resources so my team is ready for this summer.  Symbaloo seemed a perfect tool to display the resources for my writers.  The basic anatomy of the webmix is as follows:
  • Turquoise is primarily federal and state resources.  PBS falls into this category.
  • Yellow is more open ended.  Some are private entities that supply content like Nat Geo.
  • Blue is strictly video based.  While most are linked to YouTube, I wanted to point my team in the right direction for efficiency purposes.
  • Orange are focused on PBL ideas.  I've been hitting the Buck Institute site very hard.  Fantastic stuff!  I love the Tubric for developing driving questions.  
As always, if you see something I missed, please pass it on.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

What Is So Spatial About the NGSS? A Curriculum Steeped in Spatial Thinking (Part 3)

In 2006, Learning to Think Spatially was published by the National Research Council.  Among its six recommendations was for the creation of spatial thinking standards based on existing content standards (National Research Council, 2006).  The goal is to allow students to develop spatial thinking in the context of relevant content.  While spatial standards have not been developed, current standards can be mined for spatial opportunities.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer a unique opportunity to develop spatial thinking in the context of a STEM education.

The integration of spatial thinking into science curriculum is a natural fit.   Many learning activities lend themselves to spatial thinking.  The example shown  requires spatial visualization.  In this case, students were asked to construct the blades of a windmill in order to turn the axle and pull up a cup full of washers.  To be successful, students needed to visualize how the air currents would flow across the blades of their windmill.  Aligning the blades so the flat side is facing the air current does not turn axle nor does turning the blades so the edge is facing the current.  Students have to realize that the blades must be an an angle.  Optimizing this angle produces greater rotation strength.

The primary difficulty of integration is not finding activities that require spatial thinking. There are plenty of rich science activities that are dripping with spatial connections.  The problem is determining the developmental appropriateness of these activities that has slowed many efforts at integration.  To overcome this dilemma and start the integration process, a matrix was created (sample at the end of the document).  This matrix listed each of the elementary performance expectations (PE) in grades kindergarten through grade five (ages 5-10 respectively) of the NGSS.  Spatial vocabulary within each PE is highlighted.   Using this as a starting point each PE was classified using the lists of spatial thinking skills below.

Abstract Cognitive Skills
Geospatial Skills
  • mental rotation
  • disembedding
  • visualization
  • perception
  • perspective taking

  • location
  • distance
  • region
  • network
  • overlay
  • scale
  • heterogeneity
  • dependence
  • objects
  • fields

Spatially focused essential question were developed and used as a filter for creating lesson seeds.  Lesson seeds consist of a broad overview of an activity idea and, where appropriate, associated resources.  Using this method, 62% of the PEs had spatial connections. Work will continue to expand on this initial analysis to broaden the scope of spatial connections.  This document will be used as a guideline for curriculum developers as they create a full elementary science curriculum aligned to the NGSS.

If you are interested in receiving the fall "Next Generation Science Standards Spatial Integration Matrix" please contact me and I will be happy to email it to you.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

What Is So Spatial About the NGSS? (Part 2)

During my last post, I laid out my argument for why we should think about the NGSS in spatial terms.  So now the obvious question is "So what?".  Why should we teach our students to think spatially?  Can it even be done?  Aren't these abilities set at birth?  

The ability to conceptualize the world in spatial terms has been strongly linked to success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related careers. A longitudinal study published in 2009 (Wai, 2009) details 50 years of research that solidifies this relationship. It showed that students with high spatial 
ability tended to choose STEM related careers at a very high rate.  As with many intellectual abilities, the perception that spatial ability is a fixed set of mental attributes has been overturned. Several studies have shown that a  student’s spatial ability can be cultivated through practice and meaningful application (Lee, 2009; Lubinski, 2010; Levine, 2005; Sorby, 2006) . However, spatial thinking has been largely ignored by public education with a focus on verbally or lecture based instruction being the norm. When spatial thinking is discussed, it is often maligned as a skill set relegated to trades and industries (i.e. carpentry, plumbing, welding, masonry, automotive repair) and not worthy of intellectual pursuit. However, some of the best minds of our time can trace their successes to the application spatial thinking. Albert Einstein once said that “The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanisms of thought” and later concluding that his thoughts “are more or less clear images.” Nikola Tesla, a dynamic inventor who created the basis for alternating current, was rumored to be able to mentally build his inventions and visualize the working parts (Chandrasekhar, 2006). The reality of DNA’s double helix could not have been conceptualized except for the spatial cognition of Watson and Crick. However, as can be deduced from the examples given, there is a perception that ability to conceive of objects and their relationships in space is a white male dominated trait. This then begs the question of whether underrepresented populations (female, African-American, and Hispanic) in the STEM fields possess the capacity for spatial thinking and if so, what hinders its expression?

Several recent studies have concluded that the limiting factor influencing success in STEM programs regardless of sub-group is a lack of access to spatially related activities (Ault, 2010; Dixon 1995; Sorby 2012; Study 2004). Given the opportunity to think spatially, underrepresented populations perform as well as majority populations. It can therefore be speculated that the achievement gap cannot be overcome until the opportunity gap is overcome.

Ault, H., & Samuel, J. (2010). Assessing and Enhancing Visualization Skills of Engineering Studetns in Africa: A Comparative Study. Engineering Design Graphics Journal, 12-20.
Chandrasekhar, R. (2006, August 27). Chandrasekhar. Retrieved May 5, 2011, from Reflections on the Mind of Nikola Tesla:
Dixon, J. K. (1995). Limited English Proficiency and Spatial Visualization in Middle School Students Construction of the Concepts of Reflection and Rotation. The Bilingual Research Journal, 221-247.
Janelle, D. G. and M. F. Goodchild (2011). Concepts, Principles, Tools, and Challenges in Spatially Integrated Social Science. In Nyerges, T.L., H. Couclelis, and R. McMaster (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of GIS & Society. Sage Publications. pp 27-45
Lee, Jongwon; Bednarz, Robert. Effect of GIS Learning on Spatial Thinking Journal of Educational Psychology. v33 n2 p183-198 May 2009
Lubinski, D. (2010). Spatial ability and STEM: A sleeping giant for talent identification and development. Personality and Individual Differences, 344–351.
National Research Council.  Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2006. 1. Print.
Susan C. Levine, Marina Vasilyeva, Stella F. Lourenco, Nora S. Newcombe, and Janellen Huttenlocher.  Socioeconomic Status Modifies the Sex Difference in Spatial Skill Psychological Science November 2005 16: 841-845, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01623.
Sorby, S. Gender Differences in Spatial Reasoning Skills and Their Effects on Success.
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Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N.S. (2012, June 4). The Malleability of Spatial Skills: A Meta-Analysis of Training Studies. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028446

Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial Ability for STEM Domains: Aligning Over 50 Years of Cumulative. Journal of Educational Psychology, 817-835

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What Is So Spatial About the NGSS? (Part 1)

Over the last seventeen years,  I have integrated geospatial technologies into my science instruction.  As a high school environmental science teacher and elementary teacher, I have watched students grasp complicated patterns and complete complex tasks.   When I was presented with the opportunity to write an NGSS based curriculum for elementary, I knew geospatial technologies would be part of it, but I did not know where to put it. I then read the practices in the NGSS:

Developing and using models explicitly demands spatial reasoning to comprehend.  In many cases, the scale of a model (solar system, cell, atom) is manipulated to ease understanding.  We also use models to explain geologic phenomena such as tectonic plate movement.  In this case, the learner has to mentally "see" the movement of the plates.   

The act of mentally visualization is spatial thinking or reasoning in its purest form.  A more thorough definition was developed by Diana Sinton.

An ability to visualize and interpret location, position, distance, direction, relationships, movement, and change over space. 

She just published a wonderful book that offers an easy introduction to the topic called "The People's Guide to Spatial Thinking".  

Friday, April 4, 2014

Coming Out of the Fog: Getting Clarity on NGSS Unit Structure

I have had the opportunity to meet several members of the NGSS writing team at the NSTA conference.   So, you know me, I started asking them with questions.  

  1. How were the topic pages organized (this has preoccupied me for months)?  The most logical response has been that through the process of development, the team joined the PEs that would hang together under a theme.  
  2. Were specific culminating events/performances in  mind when they organized the PEs?  No, they were specifically told not to do that.  The committee did not want to appear to dictate curriculum.
  3. I asked about my proposed structure of using the topic pages as the basis for units.  The major concerns were student endurance and force fitting.  Looking at some of the unit lengths, I can see the endurance issue.  The grade 3 "Forces and Interactions" topic pages is going to be a long unit.   
  4. This particular page  brings me to something that I have been feeling lately as I watch the direction of some of the unit outlines my team is developing.  So, here is the revised plan.  If it fits and is logical, write it as one unit (see "Bee and Engineer").  If it feels forced, make it one storyline but with "sub-units" with specific performance assessments.  
My current curriculum has an example of this idea.  Last year, we re-developed a unit that had some serious implementation issues.  It covered Newton's Laws and for unknown reasons also included light (reflection, refraction).  The masterful writing team created a unit scenario focused on the Orion Deep Space System.  Students built straw rockets to demonstrate their understanding of Newtons Laws.  Part 2 of the unit, challenged students to create a "visual docking system" for the crew module (aka Periscope).   See image below.  The astronaut sits in the position shown but has to see out the window.  Build a device that will allow the astronaut to see out the window in order to dock if the ISS.  

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Coming Live from the NSTA Conference (part 1)

Here is your design idea for the day.  Make a hat that protects you from a specific type of weather.  After it is built, your partner has to guess what weather it is made for based on evidence.  Here is my hat.  Connects to the K. Weather and Climate-  Use tools and materials to design and build a structure that will reduce the warming effect of sunlight on an area.*

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hitting the Air Waves

I had the great fortune to participate in Lab Out Loud, NSTA's podcast for teachers and by teachers.  It was such a hoot talking with Dale and Brian having listened to them for the last couple of years on my commute to work. You can listen to the interview here are at the Lab Out Loud site.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Bee an Engineer Part 2: Develop a simple model that mimics the function of an animal in dispersing seeds or pollinating plants.

It is hard to believe sometimes that I get paid for this job.  This past Friday, I was allowed to jump in and play with the kids at one of our local elementary schools. The second grade students were getting ready to build their first hand pollinator as the culminating event to "Bee an Engineer".    It was such a blast to see the creative sparks flying.  The lesson is as near a perfect match, as I have ever seen, to a "standard" or in this case a performance expectation (See below).


That is all I will say.   Watch the video and enjoy.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

To Boldly Go...

Please excuse the blatant Star Trek reference, but I could not help myself.   I had the opportunity to conduct observations of my STARLAB teachers this week.  STARLAB is our portable planetarium system.  We upgraded our system to the full digital version last year and in reality created our school system's first fully digital classroom.  There is very little that this system cannot do that a conventional "brick and motor" planetarium cannot do.  The one major difference is that ours does not come with the overly comfortable chairs.  We have carpet squares instead.  Not that the kids mind.  From preK-5, I have never observed students in the STARLAB where OOoooo's and Ahhhh's were not common.  It is simply one of the best examples of an immersive environment.  

As I sat and watched the lesson take place, my mind drifted to the NGSS.  What role with the STARLAB have in an NGSS based curriculum?  Traditional planetarium programs are mostly presenter/teacher centered.  The audience typically is a passive participant. Let's start by looking at the grade one "Space Systems" performance expectations.

Students who demonstrate understanding can:
1-ESS1-1.Use observations of the sun, moon, and stars to describe patterns that can be predicted. [Clarification Statement: Examples of patterns could include that the sun and moon appear to rise in one part of the sky, move across the sky, and set; and stars other than our sun are visible at night but not during the day.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment of star patterns is limited to stars being seen at night and not during the day.]
1-ESS1-2.Make observations at different times of year to relate the amount of daylight to the time of year. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on relative comparisons of the amount of daylight in the winter to the amount in the spring or fall.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to relative amounts of daylight, not quantifying the hours or time of daylight.]
How would these expectations be realized in a regular classroom?  On a literal interpretation, the implication is that these two performance expectations would take most of a school year to master.  Some of these patterns occur within one 24 hour cycle and some require an entire year to observe.  Enter the STARLAB.  One of the great benefits of the STARLAB is the ability to control time.  An entire year of patterns can be compressed into minutes or seconds.  Students can watch where the sun rises and sets throughout the year for our latitude (39 degrees North) or the cycle of the moon phases.  This becomes a real exercise in observation for students.  They would be able to watch the motion and make predictions about what the movement means and what implications it has for day length.   This is also a great math connection.  With the digital planetarium, a clock can be virtually mounted to the sky.   I feel very fortunate that our school district has these systems because I'm not sure how we would meet these performance expectations without them. 

We currently have two of these systems.  During the course of a school year, they are able to visit 1/3 of our schools (roughly 34+/-).  That means the STARLAB will visit a school every three years.  So now the conundrum.  If STARLAB is the best way to teach these performance expectations, then how do we insure every student has a chance to participate.  The second set of Space System performance expectations occurs at grade 5:

Students who demonstrate understanding can:
5-PS2-1.Support an argument that the gravitational force exerted by Earth on objects is directed down. [Clarification Statement: “Down” is a local description of the direction that points toward the center of the spherical Earth.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include mathematical representation of gravitational force.]
5-ESS1-1.Support an argument that differences in the apparent brightness of the sun compared to other stars is due to their relative distances from the Earth. [Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to relative distances, not sizes, of stars. Assessment does not include other factors that affect apparent brightness (such as stellar masses, age, stage).]
5-ESS1-2.Represent data in graphical displays to reveal patterns of daily changes in length and direction of shadows, day and night, and the seasonal appearance of some stars in the night sky. [Clarification Statement: Examples of patterns could include the position and motion of Earth with respect to the sun and selected stars that are visible only in particular months.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include causes of seasons.]
Given the book ends of grade 1 and 5, our plan is teach have these units when the STARLAB is scheduled to come to a school.  Everyone in grades K-2 will teach the grade one unit.  Everyone in 3-5 will teach the grade 5 unit.  Obviously, there will need to be some significant modifications of language to meet the expectations for each grade level, but I am confident it can be done.  

My last dilemma is what Starfleet designation is most appropriate for STARLAB.  I am planning to paint the call letters on the side.  What do you think?  NCC-?????


Monday, March 17, 2014

Rough Estimates of Unit Lengths

Based on my last post, I figured out that I could estimate the length of each unit based on some assumptions:

  • Unit opens with one day for preview/preassessment
  • The second lesson requires students to develop a prototype/solution and reflect on preassessment data
  • Each performance assessment needs at least three lessons in order for students to demonstrate mastery
    • One lesson to understand the practice by having students apply it to prior knowledge
    • One lesson to understand the DCI (content)
    • One lesson to combine them together
  • A lesson where students revise their prototype/solution as a culminating event

Using this logic, just for the purposes of estimating unit lengths, I can quickly deduce the range of teaching time based on a 30-60 minute per day structure.