Sunday, March 29, 2015


So, I am working on the Structures and Properties of Matter storyline.  Lots of possibilities here but I think I will settle on the classics.  Nothing engages kids more than the old baking soda and vinegar rocket.  It really captures all of the performance expectations nicely.  However, the problem I have with them is the whole "turn over the rocket and run" solution to safety.

So how do we make the launch more predictable and safe for everyone?  That became my obsession this weekend.  After many iterations, I have a usable solution.  It requires some refinement but the core idea is pretty solid.  To finish it off, I want to add a pressure gauge and a catch to hold the rocket on until mission command is ready to launch.  It took six modifications and a 3D printer, but I think that will work as well.  Here is the "Mk 1" launcher.   

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How did we choose what to teach in the NGSS?

Greetings everyone!  Just getting back from NSTA and am really charged up (as is the intention of good conferences).  It is really gratifying to talk with so many enthusiastic teachers and administrators with a passion for teaching elementary students about the wonders of the universe.  I still find it a hoot when I get approached by people excited about reading my blog.  It tells me there is a real need to talk about this time of change we are going through, but please don't take my word for it...

 Honestly, the intent of this blog from the beginning has been to put out the path that I am taking not as thee  path, but as a set of ideas to get this process moving.  I want to be questioned and challenged about my ideas.  Indeed, challenge is the path to improvement.  In the spirit of that idea, I have been asked the question in my title several times.  So here is my response.  

I use the topic based arrangement of the NGSS as is.  Each page of performance expectations is the basis for a unit.  My assumption has been that there was some reason the PE's to be bundled this way; although after questioning the writers for confirmation of this the best I got was "these are the ones that seemed to fit together coherently."  In a couple of units, we have to get very creative.  

The grade 3 page on Forces and Motion for example.  It combines classic Newtonian concepts with electromagnetic forces. We can make it work, but it feels very odd.  The Safe Racer program is being upgraded.  It will not only challenge students to keep an egg safe in their cars, but also require them to explain how the magnetic release system we will be adding works.  Along with measuring how far the car goes, we can measure how fast the cars are going by accurately measuring the time it takes the car to reach the end of the ramp.  

In another example, the unit is split into two parts under a coherent storyline.  The Kindergarten Weather & Climate performance expectations have two distinct themes; protecting yourself from the sun and predicting the weather.  Our storyline for this unit asks students to build a structure to protect everyone from the sun while on the playground.  Part 2 asks the students to evaluate weather data in order to determine if they should tell the principal to take down the structure so it is not damaged by severe weather.  We actually have students evaluate the radar image.  It is easier than you think.  Break it down into two parts.  What colors symbolize severe weather and what direction is it moving?

So why not cherry pick the NGSS like so many publishers are doing.  For one, the NGSS is built on learning progressions.   This focus on progressions makes science cumulative.  When I talk to principals and other officials, I tell them to think about science like math now.  Imagine what would happen if schools stopped teaching math from K-5.  There is no way middle schools would ever compensate for that lost foundational knowledge.  That is science in an NGSS world.
My second concern in a buffet approach to the NGSS is orphaning a performance expectation.  I did not want to get to the end of curriculum writing and realize we missed one.  The one exception to this was in grade 5.  I shifted the PE on people improving the environment (5-ESS3-1) from the Earth Systems page to the Movement of Energy and Matter page.  That was the topic of my last blog entry.  

Lastly, I have ignored the engineering PE's as a separate entity.  It felt too much like the days when we "wove in" the old skills and processes.   Each unit, so far, has students working collaboratively to build a physical object.  That may be a model (beach erosion prevention), prototype (biomimicry solution), or fully functioning object (hand pollinator for example).  In this way, students are learning to act as engineers within context.  

As always, context and relevance are of extreme importance to me.  We are a practical species.  We tend to care about things when they are important to us.  I attended a pre-conference session by Megan Bang.   One of the great points she brought up is that we have to stop expecting our students to ask questions and respond based on our cultural norms.  What does that mean in this context?  Curriculum developers may find the phenomena of science exciting but until students see themselves connected to it, they will continue to ignore it.  As you read through your curriculum ask yourself these two questions from the perspective of your students.

Why am I learning this?
What will it help me to do?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Two Birds with One Curriculum

One of the myriad of challenges faced by curriculum developers today is finding out how many initiatives can be jammed into one curriculum guide.  Just in terms of standards, there are six sets which must be addressed to some extent in my curriculum.

What I will attempt to do is illustrate on possible model to satisfy many of these standards in one unit.   

For many years, students across the district have enjoyed a one day outdoor education experience as part of their grade five curriculum.  The focus is on energy transfer within different habitats.
Fortunately, the NGSS did not shift this content from grade five.  The Matter and Energy in Organisms and Ecosystems topic page still requires students to develop the quintessential food web model.  At the same time, elementary students across the state must have a "Meaningful Watershed Experience" (MWEE).

A MWEE is most readily defined by a primary research process (I smell a Common Core connection!) developed in the early 1980's by Harold Hungerford and Trudi Volk at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale.  The name of the process is Investigating  and Evaluating Environmental Issues and Actions (IEEIA).  Not to be confused with E-I-E-I-O.  The research process was co-opted by Maryland and is now standard 1 of the Environmental Literacy Standards.  The process looks like this:
  • Identify an environmental issue. 
  • Develop and write research questions related to an environmental issue. 
  • Given a specific issue, communicate the issue, the stakeholders involved and the stakeholders’ beliefs and values. 
  • Design and conduct the research. 
  • Use data and references to interpret findings to form conclusions. 
  • Use recommendation(s) to develop and implement an environmental action plan.
  • Communicate, evaluate and justify personal views on environmental issue and alternate ways to address them. 
  • Analyze the effectiveness of the action plan in terms of achieving the desired outcomes.  
With this process in mind, how do we have students focus on matter and energy in ecosystems?  To answer that, let's start with the issue.  Issues are usually stated in a simple question.  For this unit, we are looking at the following:

Can people manage the ecosystem within Baltimore County?

From here students go into the field and conduct a modified "BioBlitz". They leave the field study with a large list of living things that undoubtedly interact.  The students must develop a food web of these organisms.   Now, here is the secret.  The areas students  survey are overpopulated with deer.  This is no surprise as most of the metropolitan area is overrun.  The impact these large herbivores have on the environment cannot be overstated.  The question is what to do about it.  This is one of those situations which has no one right answer and one that will not make everyone happy. (Ambiguity is part of the P21 Standards).  Here is a great video to introduce the complexity of the issue.

There was a physicists several years ago that stated something to the extent that we have to stop asking students questions that had answers.  I think this might have been in reference to theoretical physics but the idea stuck with me.    We have a lot of big problems in the world that cannot be simply bubbled in on the test.  Giving students the opportunity to grapple with complex issues in a safe environment is something we should do in schools.  

If you are interested in seeing what students can generate when given a complex topic, take a look at my repository of student generated projects.