May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

A Primary Engineering Unit Template

Posted: Friday, December 11th, 2015

by George Feldman and Joey Noelle Lehnhard

For the past few years, as a teacher in a bilingual first grade classroom in rural central California, I’ve been having my students conduct some simple engineering design challenges. The engineering activities are a good way to address the demands of state testing and the intensive English Language Arts and Math curriculum, because they can provide an authentic context for integrating different subjects. I hope this week-long lesson template might inspire you to try some engineering activities with your students.

Day 1 (40 minutes):

Offer up a problem for the students to solve based in something in which they have personal experience. I find the students are most motivated if the problem is connected to other things we’ve been learning, their local environment, or real issues in their community. Often, I begin by using a picture book to set the stage and then engage my students in a science talk to discuss the problem.

Day 2 (40 minutes):

Review the problem they have to solve and share the available materials. I do materials management in one of two ways, depending on the project.

cottonOption A: Give them a set amount and type of materials (e.g.4 cotton balls, 3 toothpicks, 1 meter of masking tape). This is a great option for the beginning of the year. Students can focus only on how they will use the materials instead of what materials to use.

Option B: Show them the contents of my “junk box.” Inside might be a wide variety of supplies including: tape, cups, water bottles, glue, yarn, fabric, foam, tubes, balloons, Popsicle sticks, and whatever else I might have around. This option is a bit more authentic to real engineering and requires more creativity on the part of the students.

After viewing the available materials, I have them write out a plan. Often, because I have so many English Language Learners, this plan is in a combination of English and Spanish.






Day 3 (40 minutes):

This is the main build day. Some students will have finished their plan on Day 2. As soon as their plan is complete, I give them the materials they’ve asked for. I do not require that their plan be in perfect English, only that they’ve made clear to me that they’ve thought through their idea and that all the needed materials are listed. Inevitably, they’ll have forgotten something and I’ll send them back to add on to their plan by writing, “I also need _______.”

With about 15 minutes left, I allow them to start testing and refining their designs. As students test, they observe each other’s designs and talk to their classmates. This leads to natural collaboration, and a chance to fix their mistakes or enhance their designs.

Day 4 (90 minutes):

Students continue to refine their design for another 15 minutes. Then, I lead a science talk where students share their products and tell each other what happened, why it happened, and what they want to do differently. This is also a chance for them to learn from each other’s solutions. After the science talk, I give them more time to refine their designs. Finally, we test each one together as a class. Afterwards, I have the students write about the experience and help them to connect it back to the content I’m trying to teach.






As the year goes on, students begin to internalize this process of coming up with solutions, determining the materials required, designing, constructing, testing, and refining designs. This is similar to the K-2 Engineering design process (at right) as explained in the Next Generation Science Standards Appendix I*. Including collaboration, science talks and literacy tasks helps students make deeper connections and understand the content.

Primary_Engineering_CycleI’ve tried a variety of different engineering design challenges with my first graders. Here are a few:

  1. A large aquarium has kelp that needs constant waves. Make a wave machine for the aquarium.
  2. A civil engineer is trying to slow down the flow of water without disrupting the wetlands habitat. Make a channel that makes water flow slowly.
  3. Based on your knowledge of aquatic birds, make a foot that can be used to move through water.

* NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

George Feldman is a first grade classroom teacher at Ohlone Elementary in Watsonville and a teacher trainer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He also writes trilingual children’s books. Joey Noelle Lehnhard is a Senior Education Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and CSTA member.

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

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. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.