September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

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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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at 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.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. 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.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” 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.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. 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.