May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

A Teacher’s Journey: NGSS Is NOT an Add On

Posted: Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

by Peter A’Hearn

Students looking at a beaker containing 55.85g of iron-


“That is one atom of iron.”

Huh… Umm…Sinking feeling… I hope nobody who knows anything about science walks into my room right now.

My students were looking at a mole of iron (602,200,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms more or less) and concluding that they were probably looking at one atom of iron. And this was after two weeks of learning about the periodic table and structure of the atom. My formal observation lesson that year had been about how to figure out the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in an atom based on the periodic table. My principal gave me all “3s” and told me it was one of the best lessons he had observed that year. In the post-conference I asked about something that was starting to bother me about all of my teaching, “Why won’t they remember any of it in a month? Why doesn’t it stick?” And now, a few weeks later my students were giving me clear evidence that they didn’t have the slightest idea what an atom was.



What was wrong? I was giving clear (to me) lectures, following up with carefully selected readings, giving my students lots of practice problems, and following the logical order of topics in the textbook. My labs were very well planned with procedures thought out step by step to make sure students got the “right” result. I was teaching the way I had been taught, and everyone told me I was a good teacher. Maybe the students were lazy, not paying attention, or unmotivated. Maybe science was something that only some students were capable of learning.

I started to make changes in my teaching. If I did an activity with discussion before the reading, the reading seemed to make more sense. My lectures got shorter and shorter until they mostly disappeared. They just didn’t seem to lead to much learning. I gave more open ended questions on tests and was often disappointed with how little my students could explain. I didn’t have a plan or a strong idea of what I was trying to do, I was just doing what seemed to work better.
When I first attended a K-12 Alliance institute (a statewide science professional development organization), it was confusing. People were discussing and working hard on things like inquiry, 5E lesson planning, conceptual coherence, using student work to guide instruction. It slowly dawned on me that there was a community of practice and a research base that already knew a great deal about what I had been struggling with. They knew that you can’t put ideas into people’s heads. People only learn when they struggle with ideas and build their own understanding. Prior knowledge is huge. Facts only make sense if organized in a conceptual framework. People need opportunities to reflect on their learning.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Carl Wieman took a similar journey in his teaching. His discussion of how his frustrations teaching physics at Stanford led to his research on teaching and learning can be found in the following article:

You might have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned NGSS in this NGSS blog. So what is the connection?

I often hear responses to NGSS along the lines of “We already do that.” Another response when the subject of NGSS expectations like engineering and modeling come up is. “We just don’t have the time for that.” These two responses are related in that they assume that most current science teaching is fundamentally sound and that NGSS must therefore be about small adjustments, calling things by different names, and some add ons.

But NGSS is NOT an add on. NGSS is NOT asking us to do everything we do now and then add NGSS on top of that. It is based on a strong body of research that shows that ways we have been teaching science don’t lead to strong understandings of science for most learners. NGSS is asking us to ask serious questions about what we teach and how. In Dr. Weiman’s article he notes that teachers might need a strong stomach to look deeply at learning. NGSS demands strong stomachs.

We know (from the research) that conceptual change is difficult and takes time. Teachers are not just going to read NGSS and change their practice overnight. They will be skeptical and demand evidence.

But I think that science teachers are better prepared than most for reflecting on and changing ideas about their discipline. After all, the history of science is all about overcoming deeply held conceptions: Earth can’t possibly move, mountains obviously last forever, there is a little person inside a sperm, living things are clearly made of something different than ordinary matter. The history of science is a history of letting go of what seemed like the most sure things.

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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.

2 Responses

  1. Most insightful Mr. A’Hearn, as always. Your thoughts gave me Cutis anserina!

  2. Hi Nina- thanks for making me look up Cutis anserina!

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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.