May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Earth Science in Your Backyard

Posted: Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

by Liz Colvard

For any student of science, one of the most difficult tasks is making the leap from the abstract to reality. Why should I care about learning this? How does it impact me? The beauty of living in California is that we’re surrounded by earth science in action every day, and we’re constantly faced with the importance of understanding the world immediately around us. Making the leap isn’t all that difficult. As the Nation’s largest earth science agency, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is a rich source of materials for both learning and teaching about topics like plate tectonics, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and landslides. Unlike federal agencies like NASA and NOAA, the USGS has never had an Education Program, so all of our education products are written by individual scientists who simply have a passion for education. That means that although USGS education resources are somewhat haphazard, they’re all backed by solid science. The USGS Education website compiles all the best USGS websites for use in the classroom. Organized by grade level and topic, it is designed for teachers.



California is no stranger to volcanic unrest. Prior to the 1980 activity at Mount St. Helens, the 1914-1917 eruptions at northern California’s Lassen Peak were the most recent eruptions in the Cascade Range (did you know that seven volcanoes in the Cascade Range have erupted since 1776?). The separate chain of Mono-Inyo Craters (east of Yosemite) last erupted just 300 years ago at Paoha Island in Mono Lake. And fairly recent unrest at Mammoth Mountain is thought to be related to an intrusion of magma deep below the volcano in 1989. The USGS has two excellent volcano teaching guides for locations outside California, but their contents can easily be applied to any volcano. Explore the many classroom activities in Alaska Volcanoes Guidebook for Teachers, like using bottles of soda to understand the role of dissolved gases in volcanic eruptions, or using breadcrumbs and water to examine the impacts of volcanic aerosols in the atmosphere. Living with a Volcano in your Backyard has more than 30 activities with a focus on the Cascade Range. Or demonstrate the forces that build a caldera (like Long Valley caldera) using flour and a bicycle pump.

There aren’t many places in the world where you can walk from one tectonic plate to another, but California’s 800-mile-long San Andreas Fault Zone offers the opportunity to do so. The fault zone marks the region where the North American plate and the Pacific plate are sliding past each other in a (mostly) horizontal motion. And right offshore from Cape Mendocino, those plates intersect with a third plate – the small Gorda plate – at the Mendocino Triple Point. Tectonic forces created by all three plates are the source of tens of thousands of earthquakes in California every year, many of which are large enough to be felt. Make sure your classroom participates in the annual Great California Shake Out, which offers classroom activities for learning about and preparing for earthquakes. Remind students of the power of a large earthquake by showing them amazing USGS ground shaking animations of actual and hypothetical earthquakes. The award-winning Shockwaves video has dramatic historical footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and shows what we’re learning about California earthquakes using modern technology.

When a significant earthquake does occur, have your students contribute to our USGS database by filling out a Did You Feel It? questionnaire, then check out the Earthquake Summary Poster for that event to get more information. The posters are a quick and easy way (with plenty of diagrams) to learn about an earthquake’s epicenter, the plate tectonic environment, the earthquake history of the area, and other information that helps you and your students put the earthquake in context.

Landslides occur in every state of the U.S., but California’s geography and climate make it an ideal setting for landslides. Learn more about the destructive nature of landslides and what causes them in the video Riding the Storm, about a 1982 storm that triggered over 18,000 landslides in the Bay Area. Another video, Debris Flow Dynamics, might be thirty years old, but it’s still the most popular film at the USGS Training Center. The USGS Landslide Handbook offers many illustrations and descriptions of different kinds of landslides.

If you just need help teaching basic geologic concepts, try using your own schoolyard and activities from Schoolyard Geology. That website was created by a USGS scientist who taught geology classes at San Quentin State Prison and needed a way to take his students on a virtual field trip. It uses simple features found on the street or in the playground to demonstrate geologic principles, and includes several classroom activities, like a “GeoSleuth” murder mystery. Another website, The Life Cycle of a Mineral Deposit is a teaching guide with ten activity-based learning exercises (many using foods like cookies and cupcakes) that educate students on basic geologic concepts, with an emphasis on minerals in our everyday lives. Make your own toothpaste using antacid tablets and baking soda.

Keep in mind that the USGS is one of the most accessible federal agencies. You and your students can always submit questions about our products and sciences by using the Web form, Web chat, and phone numbers listed on the Contact USGS website.

Liz Colvard is with USGS Science Information Services

Written by Guest Contributor

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:

Leave a Reply


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…

Powered By DT Author Box

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…

Powered By DT Author Box

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.