January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Engineering Brings It All Together

Posted: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

by Peter A’Hearn

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I am really enjoying the creativity that NGSS is awakening in teachers. Those who want to create are taking the standards (and the freedom that comes from the lack of a test) and really exploring what engages their students. I found though, that even when trying our best to match up to the expectations of NGSS, there is a feeling that we missed something. Did we remember the crosscutting concepts? Did the students engage in the practices at the level that NGSS expects? Did we get to the engineering? How about the Nature of Science? Was the content deep enough to really teach the DCI to the point where it could be applied to a new situation? Was it engaging? About a real world phenomenon or problem?

Sometimes when planning for NGSS I feel like a juggler trying to keep too many balls (chainsaws?) is the air at once. But I am increasingly finding that the engineering, rather than feeling like an add-on, can be the piece that helps bring it all together. Here are some examples:

6th grade students try to design a model of Mars habitat that efficiently uses the Sun’s energy to melt ice and keep warm. They are working on understanding heat transfer, the

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crosscutting concept of matter and energy, constructing models, analyzing data, and designing solutions. As a class they learn which solutions work best and revise their models based on evidence. This learning can then be extended into the weather and climate unit. (The idea from this project came from the awesome middle school content team at the NGSS Early Implementer Summer Institute).
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High school biology students work on designing model membranes for kidney dialysis. This uses the old zip top bag iodine and cornstarch semi-permeable membrane demo, but extends this to allow students to explore materials, concentrations, and structures. They learn that there are common structures of membranes that allow for efficient exchange at all levels of biological organization: thin, high concentration gradient, and high surface area. The students are working on real world phenomena, wrestling to understand the relationship between structure and function and deeply engaged in the practices.

Similarly 8th grade students design hot air balloons to understand how thermal energy affects particle motion and second graders design hand pollinators as they study ecological relationships.

The next time you start to plan an NGSS unit, instead of looking at the engineering as “one more thing to fit in,” ask: “is engineering the thing that can drive this unit?”

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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. Great post highlighting reflection around 3D learning! I love the lens the post provides into your thinking about engineering and 3D learning. I appreciate the questions in the post which encourage my own reflection. Thank you for helping us grow in our NGSS thinking!

  2. I am very inspired by the cross-cutting concepts, science and engineering practices, and the common core claim/evidence focus. We’ve done much over the past 2 years to weave these into our current curriculum: data analysis and presentation using Google spreadsheets, deeper understanding of chemistry and physics concepts through PhET models, a summative catapult project with prototype and final designs, and close reading/presentations on Science in the News as some examples.

    As a middle school science teacher I am very concerned that we will spend little time on these concepts and practices once the curriculum is reorganized. Most middle school science teachers will now teach totally NEW and UNRELATED topics of science (about 40-50 percent of our curriculum). We currently teach an integrated curriculum of RELATED science, but the new model will purposefully split up topics in biology and earth science over 3 years throwing together unrelated science topics each school year.

    Aside from the fact that asking 11-14 years olds to remember content over 3 years is untried and untested, it also asks teachers to become experts in areas of science we did not study in college. So unfortunately a lot of our teaching energy will be focused on becoming proficient in these new subjects. For example, I have a degree in chemistry (4 years of physics included) and currently teach chemistry, physics, and astronomy (I’m also an amateur astronomer). When the curriculum change occurs I will teach expanded physics (add in light, waves, electricity, and magnetism), astronomy and evolution including the geologic record. So while I struggle to come up to speed on evolution/geologic record, my 7th grade counterparts (mostly biology majors), will be struggling to come up to speed on chemistry. Makes sense right?

    And there is one glaring error in this article – STAR testing continues for 5th, 8th, and 10th grade science students and teachers. We aren’t “free” from testing – last year, this year, or the foreseeable future. As a coach for science teachers in his school district I would expect Mr. A’Hearn to be more knowledgable about the challenges teachers face in the classroom.

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