September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Engineering Made Easy: Understanding the Role of Engineering in NGSS

Posted: Monday, March 14th, 2016

by Cynthia Berger

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) put unprecedented emphasis on engineering as part of K-12 STEM instruction. In fact, the standards recommend that engineering be raised “to the same level as scientific inquiry when teaching science disciplines.”

But your school days are already crowded. Adding engineering to the mix can sound daunting—especially if you don’t have much experience with science or engineering.

Each year, we meet hundreds of elementary teachers that attend our professional development workshops who are new to engineering. We always ask for feedback, and through that process, we’ve identified three key understandings that help teachers feel more prepared to address the new standards.

These understandings may seem simple—but they’re not. And teachers tell us they’re hugely important to master as you prepare to integrate engineering with the other subjects you teach.



Engineers Solve Problems

First of all, it’s very common to have misperceptions about what, exactly, the term “engineering” means. Many people—not just teachers—think of engineers in fairly narrow terms: engineers build large structures, such as bridges or skyscrapers, they work on computers, or their work involves other devices that require electricity.

Engineers may indeed do all of these things, but these examples are just a small part of a much bigger picture. Here is a more appropriate definition of engineering: It is a systematic approach to solving problems—all kinds of problems—in ways that make peoples’ lives easier and better.

Technology Is What Humans Make or Do to Solve Problems

Second, the term “technology” tends to be just as misunderstood as “engineering.” In particular, many people assume a technology is “something powered by electricity.”

We’ve developed some exercises that help participants broaden their definition of technology to include “anything that humans make to solve a problem.” Sure, computers and cellphones are highly engineered technologies—but so are devices that don’t plug in, like bicycles and books, and even devices that have no moving parts at all—like soup spoons and shoehorns.

Embracing this understanding of what a technology really is can bring about a revolutionary shift in thinking. You see the world around you in a different way, and you come to understand how much of the human experience involves interacting with and using technologies.

Systematic Research and Testing Are an Important Part of Engineering

Even teachers who have strong backgrounds in science may find the NGSS quite complex and challenging to understand. The final key to making connections between the three dimensions of NGSS (science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts) is understanding that engineers don’t just think up solutions to problems; they also test their solutions against a standard set of criteria.

Under NGSS this core understanding of engineering stays front and center as students move from kindergarten and elementary school to middle and high school; the specific classroom exercises just become more sophisticated. For example, under the NGSS performance expectations, very young children should be able to recognize what kinds of problems can be solved by engineering; older children should be able to conduct background research on the problem, develop different solutions to a problem, and test these solutions to see which one works better.

Teachers often tell us that they come to our workshops feeling literally terrified at the notion of teaching engineering. With these understandings in mind, it’s exciting to see these same teachers start to self-identify as problem-solving engineers…and to feel confident that they can bring engineering to their classrooms.

Cynthia Berger is manager for communications at Engineering is Elementary, a project of the Museum of Science, Boston.

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:

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. 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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.