September 2016 – Vol. 29 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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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.