September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

eXtreme GreenLab

Posted: Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

by Bethany Dixon

“Put your hand into the tank, and they’ll eat off the dead skin.” NASA senior research scientist Dr. Bilal Bomani demonstrates and a swarm of mollies nibble his fingers.  Teachers look warily at the rows of massive saltwater tanks. Following Dr. Bomani’s example, we plunge our hands in. It tickles. Since its mission is to develop in-house capabilities to study biofuels as a renewable, alternative energy source for aviation fuel, the eXtreme GreenLab at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is an unlikely place for hand treatments.  In May, the NASA Explorer Schools program selected 50 teachers out of the 2,800 registered NASA Explorer teachers for special recognition and the “Research Experience of a Lifetime:” an all-expenses-paid trip to work with NASA investigators in the field at one of four NASA sites (and get a free exfoliating hand treatment).  I was one of the twelve teachers who worked in the GreenLabthis summer, and here is how you can begin to implement “eXtreme Green” practices in your classroom this fall.

eXtreme Green Advisory Board Teachers (Bethany is kneeling in the front)

With apologies to Kermit, it really isn’t easy being green. Environmental marketing has made it difficult for consumers to know whether “green” companies are actually being good stewards or simply moving the problem from one sector to another. For example, using ethanol to reduce dependence on fossil fuels creates competition between farmland used for fuel and farmland used for growing food crops. This makes us choose between powering our technology or our bodies, and creates an unsustainable solution. However, understanding and protecting our home planet is a core part of the NASA mission, and Dr. Bomani’s team is dedicated to finding new ideas through research and development. Sustainable environmental practices are a key component of the work. For example, their research doesn’t use freshwater because it competes with human consumption, doesn’t compete against traditional food crops (corn, soybeans, sugarcane, etc.), and doesn’t use arable land because it competes with food crops.

In short, they have to use rocky, salty soil, non-potable, brackish water, and attempt to grow enough plants to process into fuel-quality oil. Finding plants that can survive under these harsh conditions to the point of producing enough biomass for fuel is hard enough, but NASA is attempting to use native plants in order to reduce the ecological impact. Dr. Bomani is working with halophytes (salt-loving plants) and algae with the goal of building systems that can be scaled-up for production, or scaled-down for trials or even student research in the classroom. With increased production, biofuels can be used in aviation and even space exploration.  But in the classroom, my students will be building a mini-version of Dr. Bomani’s lab to learn introductory biology and for their own inquiries based around the same question used in the GreenLab: which local plants produce the most biomass and can be grown in the most sustainable manner?

Dr. Bomani

I plan to use the lab with my high school biology students, beginning with formative assessments about the characteristics of life, (modifying the cucumber seed probe from Page Keeley’s book, for example), and watching Dr. Bomani’s TED Talk, “Plant fuels that could power a jet.” The lab setup is simple and inexpensive: one 35-gallon aquarium, a 75-gallon pump, marine sand, plants, plastic screening, PVC pipe, and freshwater mollies. Students will build a platform from PVC with the plastic screening holding the sand like a shelf in the tank. Teacher-drilled holes allow water to flow through the entire system.  Homeostasis and feedback loops are easily integrated into the next part of the investigation: slowly acclimating freshwater mollies to a marine system. Marine conditions provide a model for using salty coastal scrublands as biofuel farms. Students will germinate halophyte seeds donated from Dr. Bomani’s lab in the salty-sand top of the tank, while mollies underneath will provide nutrients to the plants. Students will be challenged to increase the amount of biomass produced in the tank and to come up with their own hypothesis about a local plant that could be a sustainable fuel crop.

By challenging students to follow the eXtreme Green example we point them toward more sustainable thinking. In your next inquiry lab, think about adding an eXtreme Green variable like non-potable water or non-arable soil. As you integrate the new engineering standards, consider the parameters of the GreenLab and think about the aspects of environmental engineering that could be applied. Which of your favorite activities can you make eXtreme Green so that they’re focused on long-term sustainability? This fall, I hope that through my work in the GreenLab I can inspire my students to put their “hands in” to research—not in the fish tank, but in a way that will positively impact their future, and maybe the future for everyone.


NASA Explorer Schools:

Dr. Bomani TED Talk:

Page Keeley Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning:

NASA GreenLab:

Bethany Dixon is a science teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy and is a member of CSTA.

Written by Bethany Dixon

Bethany Dixon is a science teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy, is a CSTA Publications Committee Member, and is a member of CSTA.

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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.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.