May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Is the NGSS Going to Ruin High School Chemistry?

Posted: Monday, October 19th, 2015

By Pete A’Hearn and Wanda Battaglia

Pete: Most science teachers I work with are excited about the shift to NGSS and exploring new possibilities for student learning. But, I have heard some grumbling from high school chemistry teachers that NGSS is gutting chemistry. “Why there are no standards for subjects like the Gas Laws, acids and bases, naming of compounds, and solutions that are an important part of chemistry?”

I know that you are a high school chemistry teacher who is working hard on NGSS. How would you respond to these teachers?

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Wanda: NGSS is asking for a change in the thinking…the NGSS Performance Expectations don’t describe “subjects”, but long-term transfer skills. NGSS is “science for all students”. It represents the basic framework for teachers to design their curriculum. Teachers can add as much as content as they want–but it’s important to change the process by which the students are learning it.

Even though certain content is not explicitly mentioned, that does not mean that it can’t be taught. Gas laws, for example, could be covered within HS-PS1-3, HS-PS1-5, HS-PS1-6, or HS-PS2-6…basically anywhere that molecular interactions would be discussed. Performance expectations can be bundled– teachers must not think in terms of “those chapters from the book” anymore, but apply more of their own creativity and integrate content to explore phenomena.

An example is a unit I’ve taught on Atomic Structure that bundles Chemistry standards on the structure of the atom, the physics of waves, and their uses in astronomy and medical technology. Resources for the unit can be found at:

Many teachers I know are still covering their “old & comprehensive” content in Honors Chemistry, but redesigning their classes to be more investigative and/or problem-based. In “regular” Chemistry, the focus is more on the practices and crosscutting concepts.

Pete: Yes, it’s important to remember that NGSS is the floor, not the ceiling. It’s focused on the learnings that students will need to solve problems or understand science ideas in the real world, it’s not about marching through the subjects in the book.

But many teachers feel that without doing lots of Chemistry math problems, students will not be prepared for college level work in Chemistry. They feel that to best prepare kids for college, their classes need to look like college. That means lots of lecture, lots of problem sets. One of the things we hear about science and engineering pathways is that many kids who go to college intending to study science and engineering are unprepared for the amount of math and drop out. Won’t downplaying the math make this problem worse?

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Photo by Wanda Battaglia

Wanda: Teachers can put as much math into it as they want. The NGSS should not be viewed as restrictive, but flexible. From my perspective, the NGSS has a focus on students understanding relationships between variables, not just learning how to “plug & chug,” which is the traditional way.

For example, I have had Honors Chemistry students who could plug in numbers using the ideal gas equation, but could not explain if their answer made sense. They understood where the numbers go, and how to solve the equation, but could not demonstrate any understanding of how the variables affected each other. Students must investigate to uncover those relationships, so that the math then makes sense.

It is more important that the average student has the necessary thinking skills to tackle problems in general. Students who are college bound, and contemplating a career in a science or technical field, should be taking AP Chemistry to prepare them for college chemistry.

Pete: What is your vision for how a student who goes through high school with NGSS will be prepared for college and career? How will that be different than a student’s experience now?

Wanda: With a cohesive and passionate K-12 implementation of NGSS, I believe that students will exit high school with the ability to be more independent in their thinking and problem solving, while also sustaining more of an inquisitive mindset. This will foster more innovative thinking on the part of our students, which will contribute to success beyond high school in any area of study.

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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.

3 Responses

  1. It seems that we are still talking about two sides of the same coin. I understand that the tendency to “plug and chug” has been prevalent in the past because of the need to march through the material/textbook. However, to seemingly ignore that and only focus on the relationships is also incomplete. It is disingenuous to imply that just understanding the relationships between variables will create complete understanding. Furthermore, I know of very few chemistry teachers who completely forgo the practice of relating variables within a concept. Lastly, Wanda is making a sweeping judgement that I think is pervasive among the NGSS crowd:
    “It is more important that the average student has the necessary thinking skills to tackle problems in general.”
    How is this not gutting high school chemistry? How will the future college science student that Wanda describes be successful in AP Chemistry if they have not at encountered something similar before? The college science student will benefit from having taken AP chemistry, but the general high school chem student cannot as they progress to AP chem? And are you really suggesting that only students with AP science backgrounds will seek out science education and careers? What does that mean for students at my site where our AP Chem and AP Bio programs are offered every other year?
    You may not have intended those connections to be made, but this is largely due to the ambiguousness of your answer, which are so similarly made by so many regarding the impact of NGSS on science learning and programs.

  2. Wanda’s glib reply that teachers are perfectly free to include all of the chemistry that was left out of the NGSS, and to use as much math practice as they think necessary, ignores the fact that time is not infinite. The gutting of chemistry is very real, and is partially acknowledged in the proposed implementation (“course mapping”) document published by the NGSS team. It acknowledges that in many states, there are three science courses: biology, chemistry, and physics. Biology and NGSS Life Science map very well. NGSS Earth Science should indeed be taught, but does not map onto those other courses at all. And NGSS Physical Science is 75% physics and 25% chemistry. In places like California, where the state university has declared that only biology, chemistry, and physics count as science courses for admission to college, but where the organizationally separate state department of education has declared that public schools will adopt the NGSS, districts end up forced into what NGSS calls the “Modified Science Domains Model,” which means that four pounds of content are stuffed into a three-pound bag. Schools will teach courses called biology, chemistry, and physics, to satisfy UC, but will actually be cutting much of that content, especially in chemistry, in order to replace it with the earth science that students will be tested on statewide.

    The intellectually honest solution, and the pedagogically best one, is for high schools to offer four years of college prep science: earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics, as some states have been doing for years. It’s an outrageous cop-out to say, as Wanda does, that students who want to consider majoring in a technical field in college should take AP Chemistry. Apparently she is unaware that not everyone in the United States has that option. Furthermore, that’s an unreasonable declaration. If we properly serve our students, they should be prepared to major in whatever they might want to, based purely on the college prep high school courses they take. To say “Let them take AP Chemistry” is really showing a “let them eat cake” level of detachment from the actual situations of real students.

    As a former research scientist, I know that you can’t solve a problem until you first admit that it exists and then define it. The comments in the article attempt to deny that a problem exists.

  3. I hope this article is way off the mark. I agree with Erik Cross 100%. It is the baby with the bathwater issue all over again. The content standards were lacking so rather than add the expectations of NGSS, we toss the content standards all out? “Teachers can put as much math into it as they want. The NGSS should not be viewed as restrictive, but flexible.” I’m not sure my parent stakeholders would be comfortable knowing that there is not a clear understanding of what their child will learn or that a child in another teacher’s class may leave better prepared for AP or college chem. It looks like again we are going to lower the chem bar so low that the kids are going to trip on it when they walk in the door. I WILL make sure my students know how to do the math required to prepare them for AP and college chem while implementing NGSS. I am vertically planning with my AP chem teacher to ensure that we do just that. But how can a teacher who teaches a class called “chemistry” not prepare them for a STEM major or career? Apparently the California Science Teachers Association calls it NGSS.

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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…

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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…

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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.