September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Let’s Get Them Outside!

Posted: Friday, May 5th, 2017

by Jacquelyn Johansen

As a science teacher, I am lucky enough to be able to take my students to several outdoor venues where students have the opportunity to learn in a natural environment. This has been an invaluable part of their education experience: students can multiply their knowledge of field methods, make strides in their environmental stewardship, and learn to use NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). Based on my observations of student learning in outdoor environments, I set out to find answers about how inquiry and participatory education opportunities affect the attitudes of students towards nature.

I surveyed students on two field trips to a local zoo and found they showed statistically significant increases in their connectedness to nature using the Nisbet Nature Relatedness Survey (Nisbet, et al, 2009). This survey included nature “experience” questions such as, “I take notice of wildlife wherever I am,” and “perspectives” questions such as, “I think a lot about the suffering of animals” (Nisbet, et al, 2009). Students also showed increases in the category of “self,” which included statements related to the entitlement of humans to resources such as, “humans have the right to use natural resources any way we want” (Nisbet, et al, 2009). This category seeks to distinguish individuals who feel a strong sense of environmental stewardship from those who are willing to take what they want without considering the cost to the world around them. Based on the results of these surveys, it has become clear to me that outdoor learning can be an integral part of a student’s educational experience. 

Why is this important, and how should it influence our teaching? Habitat loss occurs when natural habitats are destroyed and are no longer able to support the species present. Humans are the number one cause of habitat loss (Tilman & Lehman, 2001). As habitat loss increases worldwide, the need for people to connect with the natural world around them is critical. Now is the time to be thinking about how to get students outdoors and to plan field trips that will impact learners.

As an experienced teacher, I see a window that is currently wide-open for educators to expand student’s comfort zones with outdoor inquiry and participatory education. My research showed such techniques to have a large impact on students’ perspectives on nature. Not only do the newest science standards require more real-life applications, but research also strongly suggests that this is where the most headway in science education is being made (James & Williams, 2007). Many states, school districts, and publishers are still trying to figure out how to tailor exams to test the new standards. While the microscope is focused on exams, teachers should put their fears about inquiry to the side and create assignments that will increase passion, nurture curiosity, and instill a love of the natural world in their students.

Outdoor inquiry is still something that many science teachers may find new and daunting. However, as students move through school with the new NGSS, they will become more accustomed to the successes and frustrations that accompany true inquiry. There are many things that we, as teachers, can do to get our students more involved with nature. Try having your students study the California Floristic Province and highlight that the students live in a biodiversity hotspot. Have them complete a transect outside and do species counts on native, invasive, drought tolerant or water-guzzling plants. Encourage students to make recommendations to the school or PTA based on their findings. Complete tidepool studies, rain monitoring, local pond or vernal pool observations, or test erosion. Schedule a trip to a local zoo, nature center, or aquarium. These establishments often offer terrific student programs. You may have to plan the trip, but you can let the venue do the teaching. Additionally, many of them offer free lessons for teachers to take home. These are the kinds of connections that people need to be making with nature in order to foster future environmental stewardship and accountability.

Can’t get a field trip or outing approved? Bring the outdoors to the students by having them solve real world problems. Using web-based programs like iTree Canopy, students can calculate the amount of carbon dioxide that is being removed from the atmosphere by the trees in a location that they select on Google Maps. Have them create their own maps and hypothetically restore areas to learn how small changes can influence the whole ecosystem. Give ethograms a try. Ethograms are a data collecting tool where students can select several behaviors that an animal may exhibit. Students then make tick marks at 15-second intervals each time an animal exhibits that behavior. Potential animal behaviors may include preening, pacing, playing, eating, sleeping, or eliminating. This data can be used to analyze items such as enclosures and interactions. It can help students make inferences into behaviors and make data-driven suggestions for improvements. If you haven’t tried them before, pair up ethograms with zoo webcams for a virtual inquiry lab excursion. Students can select animal webcams from a location like a zoo or nature preserve. They will have so much fun deciding which data to collect and making meaningful inferences as to what they have learned. Think of the fun discussions that you could have.

Students learn amazing things when they have ownership of their learning. This is our chance to experiment with new ideas and teaching methods. While NGSS tests are in their pilot phase, let’s try new things, and shoot for the moon. Let’s get them outside!


I would like to thank Julian Charter School for allowing me the freedom to teach the change that I want to see in the world. I would also like to thank San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Beckman Center staff for being a transformational force in the world of science education.

James, J. K., & Williams, T. (2017). School-Based Experiential Outdoor Education: A Neglected Necessity. Journal Of Experiential Education, 40(1), 58-71

DT., & C. L. (2001, May 08). Human-caused environmental change: Impacts on plant diversity and evolution. Retrieved April 2, 2017, from

Jackie Johansen is lead online teacher and science department chair at Julian Charter School in Menifee, CA and is a member of CSTA.

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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.