September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Making the Most of Museums

Posted: Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

by Jim Kisiel

Be honest. If you’re a science teacher, and you read the title of this column, chances are the first thing you thought of was a field trip. Sure, you may have reminisced about that cool third grade field trip to the natural history museum, where you saw a real fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for the first time and finally understood just how big they were. Or perhaps a painful reminder of the last class trip to the zoo that you attempted came to mind—an experience involving forgotten lunches, disgruntled parents, and a skeptical administrator convinced that your test scores would drop due to lost instructional time. Whatever the case, the school field trip is probably the most common approach for bringing the resources of the museum to students. When asked why field trips are important to their curriculum, teachers report a wide variety of motivations ranging from student exposure to new interests, fostering student interest in science or other topics, and of course, supporting classroom learning.[i] There is a growing base of educational research related to best practices in field trip pedagogy; this research identifies strategies that are likely to result in effective student learning experiences.[ii]

But there remains a problem. Informal science education institutions (ISEIs), such as science centers, natural history museums, aquariums and zoos, nature centers and the like, typically offer a variety of supports for K-12 science teachers that go far beyond the traditional field trip. Yet recent research studies suggest that when asked about how museums and other community organizations might support school science, the majority of teachers think ‘field trip’.[iii] Meanwhile, these institutions spend millions of dollars on science programs and materials that are underutilized.[iv]

ISEIs often provide a variety of science learning opportunities for both students AND teachers. Outreach programs, ranging from auditorium shows, to smaller hands-on classroom lessons, to unique mobile vans or trucks, can provide science-based activities to a range of grade levels on school grounds. Such programs, while still requiring some logistical preparation, bring the community institution to the school without the challenge of permissions slips, bussing arrangements or tracking lunches. ISEIs also frequently provide professional development training for teachers as well. These training opportunities may focus on a particularly challenging science concept (e.g. climate change or evolution) or exploring new pedagogies (e.g. inquiry, project-based learning, and engineering practices.) Many ISEIs have a strong web presence that not only provides information about the institution but also provide a variety of e-resources such as videos, lesson plans, and of course, science and instructional background for teachers. Some examples of outstanding websites include the University of California Museum of Paleontology, The Exploratorium,   and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

What prevents teachers from using these resources? Although there seems to be several misconceptions and concerns that affect access, one of the most common is simply a lack of awareness. Despite emails, flyers, posters, and other forms of communication, teachers in a recent study of school-museum interactions indicated that they were most likely to learn about such programs via word of mouth.3 Even informal science educators, in the same study, indicated that word of mouth was likely the most effective mode of communication! So how can we get around this contradiction? It requires teachers to be a little more attentive to those mailings and fliers stuffed in their school mailbox, and requires ISEI educators to think about how best to directly interact with teachers—perhaps reaching out to individual schools, administrators or teachers and meeting them face to face, say during a faculty meeting. In some regions, there are online portals that list a variety of science resources from multiple institutions. An example of this would be the California Regional Environmental Education Community website where you can specify region, grade level, topic, audience (teacher vs. student) and then see what programs/opportunities might suit your teaching needs.

There are two other concerns often brought up when talking about using field trips or other out-of-classroom resources to support science instruction: costs and curriculum. While limited funding and accountability issues are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, these need not be limitations. Although the costs of field trips (especially the transportation costs) may seem daunting, other ISEI K-12 resources such as professional development and outreach programs require much less funding (and may even be free.) In many instances, ISEIs can offer a limited number of ‘scholarship’ field trips, where admission and/or transportation are provided. Such programs may be described on the institution’s website, but it also pays to contact the ISEI educators directly to get more information and suggestions on how to make these resources more affordable. As for the curriculum, most ISEIs indicate alignment of their student and teacher programs with current content standards. Conversations with teachers who make use of ISEI resources on a regular basis indicate that addressing standards is rarely a challenge—the right resources can be used to support just about any learning goal.3 Yet remember that these resources are just that—materials and experiences that can help science teachers achieve their instructional goals. Although an outreach program may be listed as addressing Life Science standard 3a and 3b, it is the teachers who will ultimately use the experience as one of several strategies for helping students develop understanding. A single assembly program or even a 2-hour trip to the aquarium should not be mistaken as a ‘completed standard requirement’—good preparation, thoughtful follow-up and application of concepts will ultimately help students master the desired learning outcome.



As we begin to dig into the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we realize that these adjustments to how we think about science education in California (and across the country) present a new challenge. How do teachers find the resources (time, funding, and knowledge) that allow them to effectively implement the new guidelines, new strategies, and new science content required by NGSS? These new ideas, as good as they are, will require teachers to re-examine their science knowledge, their instructional practices and the resources needed to do this effectively. More than ever before, now is a great time to take a closer look at what your local aquarium, nature center, or science museum has to offer teachers. You may be surprised at what lies just outside your classroom door.

Jim Kisiel is an Associate Professor in Science Education at CSU Long Beach and is a member of CSTA.

[i] Kisiel, J. (2005). Understanding elementary teacher motivations for science fieldtrips. Science Education, 89(6), 936-955.

[ii] DeWitt, J., & Storksdieck, M. (2008). A short review of school field trips: Key findings from the past and implications for the future. Visitor Studies, 11(2), 181-197.

[iii] Kisiel, J. (in press). Clarifying the complexities of school-museum interactions: Perspectives from two communities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

[iv] Phillips, M., Finkelstein, D., & Wever-Frerichs, S. (2007). School site to museum floor: How informal science institutions work with schools. International Journal of Science Education, 29(12), 1489-1507.


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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.