September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Middle School Integrated Science – Get Over It

Posted: Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

by Pete A’Hearn

Okay, let’s face it, you are eventually going to the California integrated middle school progressions under NGSS. Time to get over it and start to plan the path forward. (Note: this is my opinion and not the opinion of CSTA.)

Why am I so sure? Because I have looked at the two possibilities closely and once you have, it’s a no-brainer. Here is the domain specific model:

Summary of Domain Specific Learning Progression for Middle Grades adopted by the California State Board of Education.

Summary of Domain Specific Model adopted by the California State Board of Education.

Wait a minute, what’s up with all of the content being shoved into 6th grade? Well domain specific means that Earth and Space Sciences is in 6th grade, and there is lots of content in Earth and Space Science. Much of it is developmentally inappropriate for 6th graders who will be challenged with the huge time and special scales encountered in Earth History and Astronomy. There is also the background in physics needed to understand how things move in space that requires some of the physics in 8th grade. Also, tracking how matter like carbon and nitrogen flow cycle through ecosystems at 7th grade requires an understanding of chemical reactions that students won’t get 8th grade. So why did the Science Expert Panel come up with this model? The answer is that they didn’t – they presented three possible sequences with their strengths and weaknesses and the CDE had a public survey to choose the most popular one. Teachers overwhelmingly chose Earth, Life, Physical, which they might have thought means the same as we have now. It does not.


Here is the integrated model:

Summary of Preferred Integrated Middle Grades Learning Progression Adopted by the California State Board of Education

Why did the Science Expert Panel favor the integrated model? There were several reasons: Integration shows that real world science is integrated, meaning that real world problems need ideas from different disciplines to be solved. Integration helps make the crosscutting concepts more central (the second box at the bottom). Integration helps create stronger storylines (see my article in CCS last month). Much content in Earth and Life requires physical science as background, such as forces for astronomy, chemistry for ecosystems, etc…, and as already discussed, 6th graders are typically not developmentally ready for astronomical scale and geologic time. There is also the issue of needing chemistry to understand ecosystems and physics to understand astronomy. There is a complete rationale for the CA integrated science model at:

Based on this evidence, the teachers in my district (Palm Springs Unified School District) were able to come to a consensus that integrated was the best way forward for our students.

Okay, so you are going to go integrated, but it can’t happen all at once – you don’t have curriculum materials, you need content training for your staff, and most importantly you want to make sure there are no major gaps in the content that your kids get. If you switch all at once in one year, there will be a group of kids that completely miss middle school chemistry and will take high school classes like biology and chemistry with no foundation. You need a plan that makes gradual changes over several years and gives people time to find materials and learn new content. There are probably many ways to do this, but here is a pathway that we looked at in Palm Springs:

Four-Year (“Slow”) Integrated Middle Grades Science Sample Implementation Plan

For clarity, I have used the names for units used by the Science Expert Panel. The (G) stands for genetics, which will end up spread out between 6th and 8th grade, and (EH) stands for earth history which will be divided between 7th and 8th over time. To understand what a student will experience you have to move diagonally and down through the chart. This is the reason that some subjects are taught at two grade levels in some years. For example, in year 3 chemistry is taught in 7th and 8th grade, ensuring that all students get chemistry. It also allows the new NGSS chemistry unit to be taught at 8th grade first, then refined and adjusted before the 7th grade teacher (new to this content) teaches it. The 7th grade teachers will have the support of the 8th grade teacher on their site teams when it their turn to teach chemistry. The same reasoning applies to the cells and organisms unit at 6th and 7th grade. This plan also allows for teachers to switch grade levels- possibly at the trimester- if they choose to remain “content experts” within the integrated model. So, a current 8th grade teachers could (in year 4) teach chemistry to 7th graders during the first trimester and then switch to 8th grade for the rest of the year. This is a possibility for sites where teachers feel very content specific.

After consideration of this plan the Palm Springs teachers chose to move faster rather than slower, and by consensus adopted the plan below:

Three-Year (“Fast”) Integrated Middle Grades Science Sample Implementation Plan

Don’t take my word for it. Do some close reading about the two models and take the time to think about how to make the transition work for your site, teachers, and kids. Happy Integration!

CSTA members can download editable (Word) versions of these tables from the CSTA Members-Only Resources Page. Not a member? Join today.

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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.

10 Responses

  1. As a middle school teacher I have a few big problems with the integrated model. Primary among them is my students’ math abilities. If you feel there is a problem with the math and astronomy, how about balancing chemical equations in the 7th grade. I know that under the assessment portion it says that students do not need to know that specific skill. At the same time the standards do say that students will need to understand that the same number of atoms are present both before and after a chemical reaction. To me, that is basically balancing equations and understanding conservation of matter and energy. Talk about some deep thinking. Perhaps students in certain parts of the state will be able to take it all in at the 7th grade level, but many will not. It also bothers me that the concept of Conservation of Mass is not revisited in the 8th grade. Hopefully there is still some fluidity to the standards so that as we run into kinks we can make adjustments. We are science afterall and the research and hypothesis sound good. If after we run our experiment we come back with the findings that our hypothesis is flawed, we will continue with the flawed model or adjust our hypothesis and try again? Thank you for providing a forum for my little rant, I greatly appreciate it. Hopefully, the powers that be will consider some of these concerns.

  2. Love your article, Peter. We are, as I write, using it to help us plan some summer PD 🙂

  3. No working scientist I know thinks the elementary-school style “preferred” science model is good for middle school. And as it happens we have regular interaction in our district with scientists (and their children ) rom Caltech and JPL/NASA just as a start. The only point I will agree with is that the state Board of Ed absolutely failed in their stakeholder outreach, and that a small group at the state level has this elementary style science as their top priority. As a result, when serious questions were raised about both the content and process the Board was embarrassed enough to rethink the process, and throw a bone on the content.

    Was the “alternative” strand stacked to make it unappealing to districts and unworkable ? You bet. Will elementary school “potpourri” science be forced on Districts? You bet. Does that make it right ? No.

    I don’t have a problem teaching NGSS as cast at the national level; and I AM working on PD this summer to help my colleagues adapt to — and not subvert — the poor Californis framework.

    That it is inevitable does not mean anyone should role over and accept bad educational policy.

  4. As an aside, it makes most sense (if one is yielding to the inevitable) to teach old content on new standards, but roll into the new content one grade level at a time. Thus, year one 6th Grade would do full “potpourri” model, while 7th and 8th would do 98 content / new standards; year two, 6th and 7th grade, do full “potpourri” etc. This way you avoid a group of kids that have had content shifted away from them so they never get it at all, but teachers get experience with implementing the new performance based model immediately.

  5. “Much it is developmentally inappropriate for sixth graders who will be challenged with the huge time and spatial scales involved with earth science and astronomy.”

    What is the evidence for this? 8th graders are challenged by this. Adults (including scientists are challenged by this). Just because it’s challenge to grasp these scales as human beings doesn’t mean it’s developmentally inappropriate for sixth graders. Link to research showing specifically this is developmentally inappropriate for sixth grade and not eighth?

    Why not simply move astronomy to 8th grade in the domain specific model as it is now? Physics, chemistry, and astronomy integrate quite well! And a foundation in physics (forces, energy) is really necessary to understand chemistry. We should build a solid foundation for high school chemistry in 8th grade, not dilute the subject in 7th grade (as would likely happen with the integrated model).

    It is not necessary to have very much knowledge of chemistry to understand the general concept of cycling in ecosystems. Leave the chemical equations for 8th grade, where they belong developmentally.

    I have serious doubts that the “integrated” model will enhance student learning. I have no doubt it will (if implemented) cause a great deal of time and energy to be expended on a dubious experiment.

    By the way, I am one of the early implementers of NGSS practices. I have been involved in IMSS in the bay area the past for years developing curriculum that is NGSS and common core aligned. The instructional shifts and including engineering are great; let’s not ruin it with this so-called “integration.” It’s too much all at once, and a recipe for wasted resources and gaps in student knowledge critical for high school success. Focus on the practices, the content will take care of itself!

  6. Mr. A’Hearn,
    With all due respect, we are not getting over it. As a department, middle school science teachers in our district took the approach of limiting bias and really look at what the state was offering with the integrated model. As much as we tried to see real integration and purpose in the division of the curriculum, we came to agree that the deciders used a false measure to use for integration. It became clear that they divided up the crosscutting concepts that they saw as easiest (patterns and structure/function for instance) and put the science topics that they thought best fit that model in 6th grade. Move on to more difficult cross cutting concepts in 7th and then eighth grade. NGSS in its original writing for the nation did not dilute these concepts. The intent was for these ideas to be inherent in all of science to different degrees. California has apparently decided that some of those concepts are less important and less difficult than others.

    A topic like cells and organisms, for example, seems to fit we’ll into patterns and structure/function for 6th grade, but disregards the lack of readiness and maturity needed for reproduction of organisms. Some of the state’s 6th graders are in elementary schools; even the ones in a middle school settings are much less mature than their upper grade counterparts. Not to mention the parents who are going to balk at teaching lessons on reproduction to their children at such an early age. By dividing each area of science into little bits for each grade, the completeness of the topic is watered down and limited, not allowing students to see how far reaching and predictable science is.

    I am offended that you belittle teachers who differ with your opinion throughout the state. Teachers know that all science needs to be integrated. That is why heat transfer needs to precede weather and orbits become part of Earth and Space science. I would have gladly considered a truly integrated model that made sense. For this reason our teachers with the districts approval have pulled in a few topics across the grades to round out the topics that have no foundation as the DCI model is written.

    I am disappointed in the county offices and California Science Project universities for being so quick to assume the state got it right. There was not adequate time for teachers to assess the ideas and weigh in. We have rejected the integrated model and are implementing a 3 year transition that begins in the 2014-15 school year. Grades seven and eight will be making NGSS and CCSS changes immediately where the science continues in that grade. We are extremely excited about the engineering and human impact additions and the move toward more inquiry and real-world applications. It is exciting to teach students as a facilitator and partner instead of the keeper of all knowledge who gives the multiple choice test. Formative assessments, student choice in learning, technology integrated throughout, and problems to identify and solve. Our students will be ready to be thinkers and doers who know how to weigh the pros and cons of human impact. There is hope for the future.

    Deborah Mendonca
    Science Teacher

  7. I apologize for the typos that were difficult to find on such a lengthy message from an iPhone.

  8. We’ll said. I am interested in knowing where your work with early implementation of NGSS can be viewed.

  9. This is my fourth year teaching but I come from 25 years of experience as a scientist in environmental testing, assessment, and cleanup. My main concern is the lack of data-driven decisions in education policy – especially science education policy. Where is the data that shows that dividing up science subjects like biology and earth science over 3 years works for 11-14 year olds?

    My own experience is that in 8th grade we work hard to connect the subject material throughout a school year and that 8th graders (the oldest and most mature middle school students) struggle more than succeed with this task. Thus we have to recognize that there are limitations at this age and that expecting students to retain and connect information over 3 years is unlikely to be successful. As other commenters have noted, middle school science will be watered down and students will come into high school classes in biology and chemistry even less prepared.

    I also find it interesting that no one acknowledges that there is already a LOGICAL INTEGRATION of science topics in middle school. Speaking directly to Mr. A’Hearn’s comment – why does Mr. A’Hearn (and the rest of the state) believe it was only choice of “subject only” or “new integration only”? Why this false dichotomy? Why not the integration we already have? In 8th grade we currently teach chemistry, physics, and astronomy – all science that requires strong math skills and even in 8th grade the students that struggle in math will also struggle in science. Whether or not chemical equations are balanced in 8th grade, one has to recognize that chemistry and astronomy are more abstract sciences because we can’t directly observe the science (atoms, size/scope of universe) and even 8th graders struggle with this challenge. Sixth grade currently teaches earth science along with closely related energy concepts (for plate tectonics and weather) and ecosystems (for natural resources and human impacts). Seventh grade currently teaches biology along with closely related geological record concepts (for evolution) and light/lever concepts (for body systems like eyesight and muscular system). Our current system is THOUGHTFULLY INTEGRATED with RELATED science and with math readiness in mind.

    As to what our current testing data shows: under the current standards the middle school science program have been significantly more successful than elementary school and high school science programs. Looking at the statewide science CST data from 2014, middle schools achieved 66 percent of its students at proficient or advanced. In comparison elementary schools achieved 60 percent of its students at proficient or advanced.

    In high school the results are markedly lower with only two subjects achieving more than 50 percent of their students at proficient or advanced. High school life science achieved 56 percent and physics achieved 53 percent of its students at proficient or advanced (physics data is from 2013 – not tested in 2014). Looking at the proficient and advanced students in other high school subjects, biology achieved 49 percent, chemistry 40 percent, earth science 37 percent, and integrated science tested in 9th through 12th grade at 7-24 percent (note these data are from 2013, as they were not tested in 2014). From this data it is hard to argue that the largest changes are needed in middle school science. But then ed policy is not data driven, is it?

    And another point from this same data – the worst results are from high school integrated science, a class that teaches a collection of unrelated science concepts. Not only does this class produce very few students at proficient or advanced, students actually score lower in science after this class (so its outcome is the opposite of learning!). Strangely this is the exact model that middle school is being asked to follow – the new integrated model takes pride in teaching a collection of unrelated science together vs. our current model of integrated but RELATED science.

    Education policy should be based on data – assessment and observation, and then through analysis – identify what works, what needs improvement, and how to use the newest findings (NGSS recommendations) to gain the most improvement. Imagine if science did what science education policy does – we would just periodically throw out the current theory, keep nothing that worked, identify nothing that needs improvement, and start over from the beginning, blind to our past. Small wonder that science advances, and science education does not.

  10. Thank you for a well supported, thoughtful response. I am also concerned that California felt it appropriate to only change the delivery of NGSS DURING MIDDLE SCHOOL YEARS! It makes no sense to find what they obviously thought was a better plan and just apply it to middle-school-aged students.

    I will be sharing your response with my county and district superintendents because of the sound arguments that you have validated.

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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.