September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Middle School Integrated Science – Getting Over It!

Posted: Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

by Peter A’Hearn

6th graders design bionic hands as they study how body systems work together in a unit that was moved to 6th grade this year- photo by Peter A’Hearn

6th graders design bionic hands as they study how body systems work together in a unit that was moved to 6th grade this year- photo by Peter A’Hearn

Last spring I wrote an article/blog post that addressed the growing discussion about the decision to teach middle school integrated or discipline specific science. The article gives the rationale for the change and also some different models that were considered for how to transition.

There was a lot of feedback to that post: strongly supportive, deeply skeptical, and many follow up questions. Now that Palm Springs USD has finished the first year of the transition, I thought it would be a good time to look back and see how it went.

The middle school teacher leaders who helped to make the decision chose the “fast” transition plan below. Year 2 was what we just finished. 6th grade teachers (and kids) were introduced to structure and function in living things. 7th graders tried chemistry for the first time, and 8th graders played with waves. Everyone tried a little (or a lot) of engineering.

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

So how did it go? Here are the benefits, the things I would think about changing, challenges, and the work left to be done:

Benefits: The energy around the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in our middle schools was much higher than in high school or elementary school. Teachers at most sites were experimenting, trying extended projects, dipping into engineering, and trying to use performance tasks. Kids were engaged and excited. The leaders of our decision to go integrated had said that the content shift would be a signal to teachers that other aspects of instruction would have to change as well, and that seems to have been true. We also have a California Math Science Partnership Grant (CaMSP) called Project Prototype that is supporting middle school teachers as they transition to NGSS and the integration of engineering and that has been a big help.

We had individual sites and teachers at the high school and elementary level who worked hard on NGSS, but middle school is leading the charge. At several sites we had teachers who had taught only one grade for years, but decided to teach two grades this year or to shift levels to learn more about content.

Chemical engineering in 8th grade will move to 7th grade under the integrated model.

Chemical engineering in 8th grade will move to 7th grade under the integrated model.

Things I would think about changing- Many of our 6th grade science teachers, as well as the 7th and 8th grade teachers at one site teach both math and science. These teachers were already facing a huge transition with Common Core math this year and were overwhelmed trying to make shifts in science in as well. We didn’t consider this in our thinking about the transition, but it might have been a good idea to wait a year to allow the math shift to happen before introducing the science shift. That said, we would have lost the benefit of all that great NGSS energy in middle school.

Challenges: The biggest was providing resources and support for teachers, especially at the 6th grade level. We are fortunate to have two science teachers on special assignment in our district, and most of our energy went to middle school and especially 6th grade. There was lots of short focused after-school professional development to support new content. To help fill the resource gap we created packets of text from another grade level to act as supplemental material during the transition. For example, we created packets for 6th grade on structure and function in living things using pages from our 7th grade CPO text along with some outside resources from sources like the Exploratorium. I still haven’t figured out if this is okay under the Williams Act, and I’m not sure anyone has an answer to that.

Looking Forward: Next year is the big year but we will have the California NGSS Early Implementers Project (as well as Project Prototype) to help us with teacher PD and classroom follow up. Last year some great ideas came out of the content part of the summer institute and we are hoping for more this year. We will need to continue to make packets and look for resources for more units. The storage rooms at our sites will need to be reorganized as things like microscopes and chemistry supplies shift grade levels. 6th grade teachers will continue to need more support than most.

An important discussion will be about when education about HIV/AIDS will take place. It was in 7th grade and seems to fit with some of the 6th grade standards, but there are some concerns about 6th grader’s readiness for the topic.

Further ahead is the challenge of true integration. So far we have concentrated on shifting topic between grades. The bigger challenge is to create integrated units that combine standards from earth, life, and physical science to solve real world problems or explain real world phenomena in the true spirit of NGSS. This year in discussion about how to organize our units for this year, some great ideas came up. For example, could the concept of resources in California (oil, agriculture, gold, water) be used to organize the whole year of 7th grade science? It was decided that that might be too fast and that teachers first need a change to learn and get comfortable with new content.

So we know that many challenges lie ahead and that our journey has just begun.

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

3 Responses

  1. I saw you in Longbeach. We decided to go integrated because it made sense to us. You gave us a handout that had a series of questions that could be used to connect the cross cutting concepts to pretty much any lesson. We did alien invasion (like a snowball fight) I think in that session. I really liked your quality questions, but I can’t find my copy. Is there any way you could send me a copy or direct me to them? Thanks.

  2. Hi Heidi- The crosscutting concept questions and symbols can be found at:


  3. More propaganda from the author.
    The Fordham Institute offers another perspective:

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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.