September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Next Generation Science Standards: Jump Right In

Posted: Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

by Jennifer McGranahan

In the midst of all that is new this year – implementing Common Core for Language Arts and Mathematics, the new ELA/ELD Framework and our district’s Personalized Learning Plans – we are also hearing more about the Next Generation of Science Standards (NGSS). As a 6th grade classroom teacher, when I heard the acronym “NGSS,” I quickly put it out of my mind. My brain couldn’t face one more new expectation. However, I had majored in biology in college and had decided I wanted to focus on improving my teaching in science, and NGSS kept creeping back into my thoughts no matter how hard I tried to ignore it. Before I knew it, I was part of a team of teachers in my district selected to be part of the California K-8 NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. With the honor of being an Early Implementer came trainings during the summer and regular school year, and hours crafting and planning “beautiful” NGSS lessons that include 3-dimensional learning that I am not familiar with. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Actually, it is!! 

I was terrified at first, one more thing to do, right? However, I decided the best way to approach NGSS was to jump right in. Fortunately, I was not alone. All of those hours of trainings I mentioned earlier were with educators who are pioneers in NGSS implementation and are passionate about not only science, but education in general. I was able to learn the reasoning behind the new standards designed to help students develop and use models, collaborate to problem solve, make real world connections, and use science practices.  I was also fortunate enough to participate as a student in a three-day, K-12 Alliance cadre that gave me a springboard to start my science teaching this year.

Photo by Jennifer McGranahan

Photo by Jennifer McGranahan

In the cadre, we were exposed to a lesson series that covered the water cycle and thermal energy transfer. Because engineering is a component of the NGSS, as a culmination to the lesson we were expected to take what we had learned about both subjects and apply them to building a Mars habitat. Our habitats consisted of old two liter soda bottles, various materials to put inside (rocks, bark, etc.), and additional materials like aluminum foil, saran wrap, water, etc. Our habitats had to be able to absorb and hold heat while also demonstrating the water cycle in the form of precipitation or condensation. Precipitation would have been AWESOME to achieve, but my group was only able to produce a little bit of condensation. We deduced that we had not included enough water in our initial model. Considering that we, as adults, were not particularly successful at accomplishing all the requirements for our habitat, I wondered how 6th graders would handle the task, but what the heck… I decided to give it a try. Jump right in, right?!



What took adults nine hours to do in our cadre took my 6th graders 4 weeks (45 minutes a day/4 days a week). To prepare my students, I challenged them to participate in many of the same activities I had participated in during the time with my cadre. For example, students reviewed the water cycle by doing a “Water Cycle in a Jar” experiment. Students put water into a jar, dropped a match into the jar, covered the jar with plastic wrap, and then put ice on top of the plastic wrap. They could then watch the water molecules in the air move to the top of the jar and notice condensation on the sides of the jar. My students also participated in an activity where they ‘became’ water molecules and traveled to stations such as a river, ocean, cloud, animal, glacier, etc. At each station, they rolled modified dice that told the students where they would end up next. Another preparatory activity involved investigating heat transfer by placing ice on thermal blocks after which they read and did a Quick Write about the three types of thermal energy transfer and kinetic energy. We cloze read small chunks of our existing textbooks, read supplementary materials, watched videos, and researched conditions on Mars. I was also able to bring in science-related current events by showing students some online video clips of the Curiosity Mars Rover.

Photo by Jennifer McGranahan

Photo by Jennifer McGranahan

Each step of the way I was very focused on specific, clearly defined principles I wanted the students to master and the Science Practices (part of the 3-dimensional learning of NGSS) that would help them reach that goal. The scope of the science can get complicated quickly and I did not want to overload the students. To avoid that, I previewed all of the texts and narrowed down the content, concepts, and practices the students needed to know in order to successfully engineer their Mars habitat.

I had introduced the habitat project at the very beginning of our unit and the students were eager to get to it. When the day finally came to design and build the habitats, I was nervous. Did they have the understanding and skills they needed? Would they be successful or just get frustrated? Well, I didn’t need to worry. They amazed me!!! I witnessed them working collaboratively in groups creating and problem solving. When we tested our habitats (taking heat measurements in the sunlight to absorb heat and then in the classroom to see if the habitats retained the heat), not every group was successful. But here is the best part… they had the opportunity to modify their models and them test again! The conversations I heard were amazing!!! (Application of Common Core Speaking and Listening Skills.) At the end, I asked each group to present their models and their results and give their hypothesis about what the results meant. I honestly could not believe 10-12 year olds were using science vocabulary so confidently about science concepts and engineering practices. The concepts they were able to discuss with conviction and the problem solving strategies they employed to better their habitats were amazing! I will never doubt the ability of my students again.

Photo by Jennifer McGranahan

Photo by Jennifer McGranahan

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would love it if all of the NGSS lessons were already created, if it was already established what 3-dimensional learning really looks in a classroom, with all the materials already on site, and it was neatly packaged in a ‘Science for Dummies’ teacher’s edition. I can also tell you with certainty that I would not trade jumping right into NGSS for anything. My students are excited about science. They look forward to it and are genuinely disappointed if we don’t have it one day. My students are speaking and writing about scientific concepts that I had mistakenly thought would be over their heads. They understand those concepts in the context we learned them in, but are also transferring that understanding to other, real world, situations. My teaching has improved, their ability to learn has improved, and I am more excited than I have ever been about science. I encourage all my elementary colleagues to jump right into science.

Jennifer McGranahan is a 6th Grade Teacher at Marango Ranch Elementary in the Galt Joint Elementary School District. She was invited to write for eCCS by CSTA President Elect Lisa Hegdahl.

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

2 Responses

  1. I read constantly and consistently about NGSS….but it always refers to K-12 but in reality K-6.
    I am a chemistry teacher and no matter how much is discussed in our science PLC and between other schools we all seem to be confused and concerned about our specific subjects in science. I, especially, in chemistry. So many of the standards are vague…leaving them with very opened ended, do what you want, curriculum teaching. There seems to be no room for so many of the fundamentals of chemistry…compounds, equation writing, gas Laws, acid/base concepts etc. Can someone please be specific about our standards in chem (physics), earth Science? We tried to integrate chemistry into the present standards and found we were eliminating major units that we feel should be taught. So many of the colleges are NOT buying the NGSS principles. HELP! RD

  2. Ralph,

    You’ve voiced my own concerns exactly! I’m a chemistry teacher in Napa and I’ve also been frustrated with trying to align what I know a good chemistry class should include with the NGSS. Have you had any resolution to this issue? My email is I’d be grateful for any information you might have.


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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.