May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

NGSS and CCSS – Science Fair Is Back!

Posted: Monday, April 1st, 2013

by Peter A’Hearn

Science Fair season is in full swing and I can’t speak for the whole state, but I know that in our region science fair participation has declined in recent years. This is especially true at the high school level but can be seen at all levels. However, I’m wondering if the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) mean that science fair will be making a comeback?

The decline in science fair participation can be traced to the current California Science Standards and the CST test’s emphases on treating science as bits of factual knowledge that are best assessed by multiple choice tests. The low percentages assigned to science relative to language arts and math as a part of a school’s overall test score is also a big factor. I know of several schools where the science fair was killed by administrators who decided it wasn’t worth it because the science fair takes too much time, and there isn’t an obvious connection to the test scores.

However, the NGSS has a central goal of integrating science knowledge with science practices; that is, learning how to do science is as important as knowing what science has discovered. This provides a great opportunity for integration with the CCSS emphasis on reading expository text and on using multiple sources of information to do research. There are 10 standards for reading and 10 for writing that are basically the same from K-12 with the level of complexity and sophistication increasing. I’ll show some examples from 6th grade since that’s in the middle of the pack.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis reflection, and research.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.9 Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.

If we are looking for something that already exists that will involve students in reading and writing as well as the NGSS science and engineering practices, we might want to go back to teaching and supporting science fair.

I can hear some folks grumbling about now, “Don’t the parents really do the projects? What do kids really learn by counting the number of un-popped kernels of popcorn or testing which brand of toilet paper hold the most pennies? Doesn’t science fair present an overly simplistic, cartoon version of how science is done?”

These are valid concerns but can be readily overcome when science fair is really taught and structured by teachers. It takes time and much scaffolding and will only happen if learning how to do research and how to ask questions is central to all the standards.  For example, we can break science fair into chunks over several weeks’ time and by working on it in class we remove the possibility that it’s the parent doing the project. One approach is to have the student identify an area of interest, then learn how to do research while also learning about the topic, making observations, and conducting short preliminary tests. Only afterward would they then develop a testable question and a larger experiment. This is a much different process than assigning the whole project with a short due date that makes Mom and Dad scramble to the Internet to look for a project that can be done in the next hour and involves no more than a quick trip to the toilet paper aisle in the supermarket.

The vision of science practices in the NGSS is rich and goes well beyond the “scientific method” to ensure that students get an authentic sense of the scientific enterprise.  It’s okay for elementary students to be introduced to “the scientific method” as a first simple introduction to science as long as they have a chance to develop a more complete picture later on in their education.  The current standards lack emphasis on scientific process and probably don’t easily allow the time for students to really understand what scientists do. In contrast, the NGSS add practices like using models and arguing from evidence to experimentation with the aim of giving students a full view of how science works.

Many teachers will need training to help students develop real (not canned Internet) science fair projects. In my district we have tried to promote the idea of whole-class science fair projects in the lower grades (K-3). Students this young might not be ready to do their own projects without strong parental support but many parents aren’t able to give that level of support, for various reasons. Doing class projects, instead, will help students build a base for understanding the process in the upper grades where they will eventually do their own projects. Whole-class projects involve students brainstorming questions, jigsawing research, doing individual and whole class writing, and being guided by the teacher to design an “experiment” that controls variables. To help teachers do this we held a half-day training early in the year on how to structure class projects. The teachers were amazed when they compared the process to the CCSS English Language Arts standards. One concluded, “ the standards are practically telling us to do science fair projects!”  As a result, we tripled the number of class projects that went to the district science fair this year. These represent classes where students are well on their way to learning the Common Core Standards in conjunction with the NGSS.

This potential for integrating curriculum to meet both the NGSS and Common Core Standards offers hope that administrators will soon be looking for ways to not only facilitate, but showcase science fairs at their schools.

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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.

5 Responses

  1. HELP!!! If I see another tri-fold board it will be too soon! My students did their projects & presented their results on Prezi. The blowback was astounding. Many teachers were positively hateful. What can we do to get out of the 20th century and into the 2st?

  2. Your point of view is interesting, and I do not disagree with it, however let me offer another, along with some questions that I struggle with…..

    The science fair must undergo drastic change in order to comply with the NGSS. The basis of the science fair is the scientific method, a linear, concrete process that does not depict how science is really done by scientists. If you look in the NGSS they never mention the scientific method, nor do they encourage this linear model of science. There is a shift to a “science flowchart” such as the one depicted in the “Understanding Science” website with no predetermined path.

    If this is the case, 1)what will science fair projects look like and, 2)without this concrete, linear model, how do we tech the process (other than classroom inquiry based activities hoping they get the idea enough to apply them to their own investigations)?

    Carl Erickson
    8th grade science teacher and department chair in Santa Clara

  3. Good points Meg and Carl. I agree that science fair is too tradition bound and will need to adapt to the fuller view of science practices in the NGSS. I does however provide many students with their only opportunity to”do science” and is a great way to tie science to the Common Core. A great alternative model for running a science fair is the Placer County STEM Expo that was presented at the last CSTA conference.

  4. Peter, thanks for writing this blog. A few of us here at Education Development Center also think science fairs can offer an opportunity for kids to be exposed to science practices. In fact, we’ve just been funded for a national study that will be specifically looking at to what extent participation in a school science fair enhances students’ mastery of science and engineering practices (SEP), as well as what student-, teacher- and school-level factors contribute to or inhibit students gains in SEP mastery. More info on our project can be found here:

  5. I need some assistance. I’m trying to align my elementary school’s science fair to the NGSS. Does anyone know of a judging rubric that could be used? Thank you.

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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. 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.