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 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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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

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.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 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.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. 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 California NGSS k-8 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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

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:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

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