September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

NGSS Implementation: A Leap of Reason

Posted: Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

by Jeff Schmitz

Any transformation in an organization, like a school or a district, can be a painstaking process of professional learning, creating buy-in, and fund sourcing. But the transformation swiftly gains momentum when individuals at the grassroots level begin jumping in with both feet. Our California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative Teacher Leaders in Vista Unified are starting to jump.

The jump is no mere leap of faith; it’s more like a “leap of reason.” Our Early Implementers spent time in the summer immersed in NGSS content and pedagogy under the tutelage of science education gurus from the K-12 Alliance and supporting institutions that include universities and other institutes of higher education. They also will participate in 2-day TLCs (Teaching Learning Collaborative) this academic year, lesson studies where NGSS-aligned lesson sequences are collaboratively planned, delivered, and evaluated for effectiveness. Consequently, Early Implementer teachers are developing a deeper understanding of how three-dimensional design, the 5E model of instruction, and phenomenon-based investigations align with how people learn. The NGSS makes sense to them, they are seeing how it makes better sense for students, and so it makes sense to make the leap.

Despite having no fully aligned NGSS curriculum or materials, Early Implementers are leading the transformation. They are implementing the NGSS in their classrooms armed with only their standards, the Framework for K-12 Science Education, a draft of the California science framework, and the unit conceptual flows and lessons they are collaboratively developing with their colleagues. It is the very action of going through this process that is helping our teachers better understand the NGSS and grow.

Our middle school Early Implementer teachers are taking on the additional challenge of integrating the science disciplines, which is the preferred model in California. Allison Bowcock, an 8th Grade Science Teacher and Early Implementation Teacher Leader at Roosevelt Middle School, is currently wrangling with all of this. I spent a couple of days with her recently so we can share with you the journey she is undergoing.

As it happened, Allison’s class was exploring claims about what caused a prehistoric extinction event. They were amidst a multi-day lesson sequence where evidence was being gathered to either support or refute competing claims related to this phenomenon. After analysis of their findings, students will be charged with constructing a written argument on the claim they have determined best explains the phenomenon.

Claims: 1) The influence of the variation on the Earth's orbit on climate is the cause of the extinction. 2) the influence of an asteroid on climate caused the extinction. 3) The influence of a super-volcano eruption on climate caused the extinction.

Students evaluate which of these claims best explains the extinction event.

On this day, in particular, the claim that an asteroid’s collision with Earth caused the event was being investigated by the students. The class opened with a lesson-level phenomenon, a spectacular video clip of a fiery meteor streaking across the Russian sky in 2013. Talk about engaging! Students shared questions and wonderings about the Russian meteor. In a clear attempt to integrate physical science into the discussion, Allison gave time for her students to consider what caused the meteor to hit the Earth. Then, it was time to observe the effects of meteor impact via simulation. Allison climbed a ladder and chucked objects into a small plastic pool full of sand.


Students had opportunities to be excited, ask questions, make observations, and make predictions, all the while recording in their sense-making notebooks. Allison then asked her students to consider how they could find evidence of meteor impact for a prehistoric extinction event. Following their discussion, Allison cued into an important question: could they compare the chemical composition of Earth’s crust with that of a meteor? Students shared their ideas in table groups, and the class consensus was to sample rock strata that would have been present on Earth’s surface at the time of the extinction event to see if elements of a meteor are present. Allison agreed with their logic and assured the class they would conduct that investigation the next day. Students left the classroom excited, already looking forward to what they would discover tomorrow.

When reflecting on the lesson, it exemplified the spirit of the NGSS in a number of ways:

  • It was phenomenon-based. The “big” phenomenon for the unit was the prehistoric extinction event; the “little” phenomenon for the day’s lesson was the 2013 Russian meteor impact. Both are engaging to students, promote wonder, and are something the students can build understanding of.
  • It was integrated. Force and motion of Physical Science meets the geology and climate studies of Earth and Space Science, which meets the biological evolution of Life Science (later in the unit).
  • It was three-dimensional. The Disciplinary Core Idea of “evidence for extinction” was explored using Science & Engineering Practices (Asking Questions, Modeling, Engaging in Argument from Evidence, and Planning Investigations) while the Crosscutting Concept of Cause & Effect was used to help push student thinking.
  • It stemmed from a collaboratively-developed conceptual flow for an entire unit.
Conceptual flow developed by the Southern California 8th grade cadre for Summer Institute, year 2. Background image from Earnst Haeckel, Artforms in Nature, retrieved from

Conceptual flow developed by the Southern California 8th grade cadre for Summer Institute, year 2. Background image from Earnst Haeckel, Artforms in Nature, retrieved from

Talking with Allison, she is embracing the opportunity to innovate during this time of transition. She has particularly latched on to the idea of using anchor phenomena in her instruction. “It’s engaging, and it promotes the kind of thinking that real scientists do.” Allison is also seeing the benefits of bringing the engineering component of NGSS into science class. “Students are challenged to use a different part of their brain, and it’s not always the straight-’A’ students being successful. Engineering opens the door for more students to blossom.” She concedes that limited planning time and curriculum availability pose a formidable challenge to her NGSS implementation efforts. Creating integrated units of instruction, as opposed to teaching each science discipline in discrete “silos” is also a mindset to which she is adapting. But, she is taking the “leap of reason” nonetheless, and the lesson I observed is evidence that she, and her students, are going to land comfortably on two feet. The transformation is underway!

Jeff Schmitz is an NGSS TOSA in the Vista Unified School District, a member of the Core Leadership Team of the K-12 Alliance California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA.

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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.

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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.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.