March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Planning STEM-Based Professional Development – A Behind the Scenes Look

Posted: Friday, December 11th, 2015

by Myra Pasquier

Committing to the planning of 15+ hours of teacher professional development in Science content for the California NGSS Early Implementer Institute that took place in Vista, California last summer was a daunting task. One major advantage was the collaboration that took place between my team members – Stephen Tsui, PhD, physics professor at California State University, San Marcos, and Kathryn Schulz, Regional Director of the San Diego Science Project. Our mission: put together a 5th Grade Physical Science content story line (also known as a Conceptual Flow) featuring the structure and properties of matter and its interactions. The story needed to be aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for both Mathematics and Language Arts, modeling the cross-curricular elements of (STEM) education.

With our mission envelope tucked under our arm, we started the brainstorming process of developing a Conceptual Flow for our story that would unfold for the teachers. With piles of multi-colored sticky notes, chart paper, and sharpies as our tools we embarked on our task. Different sized concept notes scattered the chart paper and were in constant motion as we debated back and forth about their placement in the story. Were the concepts appropriate for our objectives? Did they make the story flow and be seamless? Was the story complete with a beginning, a middle, and an end? As hours went by, and the Conceptual Flow began to take shape, a sense of euphoria grew from a combination of fatigue and exhilaration at our accomplishments. And this was just the beginning.

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When we were satisfied with our Conceptual Flow, we labeled the elements according to Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI), Science and Engineering Practices (SEP), and Crosscutting Concepts (CCC). Although several SEPs fit, we decided that developing and using models was the most overarching when looking at the core science idea of the week: matter and its interactions (specifically, 5-PS1-4). We also worked with the CCC lenses of energy and matter, and patterns through which to examine our content. One of our greatest challenges was determining the depth and breadth of our content. Although we were tasked to train 5th grade teachers, the objective of our team was not to simply provide materials for 5th grade content but rather to help prepare these adults in developing their own learning sequences for students. Since these were adult learners, we wanted them to feel comfortable with their content, and therefore drew from not only 5th grade NGSS material but also some middle and high school standards.

The next step was to plan the STEM based activities that fit the conceptual flow story line. The difficulty here was not in the number of things that we could try. Because every member of our team had a science background and expertise in pedagogy, the torrent of ideas poured onto sticky notes indiscriminately. The challenge was identifying those activities that not only supported the NGSS and CCSS in our conceptual flow but also integrated STEM elements. We persevered, and with our parameters set, our indiscriminate pile of activity sticky notes became smaller and began to take an organized form. The science element was easiest, given our content background, and the math easily partnered with it. The technology and engineering portions were more of a challenge because most of our content focus was on the fundamental physics and chemistry of matter on the molecular and subatomic scale; interactions that are directly unobservable by the naked eye but leave plenty of evidence in their wake. It was a given that the activities had to be hands-on and inquiry-based, but they also needed to be applicable to real world problems and provide explanations for natural phenomena.

One of our engineering process activities called for the separation of substances in a heterogeneous mixture through the use of some kind of filtering system. Our participants had to plan, design, build and test their filter systems. In the case of exploring phenomena, participants poured cups of liquid nitrogen into trash bags and discussed how the volume change in the bags could be explained by phase changes in matter due to the effect of thermal energy on particle motion and spacing at the molecular level. Using online resources like the University of Colorado, Boulder PhET Interactive Simulations website helped further visualize and clarify these models of molecular movement and spacing. We couldn’t necessarily make each activity meet all our intended STEM elements, so we used activities that met as many as we possibly could.

When planning professional development, I am always terrified that we will not have enough activities for the number of hours we have. There is nothing worse than thinking that you’ll finish what is supposed to be a three-hour session in half the time and being left with a room full of educators staring back at you expecting more. Fortunately, as has happened every single time I have been part of a team like this, we over planned – and that was a good thing, but then the fear became whether we would be able to do all the activities needed to tell the whole story. We wanted to make sure that our participants got the most out of their professional development. We managed to complete most of our activities, and even though we had to sacrifice a few for the sake of time, we would like to think that our participants left that Friday with their brains filled near to bursting with knowledge and eager to start the new school year ready to begin to implement NGSS. We strongly believe that their students will be so much better off because their teachers were willing to spend one week of their all-too-brief summer being students themselves.

As for my team, would we go through the hours and hours of planning again next summer? The answer is a resounding yes!

The process we went through actually mimics what a teacher would have to consider when planning for instruction in NGSS. It works for adults as well as younger students.

  • Who can you collaborate with? Doing this with colleagues makes for a richer product.
  • Consider a story-line format for laying out concepts in a unit (DCI’s, CCC’s, and SEP’s)
  • What phenomenon speaks to the story line and will pique student interest and provide opportunities for hands-on investigations?
  • Consider entry-points for CCSS math and language arts standards that can both support NGSS and provide another context for student learning making for an authentic STEM experience.
  • Find hands-on activities and experiences that match the intent of your story line.

Myra Pasquier is a 7th/8th grade Science teacher at Suva Intermediate School in the Montebello Unified School District and is a member of CSTA. She can be reached at Pasquier_Myra@montebello.k12.ca.us

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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.

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