May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Science Education: An Ecosystem Approach

Posted: Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

by Laura O’Dell

Though the organisms may claim our prime interest, when we are trying to think fundamentally, we cannot separate them from their special environments, with which they form one physical system.  –Arthur Tansley

As science teachers, our prime interest is teaching, guiding, and mentoring students in making sense of scientific phenomena. In 1935, Arthur Tansley, pioneer of the emerging science of ecology, described how environments function as complex systems comprised of biotic and abiotic factors. In coining the term “ecosystem”, Tansley gave a name to the interconnectedness of living things and their relationship to environmental factors.

Organisms depend on the balance of biotic and abiotic factors in order to survive and thrive. Nutrients, matter, and energy cycle continually throughout ecosystems and a stable balance between biotic and abiotic factors are required to keep the ecosystem healthy. We advocate effective curriculum, facilities, and policies to ensure quality science education but without students, educators, and families, they remain abiotic factors. Similarly we should recognize formal science education as only one component of a student’s education; but what other factors

With the adoption of NGSS and a new state framework, California teachers are rising to the challenge of providing students with a top quality science education. We are all working to promote informed citizenry as well as preparing them for STEM careers. As a community of teachers, we must actively seek out factors, biotic and abiotic, that can round out our educational ecosystem.

The NSTA’s position on informal education describes the critical role informal science plays in education. The California Science Framework states: “one can think about collaboration and partnership work among schools and various science sectors as interrelationships among diverse organizations within an ‘ecosystem’. Ecosystems are not efficient, they evolve over very long time periods, and they constantly change” (National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council 2014, 50).

The Framework recognizes:

  • Partnerships build capacities of teachers.
  • Collaboration with outside agencies can provide tools and structures that support formal education.
  • A well-rounded science educational ecosystem deepens students’ STEM interests over time.
  • Learning and instruction can be supported with out-of-school experiences.
  • Engaging families and communities in support of STEM education.

Informal learning brings to mind field trips to science centers, museums, and community-based organizations. In California we are fortunate to be home to wonderful science-themed organizations and no doubt, we will continue to pursue these experiences for our students. With growing interest in promoting STEM education in all corners of society, exciting, non-formal learning experiences are turning up in unexpected places.

In early October, an ice rink in Ontario, in southern California, turned into the largest classrooms in the state. Over 5,000 students attended the inaugural Education Day with the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League. Students were treated to an education themed game complete with a booklet that helps students link topics in math, science, geography, and history to the sport of hockey. One activity engages the engineer in all of us. The lesson details protective equipment used in the sport. The activity prompts students to think critically how they would improve or develop equipment that makes the game safer. Motion, forces, and friction can be learned by looking closely at the structure and function of ice skates. The evolution of hockey sticks gives students a taste of materials science and the role of engineering in making sports equipment more efficient. This kind of informal learning opportunity supports the way we are encouraging students to make concrete connections extra-curricular interests.

Just as we must seek out science learning in unexpected places, we need to look at the ones closer to home. In their homes, students experience life-long learning experiences. This bring to mind my own experience at my school. At the STEAM Academy at Burke Middle School, we are proactive in building those stronger connections with informal learning. Our Parent Academy started out a few years ago as informal meetings with parents to educate them about our new math program. The Academy has grown and branched out to:

  • General ways parents can best support their children at home.
  • Teachers walk parents through math concepts and samples of problems to show them what is expected of students.
  • Training on various technologies and digital resources for exchange of information and communication with school.
  • Information on Project Based Learning; expectations for students and how parents can support them in the home.

With the goal of building capacity at the school level, each department is finding ways to contribute. The expectation is to show parents ways they can link their child’s sense-making and school-based experiences with informal learning that takes place in the home.

In the end, we have to remember that we do not teach in isolation and students cannot learn in isolation. Just as we cannot expect an organism to live, grow, and thrive without the supports of an active, healthy ecosystem, we cannot expect the same from students. When we integrate formal education with the informal, viewing science education as an ecosystem is not simply an interesting analogy, but rather, a professional imperative. We need to actively seek out and promote informal learning opportunities to complete our ecosystem and make it a place for children to thrive. Additionally, we should be willing to look beyond traditional resources to compliment, support, and enrich formal science education. To truly see change, we have to ensure science education functions as a system where all students thrive in his or her own niche.


National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K–12 Education: Status, Prospects, and Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Tansley, AG (1935). “The use and abuse of vegetational terms and concepts”. Ecology16 (3): 284–307.

Laura O’Dell is a science teacer at STEAM Academy @ Burke Middle School and is a member of CSTA and CSTA’s Membership Committee.

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.

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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.