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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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.