September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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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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.