September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Second Grade Seed Dispersal Engineers!

Posted: Monday, November 14th, 2016

by Nila Arensberg, Kristi Drake, Amanda Cloutier, and Pete A’Hearn

It’s time for the big test! Which seeds will stick to the animal’s fur?

It’s time for the big test! Which seeds will stick to the animal’s fur?

Second graders had worked hard on their engineering designs to make a lima bean that would be transported by sticking to an animal’s fur. The used wires, tape, Play-Doh©, staples, paperclips, foil, and paper to make their seed dispersal attachments.

This was the highlight of a lesson designed and taught by a team of second-grade teachers in Palm Springs Unified School District as part of the California Next Generation Science Standards K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. Our team used a lesson study process, designed by the K-12 Alliance, called a Teacher Learning Collaborative (TLC). As a team, we know that in elementary school, and especially early elementary, we need to find the strong connections between science and the Common Core standards. We set out to design an engaging lesson that would teach science and provide students with opportunities to engage in speaking and listening, writing, and reading.

Our team had worked on second grade physical science earlier in the year and we were eager to try our hand at the second-grade life science standards. We decided to focus on the needs of plants and used the conceptual flow tool to get our heads clear about what concepts, practices, and crosscutting concepts would belong in a unit about the needs of plants (if you’ve been to a CA NGSS Rollout you have experienced this tool and process).

Turns out, there is a lot of content for this topic. Plants need soil and sunlight, water and air, but they also need help from animals by assisting with pollination and dispersing seeds in locations where they will find the right conditions for growth. We planned for students in this unit to think in terms of Structure and Function and Cause and Effect. They would make models and conduct investigations as a way on understanding the concepts. After getting clear on the three-dimensional content, we focused in on this Performance Expectation for the lesson we would design:

2-LS2-2: Develop a simple model that mimics the function of an animal in dispersing seeds or pollinating plants.

Image source:

Image source:

We tried to think about a good way for students to demonstrate their understanding of seed dispersal. We studied various curricula and resources to look for ideas. Nila came up with the idea that we could have the students try to design a seed structure that we could test with a stuffed animal to see if it would stick to an animal’s fur. After testing the designs, students could practice writing an argument about whether their structure was successful or not. Now that we had a good idea about where the lesson was going, we could design a sequence that would lead them to the seed test.

We decided to engage the students with the phenomenon of a dog covered with seeds. We asked the students to talk to a partner about why the seeds stick to the dog. We were hoping for responses both about the structure of the seeds (Structure and Function) and the idea that animals help to move seeds around (Cause and Effect). We had follow-up questions planned if students didn’t address both ideas.

Students observing seed structures.

Students observing seed structures.

Then it was time to let kids explore some real seeds. We gave the kids some desert seeds to study under a hand lens and then also gave them cotton balls that they could use like an animal to “walk” over their seeds and see which ones would stick. The hand lenses allowed them to closely observe the structures that functioned to allow the seeds to stick to the cotton balls.

Students using sense-making notebooks.

Students using sense-making notebooks.

Science notebooks were used for drawings and written descriptions of the seed structures. We had some students share their notebook entries using the document camera. Students shared structures like hairs, spikes, hooks, and fuzzies.

Now for some reading to help reinforce the idea. We chose a short passage about how seeds travel and grow that expanded the idea about seed dispersal with other means like ending up in animal scat and being carried on the wind. Students recorded new ideas from the reading in their notebooks to show their understanding of both the hands-on exploration and reading (explain).

Now it was time for the engineering design challenge as an elaborate! We showed students the lima beans and showed how we would test their designs by walking the animal over their seeds. The lima beans sure did not stick! We also showed kids the materials that would be available for the building.  Students began by brainstorming designs in their notebooks.

They could choose to work with a partner or on their own. Once they had a design idea, we gave them materials to start building.

These seeds stuck!

These seeds stuck!

Then finally the big test. Seeds were sorted into a pile of those that worked and those that didn’t. We then asked students to write a claim in their notebooks about whether their design worked or didn’t and support it with evidence.

As always in a lesson study, we teach the lesson as a team debrief the lesson by examining student work for evidence of the lesson’s effectiveness. This debrief informs changes to the lesson that are warranted. One change was obvious: don’t include balloons in the materials. They don’t work but are way too exciting for second graders not to want to use. Their inclusion just distracted from the designs. We also shortened the reading to the essential pages of the book.

Analysis of the student work revealed a bigger concern: the claims were poorly written and the students didn’t really have any idea of what evidence to use. We decided that we needed to include a class discussion of what worked in the designs and what didn’t. This was done by sorting the seeds under the document camera and having a class discussion. We charted ideas from the discussion on the board. We also provided sentence frames (Table 1) for the writing to help students with the types of evidence that would support a claim.


We taught the lesson a second time and could see from the designs and the student work that the adjustments had a big effect. The students walked away with a deeper understanding of seed dispersal, structure and function, design, and using evidence. As teachers, we learned a lot about how an NGSS lesson could incorporate engineering into science learning. We also reinforced what we already knew – in teaching, little changes can make a big difference!

Nila Arensberg is a 2nd grade teacher at Bubbling Wells Elementary School, PSUSD, a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA.

Kristi Drake is a 2nd grade teacher at Rancho Mirage Elementary School, PSUSD, a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA.

Amanda Cloutier is a 2nd grade teacher at Bubbling Wells Elementary School, PSUSD, a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA.

Pete A’Hearn is a K-12 Science Specialist in PSUSD, a Project Director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and the Region 4 Director for 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.