May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Staying Local – Investigating the Schoolyard

Posted: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

by Joey Noelle Lehnhard

Exploring a local schoolyard ecosystem is an accessible, engaging, and relevant way for students to investigate life science topics. Contextualizing ecology by investigating the life in your own schoolyard can be deeply enriching for students. It also allows students to later apply their learning to a variety of ecosystems including rainforests or the deep sea, which otherwise may be too abstract for elementary students. Spending time outside exploring and investigating their environment also contributes to conservation behavior later in life (Wells & Lekies, 2006). Informal science centers can help with resources such as locally relevant place-based curriculum, professional development, as well as by providing additional outdoor spaces for students to explore.

To learn more about an ecosystem, ecologists typically use a tool known as a quadrat to define a specific area where they collect biodiversity data. Quadrats are used both on land and in aquatic environments. Students can replicate this in their schoolyard. Scientists and students use this tool to count the number of organisms, number of different organisms, and/or percent coverage (i.e. 75% of the plot is covered by nonnative grasses) within the quadrat. Quadrats are great tools for elementary students as they help focus and manage the outdoor experience, ideally with groups of 2-3 students assigned to each quadrat. Traditionally, they are meter or half-meter squares made of PVC pipe. Small hula hoops and even stretched out wire hangers can function as quadrats – anything for which the area can be calculated will suffice.

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A year-long quadrat data collection project is a great way for elementary students to practice authentic science outdoors. Each month during the school year, students can return to the same spot to take data on their quadrat. Students can explore a variety of topics in this way. Here are a few data collection ideas to get you started:

  • Biodiversity–Students can take biodiversity data by counting the number of different species they find in their quadrat. Combining that data with rainfall and temperature data, students may be able to find patterns in how the seasons relate to the abundance and biodiversity of living things.
  • Biotic and abiotic factors–If students are not quite ready for biodiversity, they can draw a picture of five things they see in their quadrat. Then, back in the classroom, they can classify the objects into living and nonliving things. Each month, they can count living and nonliving things and see if a pattern emerges.
  • Needs of living things–Students can identify things in their plot that provide animals and plants with what they need to live. Back inside, you can discuss whether your schoolyard is a good home for plants and animals and perhaps decide to make it a better habitat for living things through a habitat restoration project.
  • Adaptations–Each month, students can make a scientific illustration of one living thing they find. Then, they can connect its structures to functions that may help it survive in the schoolyard habitat.
  • Their own ideas–Students may think of other questions they have about their area of the schoolyard. You can invite them to suggest a testable question to collect data on throughout the year.
  • Human impact–Students can take data about human impact, such as the presence or absence of litter or invasive species. Students can count the number of pieces of litter they find and track that throughout the day, week or year. Then, you can discuss how we can all help keep our schoolyard healthy or even develop an action plan that will encourage conservation.

This type of long-term data collection project is in line with project-based learning and engages students in many Next Generation Science Standards practices, including asking questions, planning and carrying out investigations, and analyzing and interpreting data. Repeated data collection over time can help students feel comfortable and confident taking data as well as engaging in science in the field. Using their own data to learn and practice analysis and writing may increase ownership and student motivation. And, learning more about their local ecosystem connects to students’ prior knowledge and contextualizes science concepts. This could also be adapted to support the NGSS Kindergarten LS1-1 Performance Expectation: Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.


Wells, N. M., & Lekies, K. S. (2006). Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children Youth and Environments16(1), 1-24.


Attend a Monterey Bay Aquarium teacher professional development institute and learn more about integrating field investigations into your curriculum.

Learn more about tracking litter with Instagram at

Joey Noelle Lehnhard is a Senior Education Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and is a member of CSTA.

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:

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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.