May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

NGSS: Storytellers Wanted

Posted: Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

by Pete A’Hearn

Great teachers are great storytellers. They can take the dry facts and procedures in the standards or a textbook and weave them into a story that grips a kid’s attention. Stories are important. We know about some of humanity’s oldest ideas – The Illiad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Bible – because they were great stories worth remembering and repeating long before they were written down. In the right hands, science can be a great story too. In episode 7 of Cosmos, (spoiler alert!) Neil DeGrasse-Tyson told a gripping tale about how the quest to find the age of Earth led to the realization that leaded gasoline was poisoning us. Having a compelling mystery to solve is what drives science but for some reason often doesn’t drive science education. It certainly has never been part of the standards.

The NGSS, on the other hand, all but explicitly asks for stories. Read the Case Studies in Appendix D on “All Students, All Standards,” and you will see teachers using stories to motivate instruction.

What caused a railroad tank car to collapse after being steam cleaned and sealed? This is the compelling question (with a video to go with it) that drives a high school chemistry unit for a group of high school students living in poverty as they work to develop a conceptual model to explain what they observed, and then add to it a series of experiments.

Similarly, a racially and ethnically diverse group of middle school students learns about the cycling of energy in ecosystems by considering the effect of oil spills in Nigeria in the second case study. An interesting and challenging variation shows the teacher eliciting student questions from English Language Learners to inspire a second grade geology unit.



In an often-cited article on NGSS Professional development (page 10), Dr. Brian Reiser identifies the use of coherent storylines to promote instruction as one of the major shifts that NGSS will demand of classroom instruction. Reiser explains that teaching and learning need to be based on answering questions raised by compelling phenomena rather than being about “what’s next in the textbook.”

The obvious question at this point is, “Where can I find these great science stories to use in my classroom?” Coherent storylines will be an important component of the new curriculum to be developed. Does it tell a good story that will hook our students? In the meantime, in the next few years as we move toward NGSS in steps and jumps (and wrong turns), were do find the stories?

There are two great processes for developing storylines that can either work independently or together. Both will be featured in the coming statewide NGSS rollouts. One is the conceptual flow tool developed by K-12 Alliance. It’s in Chapter 3 of Assessment Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice[1]. This tool helps teachers combine their prior knowledge with the standards to create a flow for unit design that incorporates formative assessment.

The other is the PQP tool developed by the Sacramento Area Science Project as a way to think about teaching and developing a story:

PQP tool developed by the Sacramento Area Science Project

PQP tool developed by the Sacramento Area Science Project

Start with some science content that you want to use in class. Place it the first column (DCI stands for Disciplinary Core Idea- science concepts). Now brainstorm, preferably with others who are smarter, more creative, and experienced than you about what phenomena might help to drive students to want to understand that science idea. These ideas go in column 2. I would also add real world problems to be solved to column 2, as that helps make strong connections between science and engineering. Pick the best idea and go to column 3 to come up with a series of driving questions that will help the students to think about and understand the phenomenon (or problem). Column 4 prompts thought about which of the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices your students will engage in as they try to understand or problem-solve. Finally, column 5 is for calling out the crosscutting concepts – which of the big ideas of science best help students to engage with the phenomenon. Here is a completed example:

Completed PQP Example

Completed PQP Example

Symbols for the crosscutting concepts at

Click here for an editable (Word) version of the PQP tables available for download. (.doc, 1MB)

Now you have the elements of a great story: a problem to solve, some questions to move the story forward, some ways of resolving the problem (practices), and some overarching themes to make the story meaningful (crosscutting concepts).

Happy Storytelling!

[1] DiRanna, K., Osmundson, E., Topps, J., Barakos, L., Gearhart, M., Cerwin, K., Carnahan, D., Strang, C. (2008). Assessment-centered teaching:  A reflective practice.  Corwin Press:  Thousand Oaks


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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

3 Responses

  1. I found this completely verifying. I am using the same terms as we develop our curriculum- storylines, driving students to understanding phenomena, driving questions. I love it when co-evolution happens!

  2. Storylines? Who would have thunk it? Somewhere in the archives at UCI, in the vaults of the K-12 Alliance, or in Kathy DiRanna’s basement (don’t scratch the parquet floor) are starting points for story lines on a whole range of concepts and big ideas. It will probably take a clever person a bit of time to translate some of that stuff to the NGSS, and some may be totally unusable (they were developed, after all, in the last century), but if no one else has the time to take a stab, I know someone retired in Oregon who would be willing to get the ball rolling. That would be me.

  3. In your most recent post you claim “integration promotes stronger storyline” and provide a link here, yet none of the examples here require the untested “integrated” model being promoted. Focus on changing practices (more storylines, engineering, and inquiry) and leave the content (which is fine as it is) for another day. Changing the practices is work enough!

    Claims without evidence do not help support your case.

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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.