September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Taking “Risks” with NGSS: A Growth Model for the Classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 15th, 2016

by Rachel Poland, Patricia Evans, and Jill Grace

As we entered the classroom to face a room full of 7th graders at Challenger Middle School in San Diego Unified School District, it was hard to tell who was more nervous, us or the students. Our journey had started the week before as we had gathered to plan our lesson study as a part of the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The lesson study is made up of a “planning day” where a team of teachers plans a learning sequence and targets for a teaching day where they can use a 5-E lesson plan to teach (Bybee, 2014). Most of our lesson study experience thus far had been designed to engage or explore a topic. We knew that with this time we wanted to work towards honoring the vision of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) by focusing on student conceptual understanding and seeing how we could shift our instruction to be three-dimensional (3D) using the Science and Engineering Practices (SEP) and Crosscutting Concepts (CCC) to help students reach conceptual understanding of the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI). This required that students be near the end of a unit of study and in the explain phase of their lesson sequence, so the decision was made to conduct our lesson study with the students in Patricia Evans 7th grade classroom.

Leading up to the Lesson Study

At the beginning of the lesson sequence students were presented with the phenomenon of living in Biosphere II and eventually asked the guiding question, “Is it safe to sleep with plants at night?” After eliciting student ideas, students were presented data of daily carbon dioxide levels recorded in Biosphere II (McDougal Littell, 2007.) Student ideas were again elicited, and following the discussion, students conducted the standard elodea photosynthesis lab as well as read and took notes on photosynthesis and cellular respiration (McDougal Littell, 2007). Students then conducted independent team investigations on photosynthesis or cellular respiration, where each respective team decided what variables to change. The student investigations were purposely left open-ended (Salter, I, Smith, R, and Nielson, K., 2008). Our lesson study was timed to take place on the day students were interpreting the results of their data.



Planning the “Teaching Day” Portion of the Lesson Study

We carefully considered the 3D nature of the NGSS. We had already created a conceptual flow (DiRanna, K., et. Al., 2008) and identified relevant DCI’s that supported our unit, but we needed to decide on the SEP’s and CCC’s that would be part of our lesson. We decided that the practice of Developing and Using Models best supported where students were in their conceptual understanding. We first had to wrap our minds around what the “practice” of modeling is in science. NGSS Appendix F identifies, “In science, models are used to represent a system (or parts of a system) under study, to aid in the development of questions and explanations, to generate data that can be used to make predictions, and to communicate ideas to others” (NGSS Lead States, 2013). This seemed appropriate for where students were in the lesson sequence as they would be ready to share their developing understanding. We then decided on the CCC of Cause and Effect as we felt this would be an effective lens to guide student thinking.

We identified the key components of the SEP of Developing and Using Models and the CCC of Cause and Effect (see table 1 below). We decided that students should be able to create a visual model of the experiment that they had created to work through their thinking and explain their data. Most of the investigations the students conducted were of a system with inputs and outputs, a perfect opportunity to apply both the SEP and CCC. (As an aside, we could have easily incorporated other SEP’s and CCC’s, but for our planning purposes, we decided to focus on one of each.) Students had some previous experience with modeling a few times prior to the lesson, but this was the first time that they had to model their own student-designed system that their data supported.

Table 1. Components of the SEP and CCC relevant to this lesson sequence

Table 1. Components of the SEP and CCC relevant to this lesson sequence

Table 1. Components of the SEP and CCC relevant to this lesson sequence

The Teaching Day

We presented our challenge to the students:

Work as team to create a model that explains the results of the experiment you designed, and be sure to include your data as evidence in the model.

We set them up with a checklist (Table 2) for creating their model, and then we circulated the room as they worked. We set the expectation that everyone in the group was to participate in completing the model, and they were each to use a different color on the model for accountability.

Table 2. Checklist for Creating a Model

Table 2. Checklist for Creating a Model

Table 2. Checklist for Creating a Model

After 25 minutes of work time we had the students visit and review two other models from different groups. Students were to provide structured feedback (Table 3) to the other groups. This was a purposeful instructional decision in the spirit of the SEP Developing and Using Models; we wanted the students to see the thinking of several other groups and get feedback in order to reflect on their own model and make revisions as their thinking changed.

Table 3. Peer Feedback structure

Table 3. Peer Feedback structure

Table 3. Peer Feedback structure

Student peer feedback

Student peer feedback

The Lesson Debrief

By listening and watching students create their visual models, it became evident that some students’ had preconceptions not scientifically aligned. Looking at one group in particular, it became clear that students did not understand that the bubbles created by the plant in their experiment were oxygen. They also struggled to depict the process that was happening within the plant cells.

The students were hesitant to record their thinking; they realized (and we did as well) that their understanding of photosynthesis was very fragile. This was a very powerful metacognitive moment for the students. In a rare moment for middle schoolers – they knew what they didn’t know. We witnessed students challenging their own ideas and that of their peers as they grappled with their understanding, students (without prompting) pulling out their notebooks to check their notes, and students realizing that peer feedback revealed gaps in their own understanding.

Students using their notebook when they realized they needed help with their understanding.

Students using their notebook when they realized they needed help with their understanding.

We received great insight into student understanding because their thinking was apparent in their modeling, and we took time to talk with student groups and ask carefully crafted questions to push their thinking. In one exchange with a student group, the students were asked probing questions about the components of their model and what they thought was happening (CCC: Cause and Effect). The teacher purposely did not tell students if their content knowledge was right or wrong (as you’ll see in the video below). It was important to have them document their understanding. The practice of modeling as a performance task can give us great insight into how solid or fragile student understanding is, BUT only if students write down what they think. We have to take great care to train our students to record their thoughts and not be fearful of being “wrong”.

Video showing teacher carefully questing students to probe thinking.

Want to know more about why the teacher didn’t tell the students they were wrong? Check out the SciEd Side Bar: Let Them Figure It Out.


Patricia used the results of this lesson to inform her next instructional move. To strengthen student understanding of photosynthesis, she included additional activities and readings that gave students more time to grapple with their thinking and more aligned to scientifically accepted ideas.

Our team realized that the CCC and SEP were powerful vehicles to challenge student thinking and deepen conceptual understanding. The CCC lens of Cause and Effect allowed for effective questions by the teacher to probe student thinking. In particular, the SEP Developing and Using Models revealed students that were struggling to represent a process and the relevant inputs and outputs of a system. By asking student teams to collaboratively model, they were naturally forced to externalize their “internal conversation” out loud to their team, fostering their metacognitive growth.

When students were asked the question: “How did working in a group to create a model clarify your thinking about your experiment”, eighty percent of students responded that working collaboratively helped them learn from each other while five percent of students said it helped them appreciate teamwork. Five percent of students felt that both of these objectives were met. Student thinking was also challenged by peer review.

When asked: “How did reviewing other groups models help you clarify your understanding about your model”, thirty-five percent responded that it helped their understanding, twenty-five percent stated that it helped them realize what errors they made, and twenty-five percent responded that it both helped their understanding and allowed them to correct their mistakes. Fifteen percent of the answers did not address the question.

Another big learning for the team was how to know if students “got it” by looking at their work. The next video shows our team debriefing and deciding how to make the evaluation of whether or not student understanding of the DCI as well as competency in the SEP were on target.

Video showing the teaching team evaluating student work.

There is no “failure” in NGSS – for teachers or students. For our students, the end of the lesson is not “THE END”, if they are not there yet – they are just not there YET. A constructivist view of learning sees student metacognitive processes falling on a continuum between novice and expert (Hogan, K. & Fisherkeller, J., 1996). As students gain more information, their understanding changes, and their thinking evolves. Modeling is the externalizing of those internal thought processes. The use and construction of models can also be described in terms of novice and expert (Quillin K., & Thomas, S., 2015), see Table 4, below.

Table 4: Differences between novices and experts in how they draw and use models (Quillin K., & Thomas, S., 2015).


We can’t judge our success as teachers based on what a student can answer “correctly” at the end of a single day. When we realize what the students know, it is an opportunity to allow us to plan for the next instructional move that will help advance our students’ conceptual understanding.

We wish to express gratitude to our students, who allowed a gang of teachers to probe their thinking and were willing to show their work, to our colleagues Teddy Meckstroth and Rich Baker who helped us in this process, and Christy Compton Hall, Project Director for the San Diego Unified School District California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for helping us debrief.


Bybee, R.W. (2014). The BSCS 5E instructional model: Personal reflections and contemporary implications. Science and Children, 51 (8), 10-13.

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.

Hogan, K., & Fisherkeller, J. (1996). Representing students’ thinking about nutrient cycling in ecosystems: Bidimensional coding of a complex topic. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33(9), 941-970.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. (2013).

Quillin K., & Thomas, S (2015). Drawing-to-learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology. CBE Life Science Education (14)1: es2.

Trefil, J. (2007). McDougal Littell science. Sacramento, CA: McDougal Littell.

Salter, I, Smith, R, and Nielson, K. (2008). Injecting Inquiry Into Photosynthesis Investigations. Science Scope, 32 (1), 34-39.

Rachel Poland is a middle school teacher at Innovation Middle School, SDUSD, a teacher leader for the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a NOYCE Master Fellow at San Diego State University.

Patricia Evans is a middle school teacher at Challenger Middle School, SDUSD. A former Fellow with the Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education, and a teacher leader for the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative.

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance at WestEd and President-Elect 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.