May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

The Power of Storytelling in the NGSS Classroom

Posted: Thursday, January 14th, 2016

by Anna Van Dordrecht, MA and Adrienne Larocque, PhD

Storytelling, which is fundamental to humanity, is increasingly being used by scientists to communicate research to a broader audience. This is evident in the success of scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson. Capitalizing on this, in our classrooms we both tell stories about scientists under the banner of People to Ponder. Benefits of storytelling for students are numerous, and many align with NGSS. Specifically, Appendix H states that, “It is one thing to develop the practices and crosscutting concepts in the context of core disciplinary ideas; it is another aim to develop an understanding of the nature of science within those contexts. The use of case studies from the history of science provides contexts in which to develop students’ understanding of the nature of science.”

A Person to Ponder – Frances Kelsey

Frances Kelsey was born in 1914 in British Columbia, Canada. She graduated from high school at 15 and entered McGill University where she studied Pharmacology. After graduation, she wrote to a famous researcher in Pharmacology at the University of Chicago and asked for a graduate position. He accepted her, thinking that she was a man. While in Chicago, Kelsey was asked by the Food and Drug Administration to research unusual deaths related to a cleaning solvent; she determined that a compound, diethylene glycol, was responsible. This led to the 1938 passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which gave the FDA control to oversee safety in these categories. In 1938, Kelsey received her PhD and joined the Chicago faculty. Through her research, she discovered that some drugs could pass to embryos through the placental barrier.

Kelsey also earned her MD while working on the Chicago faculty. In 1960, she was hired by the FDA to work in Washington, D.C. One of her first assignments was to review the application to approve thalidomide – a morning sickness drug used in Europe and Africa. Kelsey was pressured by drug manufacturers but refused to approve it without further study because of results in Europe. Soon after, severe birth defects in infants in England were linked to thalidomide. Because of this, Congress passed an amendment in 1962 requiring stricter limits on drug testing and distribution. Kelsey was considered a hero and awarded the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by Kennedy. In 2000, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Kelsey continued to play a role in the FDA until she retired in 2005 at age 90. She died in 2015 at the age of 101.

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Benefits to Students

We have found that telling stories increases students’ scientific literacy and their understanding of the nature and context of science. Anecdotes provide concrete examples of Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). The story of Frances Kelsey illustrates SEPs such as asking questions (SEP #1), analyzing and interpreting data (SEP #4), engaging in argument from evidence (SEP #7), and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (SEP #8). Studying the life of actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr shows how she engaged in engineering practices: she defined a problem (the Nazi dominance in submarine warfare in the Atlantic during World War II) and designed a solution to it (frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology).

In addition to aligning with NGSS, stories about people like Lamarr and Kelsey illustrate the relevance of science and technology to students’ lives and society as a whole. The stories are presented in their historical, social, or political context. For example, describing how Galileo’s observations supporting heliocentrism antagonized the Catholic Church promotes the integration of diverse subjects such as Science and Humanities.

Historical stories also illustrate that science is an imperfect, human endeavor. This encourages students to question scientific discoveries and inventions and how they are impacted by and influence society. For example, engineer Thomas Midgley both implemented the use of tetraethyl lead (a neurotoxin) to reduce knock in engines and developed chlorofluorocarbons to replace dangerous gases in refrigerators. In the context of studying climate, students understand Midgley’s profound impact that’s still felt today.

Storytelling leads to increased engagement in the classroom and better long-term retention of information. Research shows stories and storytelling are more likely to engage students with high verbal scores in STEM classes and careers. Students ask when we’ll be doing another People to Ponder installment and even suggest people about whom they would like to learn more. The accounts promote discussion among students at school. They even inspire conversations between children and their parents at home.

Students also benefit from being exposed to role models from groups (e.g., women, minorities, and the differently-abled) that are underrepresented in science and technology. Seeing scientists as people, and importantly, people who are like them, is critical if students are to consider careers in STEM fields.

We have additionally found that our own understanding of science has increased through researching the lives of our subjects. Sharing this with our students models life-long learning and demonstrates that we can be co-passengers on a voyage of discovery. In addition to providing an engagement strategy, the stories can be tools for teachers to develop and implement lessons emphasizing SEPs. For example, recounting how Dmitri Mendeleev developed the first Periodic Table can lead into an exercise in which students build their own table using atomic masses and reactivity data.

Integrating Stories into Your Science Classes

People to Ponder can take a variety of forms. Van Dordrecht tells students each Monday about a person who is directly related to what they’re studying. Larocque shares stories periodically with a graphic organizer for students to record information. Universally, in classes ranging from sheltered Physical Science to senior level AP Biology, the stories are impactful and add depth and richness to lessons.

We encourage you to bring historical storytelling into your own classroom and see what differences you notice in engagement and understanding of science. As we transition to NGSS and focus on the bigger picture of scientific processes, there is no better time to experiment with historical case studies and capitalize on the universal love of stories.

Anna Van Dordrecht and Adrienne Larocque both teach at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa, CA and are members of CSTA. Anna teaches AP Biology and also works part time as the Teacher-on-Loan for Science at the Sonoma County Office of Education. Adrienne, aka Dr. Addie, teaches Academic Earth Science and Physical Science. She also is an Adjunct Professor in the Geology Department at Santa Rosa Junior College. Both authors would love to hear how you include stories in your own classrooms- Anna at and Adrienne at

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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.