September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. 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.

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.