May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

The State of California’s Middle School Science Education

Posted: Sunday, April 1st, 2012

by Laura Henriques

What an interesting cross-roads we are at in science education! On the one hand we are told by the President and other elected officials that STEM careers and STEM education provide opportunities for our country to move forward. “STEM” is on everyone’s lips. The economic engines are going to be fueled by a STEM-literate citizenry. Those countries or states that do the best job developing this workforce will be at the forefront of innovation and economic success.

On the other hand we have shrinking budgets for K-16 education. Stakeholders at all levels are fighting for their piece of an ever-diminishing pool of resources. In an effort to reduce the costs of education, the Governor even proposed reducing the high school science graduation requirements to one year, down from two. If a STEM-literate, well educated workforce helps run the economic engines for the state, wouldn’t we want to have students taking more science?

This disconnect is more than political rhetoric and fodder for budget fights. The disconnect also exists between what the citizens of California want and what they get in K-8 science education.

For the past two years, West Ed has been studying science teaching in California. In October, right after the 2011 Science Education Conference, they published High Hopes – Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California. This report highlighted the state of elementary science education in California. Their findings weren’t surprising to those of us close to elementary science education and science teacher preparation. They found that less than half of elementary principals believe students in their school receive a high-quality science education. Elementary teachers spend little time on science instruction, citing the emphasis on English and mathematics as the primary obstacle. Elementary teachers are underprepared to teach science, most don’t have access to science professional development and they do not have the materials needed to adequately teach science. Those of you who have been members of CSTA for a while will recognize these themes as ones we’ve been talking about for years. We need dedicated time for teaching science, materials to teach science and the professional development/preparation so that teachers can do it well. These are problems CSTA has been working hard to ameliorate through government advocacy, our CSTA publications and conferences.

This past week (March 22, 2012) West Ed released another report, this time about middle school science, Untapped Potential: The Status of Middle School Science Education in California. While middle school science teachers are much more likely to hold a degree or credential in science than their elementary counterparts, there are some similar concerns expressed in this report as the High Hopes report. While elementary teachers and their principals complained about the lack of time and resources to teach science – in large part due to the emphasis on English-Language Arts and math, middle schools are much more likely to have teachers and class periods devoted to the teaching of science. That said, the report indicates that there still isn’t enough time to teach science well. Many teachers teach both math and science, as a core. This results in great pressure for the class to become two periods of math instruction with little or no science instruction. Just as testing at the elementary level emphasizes ELA/math, AYP and API scores at the middle school level do not count science very much.

Challenges to quality middle school science instruction include lack of preparation and interest on the part of students. Based on the data reported in the High Hopes report, we know that most students do not participate in much elementary science. As a result, they come to middle school underprepared. It is unrealistic to think that three years of middle school instruction can make up for six years of missed instruction. Because students have not done science they do not know what it is and are less likely to get intrigued and excited by it. They do not know the rudiments of doing science. This often results in science instruction being reading or worksheet based as opposed to inquiry and field based. The emphasis on testing across the K-12 continuum seems to have taken away the joy of learning and squelched curiosity.

Class sizes at the middle school make doing hands-on, inquiry based science much more difficult. Not only are supplies more difficult to acquire (especially when they are being paid for by the teacher!), the larger classes sizes often make it unsafe to do certain experiments. Management of materials and people is compounded as class sizes grow.

Middle school teachers are more likely to get science professional development than their elementary counterparts. Districts have been providing much of that PD, but as budgets contract the number of district level staff devoted to science instruction is decreasing. Teachers do not get to meet with each other as much as they’d like – either within grade levels or across levels.

What does all this mean to each of us? As members of CSTA we need to band together and make our voices heard. Reports such as the two released by West Ed provide timely data about the current state of science education in our state. We need to be sure that policy makers recognize the importance of quality science instruction at all levels. We cannot ignore the elementary level and assume that we can make up those losses in middle school. Science instruction is important for our students and for our state. A wise use of the data in these reports could help us move forward. Share these reports with your district administrators and your principal. The reports argue for continued professional development, the need for schools and districts to partner with other agencies, and they call for quality science instruction. These are balanced reports without an axe to grind. They may provide us with a starting point to have meaningful, open discussions about what we need to do to improve science instruction in our state.

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and president-elect of CSTA.

Written by Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques

Laura Henriques is a professor of science education at CSU Long Beach and past-president of CSTA. She serves as chair of CSTA’s Nominating Committee and is a co-chair of the NGSS Committee.

Leave a Reply


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…

Powered By DT Author Box

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…

Powered By DT Author Box

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.