May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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. The rooms lack counter space, sinks, outlets, or even flat desks or tables for the students to work. Secondly, many of the 6th and 7th grade teachers are cored, which means their time is split between teaching science and another subject, typically math. Set-up and clean-up from experimentally-based lessons is difficult as they switch from period to period. These challenges have forced teachers to come up with creative solutions that allow them to balance the students’ need for developing their science skills while still maintaining the teacher’s sanity.

One solution has been the incorporation of online science simulations, especially on days where hands-on work would be a management challenge. Although the district is not a 1:1 district (one electronic device for each student in the district), most of the middle school teachers have a Chromebook cart in their classroom or have easy access to Chromebooks for their students. Technology can be a powerful tool for learning science concepts beyond the typical research project or PowerPoint presentation. Virtual labs and online simulations allow students to develop necessary skills or SEPs. These simulations are definitely not a substitute for laboratory experiences, but teachers are finding them a great way to supplement and even extend the hands-on learning happening in their classrooms.

Example from a 6th-grade classroom:

MS-LS1-3 Use argument supported by evidence for how the body is a system of interacting subsystems composed of groups of cells.

Students in Mr. Nikkel’s 6th-grade classroom were exploring body systems. Through multiple activities, students explored, researched, collaborated, and communicated information related to specific body systems and how they interacted with each other. Mr. Nikkel wanted students to understand that the different body systems are made up of organs that must all work together in order for the system to function properly (Crosscutting Concept: Systems and System Models). He found an online simulation from Gizmos called “Digestive System” where the students investigated the order and function of the organs involved in the breaking down of food, absorption of nutrients, and the elimination of waste. Based on their previous knowledge from earlier in the unit, students made a prediction as to the correct order of the organs. Then they used the simulation to test their created digestive system. Their failed attempts at completing a working digestive system encouraged them to redesign their system and try again. Students were engaged in the challenge and were seeking out more information about the organs in order to get their system working properly. Mr. Nikkel observed that as the students were working on this simulation, they were noticing that different foods they were “feeding” to their simulation person were affecting the system differently. Each food had a different calorie count, amount of water absorbed, and difference in the nutrients provided to the system. This added information had the students asking more questions and doing more experimenting with their system beyond what Mr. Nikkel had initially assigned.

While working on the online simulation, students were engaged in multiple SEPs. The students developed a model of a working digestive system using qualitative data collected from multiple trials they designed (Planning and Conducting an Investigation). Students used their data analysis to construct an explanation and communicate that information to their peers. Mr. Nikkel enjoys the fact that the online simulations gave his students opportunities to explore something they couldn’t experience any other way. Plus, he was able to extend the activity over multiple days and it was easy for students to pick up and resume where they left off each day. His students enjoy the simulations as they appreciate opportunities to use technology, especially if it involves a challenge or problem to solve.

NGSS Implementer image

6th-grade students from Mr. Nikkel’s class work on an online simulation to gather data.

Example from an 8th-grade classroom:

MS-ESS1-1 Develop and use a model of the Earth-sun-moon system to describe the cyclic pattern of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons.

Ms. Eastham’s 8th-grade students were working through a unit on Earth and space science incorporating the SEP, Developing and Using Models. Through multiple explores, students created a physical, movable model of the Earth-sun-moon system. Students used their model to construct and explanation by making a claim about the movement of celestial bodies within the Milky Way Galaxy using the evidence they collected and including their reasoning for using the supporting evidence. At this point, Ms. Eastham had the students use the online simulation from Gizmos called “Seasons in 3D.” Using a few guiding questions, students investigated the causes of the seasons by observing Earth as it orbits the Sun (Analyzing and Interpreting Data). Students began to notice patterns as they manipulated the path of the sun across the sky. They manipulated multiple variables such as the date and the location of the Earth. The students recorded data into their notebooks, communicated their data with each other, and then came up with a final model of the seasons.

While working on the online simulation, students were engaged in multiple SEPs. Students were gathering data, creating graphs of solar intensity and day length, and interpreting that data to find patterns. Students used their analysis to create an explanation of seasonal changes that they communicated with their peers. Ms. Eastham believes that online simulations are an extremely useful tool that provides the visuals students need to comprehend challenging science concepts that are difficult for students to grasp. Many of her students are visual learners and the simulation enabled them to manipulate variables and actually see what happened. Her students enjoy the online simulations and are always engaged with the learning that is incorporated with the challenges.

NGSS Implementer image 2

An example of how an 8th-grade student summarized her learning after two days of exploring an online simulation.

In developing lesson sequences using the 5E Instructional Cycle (developed by Biological Sciences Curriculum Study with “concept column” addition by the K-12 Alliance), teachers have found multiple ways to incorporate online simulations. Typically, a teacher does not use an online simulation at all points of a 5E lesson sequence, but instead carefully chooses one or two appropriate moments where it best supports the student learning. Here are some examples of how a teacher could “plug in” use of an online simulation at different points of the 5E learning sequence.

Engage Phase: Teachers could use a simulation in this phase as an introduction to an investigative phenomena where they present the simulation to the whole class while asking guiding questions to get students thinking and asking their own questions.

Explore Phase: Students could use simulations in this phase to explore the topic. Depending on the simulation, students design experiments and collect data or manipulate variables to determine the different outcomes. Students can work individually or in partners which encourages collaboration and communication.

Explain Phase: Students use a simulation in this phase to create an explanation that can be used as part of an “arguing from evidence” class activity.

Elaborate Phase: Students could apply the knowledge they have learned throughout a learning sequence to a new scenario presented through a simulation in this phase.

Evaluate Phase: Teachers could use questions provided with the simulation to formatively assess the students at juncture points within the learning sequence.

For more information on the use of the 5E in the NGSS, check out “Instructional Strategy for 3D Learning: 5E Instructional Cycle”, pages 12-16 of Chapter 11 (Instructional Strategies) of the California Science Framework:

Using simulations in the middle school classroom allows students to experience investigations that are not commonly done in a classroom because of equipment or safety issues such as dropping a bowling ball off a 300 foot building or studying a nuclear reactor. Simulations provide a risk-free environment where students are free to experiment, make mistakes, and rethink and redesign without fear of breaking or destroying something that cannot be easily replaced in a traditional setting. And, simulations allow students to experiment and collect data by taking out the time constraints.

Kings Canyon Unified middle school teachers have seen an increase in student engagement and in the learning of Disciplinary Core Ideas with the incorporation of online simulations in their lesson sequences. Most important, the teachers are seeing a growth in their students’ abilities to do science as they focus on the Science and Engineering Practices of the Next Generation Science Standards.


(2011). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from

(2016). 2016 Science Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten through Grade 12. Sacramento, CA: The California Department of Education. Retrieved from

Lesley Gates is a Project Director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative in Kings Canyon Unified School District and a member of CSTA.

 Loren Nikkel is a 6th grade science teacher, a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative in Kings Canyon Unified School District, and a member of CSTA.

 Kambria Eastham is an 8th grade science teacher, a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative in Kings Canyon Unified School District, and a member of 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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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

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.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 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.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. 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 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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.