January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Using the NGSS to Teach the Nature of Science

Posted: Monday, October 19th, 2015

By Lawrence Flammer, ENSI Webmaster

Do you know what misconceptions about science your students have? Surveys have revealed a low level of science literacy in our nation for many decades. A recent National Science Foundation survey (NSF 2014) shows us that only a high of 26% of Americans (in 2001) understood what studying something scientifically means, and that low number has even declined since then. Wide support and belief in “alternative medicine,” (unscientific medicine) and many other pseudosciences, are still very much alive.

We also see continuing problems with understanding and acceptance of scientific concepts that seem controversial to many, issues like climate change, vaccinations, and evolution. Many people don’t realize that such controversies are typically socio-political, not scientific. It is clear that our general population is sadly ignorant about how science really works. When we probe more deeply, it turns out that an accurate understanding of the nature of science (NOS) is fundamental to making those distinctions. According to the Framework for K-1 Science Education (NRC 2012, pp. 78-79), memorizing (or even experiencing) “The Scientific Method” myth doesn’t do it.

The Framework acknowledged the importance of the nature of science in its statement “…there is a strong consensus about characteristics of [NOS] that should be understood by an educated citizen.” NOS is “… knowledge of the constructs and values that are intrinsic to science. Students need to understand what is meant, for example, by an observation, a hypothesis, an inference, a model, a theory, or a claim and be able to distinguish among them.” Furthermore, there is ample evidence that many people do not recognize the realm, the limits, or the social context of science. Just what can science do, and what can it not do? How does science happen? Why is science more reliable than any other way of knowing?

What do your students understand about the nature of science? Do they know what it is? Do they know what it includes? Where do your students learn about NOS? Is it presented accurately in their science textbooks? Do you teach NOS explicitly, or are your students supposed to pick it up while doing inquiry labs, taking notes in your lectures, and watching your science demonstrations?

The Nature of Science in the NGSS

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013), was developed to provide specific standards that reflect the broad set of expectations outlined in the Framework. While the bulk of the NGSS addresses specific aspects of the Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), it also sets aside an important section (Appendix H) that focuses on key features of the nature of science.

Table 1. Categories (or Themes) For Nature of Science (NOS)
in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Appendix H
With clarifying phrases in italics, based on the Framework (2012)

  1. Scientific investigations use a variety of methods for gathering, analyzing, testing evidence/clues.
  2. Scientific knowledge is based on empirical evidence; on observations of evidence/clues, not authority.
  3. Scientific knowledge is open to revision in light of new evidence; claims are tentative to some degree; those that survive testing become less tentative, more durable, than others.
  4. Scientific models, laws, mechanisms and theories explain natural phenomena: words of science must be accurately defined.
  5. Science is a way of knowing: follows rules that are empirical, logical, skeptical, objective, giving the most reliable results.
  6. Scientific knowledge assumes an order and consistency in natural systems throughout the universe.
  7. Science is a human endeavor, involving creativity, biases, sensory limits, and benefits of teamwork
  8. Science addresses questions about the natural and material world, not the supernatural.

Included in Appendix H, are two pages structured into a matrix in which many specific Learning Outcomes are listed for each grade band and related to each of the eight Basic Understandings (“Categories” or “Themes”) about the Nature of Science (See Table 1). Four of these extend the Scientific & Engineering Practices dimension of the standards, and four extend the Crosscutting Concepts dimension. For middle school science, there are 26 Learning Outcomes (LOs). For high school science, there are 32 LOs. Some of those NOS LOs are included in those dimensions listed in the “foundation boxes” that accompany the assessable components for each set of DCI standards. But many are not. Given the practical importance for students to recognize the many aspects of NOS, it’s critical that you also incorporate as many of those NOS Learning Outcomes into your curriculum as you can. Before setting up your science curricula to follow the NGSS, be sure to read Appendix H, and make it a point to incorporate those NOS learning outcomes wherever you can.

Now, with Appendix H in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we have a mandate to bring a richer treatment of NOS that follows those standards.

Some teachers assume that doing investigations and experiments is all there is to NOS. Or, they assume that their students will somehow absorb the elements of NOS by just doing those activities. This is overly optimistic for all but the brightest students. Studies clearly show that NOS must be taught explicitly if students are to understand and retain that knowledge (Khishfe & Abd-El-Khalick 2002; Schwartz, et al 2004). Reflecting this, Appendix H also says that “… learning about the nature of science requires more than engaging in activities and conducting investigations” (NGSS Lead States 2013, pg. 2, emphasis added).

The key message here is that the nature of science (NOS) is not just the investigative process. For many years, we have recognized that there is an important distinction between the practices of science (doing investigations) and the intrinsic values, assumptions, limits and realm of science. It’s largely when these latter elements are not studied in science classes that most of the confusion and misunderstandings about science persist. For that reason, considerable attention should be focused on those elements when teaching NOS in all of your science classes.

Table 2. Acronyms Defined

NOS = Nature of Science

NGSS = Next Generation Science Standards

LOs – Learning Outcomes
(NOS practices in Appendix H matrix)

DCI = Disciplinary Core Idea

ENSI = Evolution/Nature of Science Institutes

Why Is Science So Misunderstood?

Many, probably most, science teachers have not had much, if any, personal experience with scientific research. This is especially true for elementary teachers, where their training is typically light in science (Lederman 1999). As a result, there is a wide reliance on textbooks, where both teachers and students become informed about science. This is true even in the secondary levels. But when we take a critical look at science textbooks, we find that they are still woefully inadequate, even misleading or inaccurate, in many of the important NOS elements (Abd-El-Khalick, et al 2008).

Many trade books and articles about teaching NOS have been published for teachers (Crowther , et al 2005; McComas 2004). But to my knowledge, there has not been any text for students to use that explains many of the elements of NOS and addresses the many NOS misconceptions. There needs to be a convenient text for students, with interactive lessons that students and teachers can use to help teach and reinforce NOS concepts, and effectively repair their misconceptions. Collections of lessons and activities with suggestions for use are out there for teachers to find and use (Lederman & Abd-El-Khalick 2002; ENSI NOS Lessons. But they lack the integrated structure to address the NOS issues in a coherent way, as a textbook could provide.

What You Can Do About It

So, how can you most effectively bring substantial NOS experiences to your students? Here are several suggestions:

  1. Recognize the problem. Read the research (see references), and see that we’re really not producing enough scientifically literate citizens. The list of references on the Understanding Science website can be very helpful. You might also consider giving your students a NOS Survey to see what misconceptions they have when they enter your class (and also use as a post-test at the end of your NOS unit or your course to measure their progress). Many teachers have found the Science Knowledge Survey on the ENSI website very helpful for doing this.
  1. Review Appendix H in the NGSS. As you look over the many Learning Outcomes listed in the two tables there, jot down ideas about when and where you think each LO would fit best in your curriculum. Make a point of doing at least one NOS lesson in every unit where it best applies.
  1. Gather activities and lessons that are engaging, interactive, student-centered, and focus on NOS, e.g., Lederman & Abd_El-Khalick’s 2002 chapter. Another excellent source is the ENSI website collection of NOS lessons. The ENSI lessons there were classroom-tested in the early 1990s, and have been used and enhanced by many teachers ever since (see FIGURE 1 for an example).

Figure 1 – Hooey Stick

FIGURE 1. The Magic Hooey Stick is a special kind of “black box.” The spinner changes direction on the command “Hooey!” This suggests something magical, and raises curiosity. But just saying “it’s magic” is not real understanding, so you can redirect that curiosity to seek a scientific (i.e., testable) explanation, and focus on the elements common in scientific inquiry. See the ENSI NOS lesson: Magic Hooey Stick.

  1. Read a few articles that feature and capsulize many of the common misconceptions (or myths) about NOS (McComas 2004; Lederman & Lederman 2004). Read “How Science Really Works” on the Understanding Science website.
  1. Read and use the Debunking Handbook for a researched approach found most effective in helping students to repair their misconceptions about science (but beware of the “Backfire Hazard”).
  1. Use Active Learning strategies to engage students in more effective interactive discussions (Freeman, et al 2013). See the suggestions and very helpful video link at http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/ActiveLearning.html.
  1. Organize your unit and its lessons in the 5-E Constructivist format as much as possible (Bybee, et al 2006). Creative searching for the Engage (1st) step can be the most challenging, but also the most productive. Remember that genuine curiosity is one of the most effective ways to stimulate your students’ motivation for learning (see FIGURE 2 for an engaging experience).

Figure 2 – Matching Tables

FIGURE 2. Matching Tables?: These two table-tops are exactly the same shape and dimensions. Why don’t they appear that way? (Original illusion by Roger N. Shepard in Mind Sights, 1990). Used in the ENSI NOS lesson: Perception is Not Always Reality.

  1. Use the new student e-text supplement Science Surprises: Exploring the Nature of Science for your students. This booklet coordinates several of the ENSI NOS lessons, and provides exercises to practice several aspects of NOS. Using this classroom-tested booklet along with the ENSI NOS lessons and the Teaching Guide (with its assessments) help to meet all NGSS NOS expectations. The strategies suggested for doing this (see 5, 6 and 7 above) have been incorporated and found to be most effective.
  1. It’s also very important to integrate the elements of NOS into every topic in your course. In every case, this must be done explicitly, so students clearly see the connections between science content and NOS (Lederman & Lederman 2004).

I close with a powerful appeal from Lederman & Abd-El-Khalick (2002, pg. 83) in their introduction (emphases added):

“It is highly unlikely that students and their teachers will come to understand that science is tentative, empirically-based, partly the product of human imagination and creativity, and is influenced by social and cultural factors solely through learning about the content of science or its processes. We believe that a concerted effort on the part of science educators and teachers to explicitly guide learners in their attempts to develop proper understanding of the nature of the scientific enterprise is essential. The notion of explicitness is imperative. It is critical that we target teaching the NOS if the desired impact on learners’ conceptions is to be achieved.”

It’s up to you. Think (and do) outside the “NGSS boxes.” Seek and implement NOS experiences in your courses that will meet the Learning Outcomes listed in the NGSS Appendix H. Do this explicitly, wherever you can. And share these insights with your colleagues. Set the goal of raising the science literacy level of all your students. You hold their futures in your hands.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., M. Waters, and A.-P. Le. 2008. Representations of Nature of Science in High School Chemistry Textbooks Over the Past Four Decades. J. of Research in Science Teaching 45 (7): 835-855. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tea.20226/abstract [Select pdf file to download].

Bybee, Rodger W., et al. 2006. The BSCS 5E Instructional Model: Origins and Effectiveness. NIH. Note: Select under “BSCS 5E resources” for Full Report. http://www.bscs.org/bscs-5e-instructional-model

Crowther, David T., Norman G. Lederman, and Judith s. Lederman. 2005. Understanding the True Meaning of Nature of Science. 9/27/2005. Teaching suggestions to help you highlight nature of science. NSTA WebNews Digest. http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=51055

Freeman, Scott, et al. 2013. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (23): 8410-8415. http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.abstract

Khishfe, R., and F. Abd-El-Khalick. 2002. Influence of explicit and reflective versus implicit inquiry- oriented instruction on sixth graders’ views of nature of science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 39(7):551-578. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/teaching/educational_research.php#khishfe.

Lederman, Norman G. and Judith S. Lederman. 2004. Revising Instruction to Teach Nature of Science. The Science Teacher 71 (9): 36-39. http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=49932

Lederman, N.G. and Fouad Abd-El-Khalick. 2002. Avoiding De-Natured Science: Activities that Promote Understandings of the Nature of Science. The nature of science in science education. Springer Netherlands. Chapter 5, pp. 83-126. tl.unlv.edu/sites/default/files/NOS_Activities.pdf

McComas, William. 2004. Keys to the Teaching the Nature of Science. The Science Teacher 71 (9): 24-27. web.missouri.edu/~hanuscind/4280/KeysToTeachingNOS.pdf

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Appendix H – Understanding the Scientific Enterprise: The Nature of Science in the NGSS. http://www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards [select Appendix H].

NRC (National Research Council). 2012. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, crosscutting concepts and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, pp. 78-79. [Click the vertical tab: “Hide Contents”]. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13165&page=78

NSF (National Science Foundation). 2014. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Chapter 7: Science & Technology: Public Attitudes & Understanding. Arlington, VA. [Scroll down to “Reasoning and Understanding the Scientific Process.”] Also see paragraphs 3-6 in the Overview/Introductory section. Subsequent data show that science literacy generally runs well below 50% in our country. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/index.cfm/chapter-7/c7s2.htm

Schwartz, R.S., N.G. Lederman, and B. Crawford. 2004. Developing views of nature of science in an authentic context: An explicit approach to bridging the gap between nature of science and scientific inquiry. Science Education 88 (4): 610-645. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/227643812_Developing_views_of_nature_of_science_in_an_authentic_context_An_explicit_approach_to_bridging_the_gap_between_nature_of_science_and_scientific_inquiry

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.

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STEM Conference Hosted by CMSESMC

Posted: Saturday, January 14th, 2017

The Council of Math/Science Educators of San Mateo County will be hosting the 41st annual STEM Conference this February 4, 2017 at the San Mateo County Office of Education. This STEM Conference is the place to get lots of new lessons and ideas to use in your classroom. There will be over twenty-five workshops and a variety of exhibitors that provide participants with a wide range of practical and realistic ideas and resources to use in their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs from Pre-K to grade 12. With California’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, we are dedicated to ensuring that we prepare our teachers to take on these educational policies.

Teachers, administrators and parents are invited to explore the many exciting aspects of STEM education and learn about and discuss the latest news, information and issues. This is also an opportunity to network with colleagues who can assist you in building your programs and meet new friends that share your interests and love of teaching.

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.

Opportunities to Support NGSS Implementation with CTC

Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017

What follows are several opportunities for science teachers to work with the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) on various projects that have direct or indirect implications for the implementation of NGSS in California. Please consider applying to one or more of the following opportunities.

CSET Field Testing Opportunities

Field testing opportunities for future CSET Multiple Subjects and Science tests are available beginning Dec. 5, 2016. Participants will have the choice between a $50 Barnes and Noble eGift Card or a $75 test fee voucher that may be applied to future test registration fees. For more information, including how to register to participate, please visit: http://www.pearsonvue.com/espilot/cset.asp. 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.

Submit Your NGSS Lessons and Units Today!

Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017

Achieve has launched and is facilitating an EQuIP Peer Review Panel for Science–a group of expert reviewers who will evaluate the quality and alignment of lessons and units to the standards–in an effort to identify and shine a spotlight on emerging high-quality lesson and unit plans designed for the NGSS.

If you or your state, district, school, or organization has designed NGSS-aligned instructional materials, please consider submitting these in order to help provide educators across the country with various models and templates of high-quality lesson and unit plans. 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.

Opportunity for High School Students – Los Angeles County

Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017

An upcoming Perry Outreach Program on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at the Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles, CA. The Perry Outreach Program is a free, one-day, hands-on experience for high school and college-aged women who are interested in pursuing careers in medicine and engineering. Students will hear from women leaders in these fields and try it for themselves by performing mock orthopaedic surgeries and biomechanics experiments. 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.

Science Education Policy Update

Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

January 2017 has proven to be a very busy month for science education policy and CA NGSS implementation activities. CSTA has been and will be there every step of the way, seeking and enacting all options to support high-quality science education and the successful implementation of CA NGSS.

California Department of Education/U.S. Department of Education Science Double-Testing Waiver Hearing

The year started with California Department of Education’s (CDE) hearing with the U.S. Department of Education conducted via WebEx on January 6, 2017. This hearing was the final step in California’s efforts to secure a waiver from the federal government in order to discontinue administration of the old CST and suspension of the reporting of student test scores on a science assessment for two years. As reported by EdSource, the U.S. Department of Education representative, Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary John King Jr., committed to making her final ruling “very shortly.” Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley presented on behalf of CDE during the hearing and did an excellent job describing the broad-based support for this waiver in California, the rationale for the waiver, and California’s commitment to the successful implementation of a new high-quality science assessment. As previously reported, California is moving forward with its plans to administer a census pilot assessments this spring. The testing window is set to open on March 20, 2017. For more information visit New CA Science Test: What You Should Know.

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.