September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Where’s the Nature of Science in the NGSS?

Posted: Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

by Larry Flammer

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2013) looks like the best thing that could happen to science education in this country. As long as teachers can be effectively prepared, and students are properly phased in (starting with elementary levels, then into middle schools and high schools), students should be far better prepared for high school and college level work.

However, when you carefully study the NGSS (2013), you will find that one critical topic in science is rarely seen there. Even the Framework (2012) devotes only two pages (78-9) to this topic. And that was because “Many of those who provided comments in an early draft thought that the ‘nature of science’ (NOS) needed to be made an explicit topic or idea. They noted that it would not emerge simply through engaging with practices.” (Framework 2012, p.334). By the way, those two pages in the Framework (2012, pp. 78-79) are rich with specific examples of the NOS. Every teacher should read them carefully.

We all recognize that students (and the general public) hold many misconceptions about the nature of science (NOS): its realm, its limits, how it really does what it does, and why it’s so successful in doing what it does. Those misconceptions color public (and student) understanding of many scientific concepts, not to mention public attitudes about politically sensitive issues that involve science, like climate change and evolution. In addition, “science” is widely misused in our society, leading to many pseudosciences that frequently mislead people. For our future society to function better than it currently does, students should be learning all of those elements of NOS, and recognizing all of those current misconceptions for what they are. They should also be learning the critical and skeptical thinking skills that scientists effectively use.

Current research clearly shows that those important NOS concepts are not learned very well unless they are taught explicitly. Assuming they will be absorbed automatically by doing inquiries and experiments has been shown not to work well. The Nature of Science must be taught as an important content topic in science (if not the most important topic). And it must be reinforced throughout every science course as it applies to the many other content topics being taught.

But the NGSS, perhaps reflecting its afterthought treatment in the Framework, relegates NOS to one of the several appendices (Appendix H). It says there that NOS elements have been added at the ends of selected Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts Foundation Boxes. But when they’re isolated in those places, it’s unlikely that most teachers will even see them, much less teach them explicitly! Most of their focus is going to be on the “Performance Expectations” (in the “Assessable Components” white box atop each Core-Idea page).

Snapshot of NGSS 5-LS2  Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics showing the Nature of Science Connection.  Source: California Department of Education.

Snapshot of NGSS 5-LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics showing the Nature of Science Connection.
Source: California Department of Education.

The NGSS Appendix H says, “… students should develop an understanding of the enterprise of science as a whole—the wondering, investigating, questioning, data collecting and analyzing.” Included in this appendix is a 2-page matrix in which specific Learning Outcomes are listed in each of 8 Categories for each of 4 Grade Bands. For middle school, there is a total of 26 NOS Learning Outcomes (LOs). For high school, there are 32 LOs listed.

However, for the four middle school life science Core Idea pages, only 5 of those 26 LOs were posted. And for the four high school life science Core Ideas, only 7 of those 32 LOs were given. Again, these were placed at the bottoms of the Foundation Boxes, near the bottom of each Core Idea page. NOS is not likely to be seen as being very important.

The Framework (2012) did acknowledge the importance of the nature of science, saying, “… there is a strong consensus about characteristics of the scientific enterprise that should be understood by an educated citizen” (NGSS Appendix H, page 1). It also says (page 2) “… learning about the nature of science requires more than engaging in activities and conducting investigations.” A number of studies have shown that NOS must be explicitly taught and frequently reinforced.

So, how can we do that? Have you been to any PD workshops where NOS strategies were emphasized (if discussed at all)? Not likely. Therefore, I offer two suggestions:


#1: Get the recently published book by Douglas Allchin Teaching the Nature of Science (2013). In that book, you will see the benefits of effectively using historical narratives about real science. Real science is often messy, unproductive and frustrating. Let your students relive a few of those very human histories, reflecting, discussing, and even proposing possible solutions, as scientists struggle to understand the natural world. These real stories are very engaging. For more details, see my review of that book at

#2: Take a look at Science Surprises: Exploring the Nature of Science. This is a little text supplement for students, written at 8th grade level, and made for students in any science class, grades 7-10. It is intended to be used in conjunction with selected interactive, student-centered NOS lessons on the ENSI website at Doing this unit will satisfy all of the NGSS NOS expectations. It even includes interactive lessons (meeting Common Core standards) on scientific argumentation, critical and skeptical thinking, how to distinguish good science from poor science, or pseudoscience, and even some math. The extensive Teaching Guide for Science Surprises is available to teachers (free upon request, using your school email address) from the ENSI webmaster. [Conflict of interest note: the author of this article is also the ENSI webmaster and author of Science Surprises.]

You should obtain and read these resources as soon as possible, so you will have time to properly prepare for your opening unit in the fall. You might even decide to use both of these resources, because they are mutually compatible. In the fall, you can introduce NOS intensively at the beginning of your courses, and relate back to those experiences with each new topic in your course. Make the coming year your very best year—for your students!

Larry Flammer is a CSTA member and the webmaster of the Evolution and the Nature of Science Institutes.

Written by Guest Contributor

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:

One Response

  1. Great article Larry, I also think the history of science is part of putting a great story together. This is a heads up to look for materials that take a historical perspective and deal with NOS.

Leave a Reply


California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at 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.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. 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.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” 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.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. 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.