September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 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.

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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:

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.

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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.