Living Fossils as Anchoring Phenomena: NGSS HS Life Science Workshop for Teachers

The Next Generation Science Standards ask students to build and use a model of natural selection to make sense of the biodiversity, past and present, here on our planet.  

But how can we engage students in the critical task of asking questions and pursuing their ideas about evolution in the classroom setting? How can we incorporate primary sources and the analysis of actual scientific data into this experience?

Inspired by the recently developed Sense Making Frame of the Sacramento Area Science Project, an article from Understanding Evolution, and an extensive treatise on living fossils from American Scientist magazine I created a new professional development workshop and tried it on with one of my favorite teams of teachers I have had the pleasure to work: the middle and high school science teachers of Imperial Unified School District located just outside of El Centro, California.

To find out more, contact me here.

Science: Lost in Translation to the Public

A new dinosaur discovered that's even bigger that T. Rex?!

We spent 10 years preparing to land on a comet and totally messed up the landing?!

We are putting shrimp on treadmills?!  

The headlines for science are becoming as dramatic as the headlines for celebrity gossip in hopes to get more folks tuning into current research.  But this kind of marketing is backfiring and instead of engaging more with science, the public is developing a whole new set of misconceptions about the nature and value of science.

The public sees science slanted in this way and then they start asking questions about why we even do science anyways. 

For example: Why are landing on comets when we have so much to do here on our own planet? My personal recent favorite misunderstanding that played out very publicly online: Why is [my] taxpayer money going to fund shrimp treadmills?

You don't need to be a scientist to value science - you don't even need to know much about the specifics.  An appreciation for science can come from a general understanding of the nature of science and, more specifically, the why behind the headlines.

Yes, Spinosaurus was big, but so what?

There has been a lot of coverage about the discovery of Spinosaurus lately, the dinosaur that is lauded as the monster that was larger than T. rex.  The National Geographic story covering this discovery in detail is even called Mr. Big and begins with: "Move over, T. rex: The biggest, baddest carnivore to ever walk the Earth is SPINOSAURUS."

 

 

But, how much does it really matter to science that Spinosaurus was bigger than T. Rex?

It was a huge dinosaur. It was the largest carnivorous dinosaur that we have found in the fossil record yet. But that's not what matters to science. More importantly, it helps to address an interesting phenomena that scientists have been perplexed by for years known as Stromer's riddle, about the region it was found in: "Indeed, this region was inhabited by three enormous meat-eaters, each of which would have been an apex predator elsewhere: swift, 40-foot-long Bahariasaurus; 40-foot Carcharodontosaurus, like an African T. rex; and Spinosaurus, perhaps biggest and certainly oddest of all. Stromer speculated that large herbivores had probably been present—what else had the carnivores eaten?" 

It's not until the end of any story of Spinosaurus does anyone ever bring up this conundrum, yet it is what makes this research scientific and is ultimately the question scientists were pursuing and why they found out that what's interesting about Spinosaurus is that it scientists think it was an aquatic carnivorous dinosaur - the first of its kind. That would mean that it devoured aquatic prey and that that's the reason the ecosystem could support so many predators - they weren't all on land eating the rare land herbivore. That's the science, not the sensation.

 

 

5 Ways for Science Centers to Engage Teachers in an Era of NGSS

by Cristina Trecha, Director of the San Diego Science Project at UC San Diego

1. Ask teachers to PLAY and BUILD

Invite teachers into your indoor and outdoor spaces to explore, as learners.

Teachers build with found materials at the outdoor learning space of EarthLab in Southeastern San Diego. After building they reflected on their experience to prepare for their students' participation in the activity the next week.

Teachers build with found materials at the outdoor learning space of EarthLab in Southeastern San Diego. After building they reflected on their experience to prepare for their students' participation in the activity the next week.

2. Work BACKWARDS!

Don't "ALIGN" your existing curriculum to the NGSS, work from your own exhibits and resources to create new experiences for teachers and kids.

Provide teachers with opportunities to make sense of the phenomena at the heart of Disciplinary Core Ideas by engaging in the Scientific & Engineering practices using the language of the Crosscutting Concepts. 

Middle school teachers engage in open exploration of the exhibit floor at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center after spending the morning reading about and discussing the Crosscutting Concepts of NGSS. They then used the language of the Crosscutting Concepts to make sense of different phenomena on the floor. The final task was to post online using the language of the Crosscutting Concepts and share ideas with each other.

Middle school teachers engage in open exploration of the exhibit floor at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center after spending the morning reading about and discussing the Crosscutting Concepts of NGSS. They then used the language of the Crosscutting Concepts to make sense of different phenomena on the floor. The final task was to post online using the language of the Crosscutting Concepts and share ideas with each other.

3. Step up to the plate

Bring in teacher professional developers to lead collaborative discussions between local science teachers and your staff to develop shared language to talk about "doing" and "learning" science.

Classroom and science center staff contribute to a discussion about what needs to happen in the classroom for students to engage in the four strands of science proficiency as outlined in the National Research Council Framework. The NRC Framework is the guiding document for the NGSS.

4. Do what you do best

Science centers are in a position to define what engineering could look in the classroom. Invite your teachers to meet the exhibit engineers and find out how they approach designing exhibits.

Natural History Museums are in a position to showcase the nature and process of science. Invite teachers behind the scenes to talk to researchers in collections or libraries.

Margi Dykens at the San Diego Natural History Museum showcases four hundred years of botanical illustration from the museum's special collections as part of the Arts Integration into Math and Science series of the Fleet Inquiry Institute for teacher professional development. The teachers then explored 100 years of specimens in the botanical collections before heading out to a botanical garden to study the structure and function of flowers by engaging in a scientific illustration course.

Margi Dykens at the San Diego Natural History Museum showcases four hundred years of botanical illustration from the museum's special collections as part of the Arts Integration into Math and Science series of the Fleet Inquiry Institute for teacher professional development. The teachers then explored 100 years of specimens in the botanical collections before heading out to a botanical garden to study the structure and function of flowers by engaging in a scientific illustration course.

5. Establish your institution as THE local resource for teacher learning about NGSS

How do teachers currently perceive your institution?

How can you work with your marketing and exhibits department to use the language of NGSS in all public communication?

How can the NGSS inform your plans for professional and social events for teachers?

What do teachers want and need as learners in an era of new science standards?

You'll only find out if you take the time to ask!

Fifth grade teachers explore a skulls exhibit to compare and contrast the structure and function of systems and the stability and change of adaptations across the animal kingdom through time.

Fifth grade teachers explore a skulls exhibit to compare and contrast the structure and function of systems and the stability and change of adaptations across the animal kingdom through time.



Exploring Crosscutting Concepts: Scale, Proportion and Quantity

Why is it so hard to predict the weather? 

A major obstacle in forecasting the weather and accurately predicting the rate of climate change is the challenge of building system models and simulations that are able to account for EVERYTHING: from the very small to the very large.  In order to predict what clouds will form where, and what it is exactly they will do, would require a computer simulation that could account for the movement of all every molecule of water through the entirety of the Earth's atmosphere as well as countless other particles also found in the atmosphere, the oceans, and on the land.

This challenge of accounting for phenomena at multiple scales, or the dynamic range problem, grounds Kevin Heng's argument in his recent article The Nature of Scientific Proof in the Age of Simulations from the May 2014 issue of American Scientist.  

For Professional Development

This article provides a great visual to to anchor discussions of the crosscutting concepts of scale, proportion, and quantity.  Chunks of the text are also useful for engaging teachers in thinking about what counts as evidence in the community of astrophysicists and how the limits of our understanding the physical world impact what we can say about it at any moment.  

I have partnered this article with the curriculum from the Inquiry Project where teachers are constructing a 2 bottle system to develop explanations based on evidence about how water from one heated bottle ended up inside another bottle which is attached to it. This PD curriculum provides various intriguing phenomena for teachers to explore so that they can begin to develop a mental model to make sense of how water could travel through air and why it would.

Elementary teachers setting up their two-bottle system summer 2014

Specific to student learning about the NGSS Crosscutting concepts of scale, proportion, and quantity: "In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance." (Appendix G NGSS).

Our weather and climate predictions are based upon our understanding of these three elements and their interaction in either physical closed systems that we construct or computer simulations that we run. In order for teachers to begin to explicitly discuss the impact of these three measures, they need to engage in multiple experiences and discussions about different systems. Beginning with a system that builds teachers' conceptual understanding of the movement of water, is a place to start where we can complicate the often memorized "water cycle" and begin the work of teacher learning about the most important component of our modern planet.



NGSS Nature of Science: Dealing with New Evidence

Q: What happens when new scientific evidence comes along and challenges our current understanding of something?

A: The scientific community works together to revise their models and develop new explanations in light of this new evidence.  Discussing how scientists deal with new and potentially contradictory data can help us work with teachers' understanding of the Nature of Science.

This image from Slate.com

Before the NGSS, many professional development and classroom discussions about the nature of science were dominated by the teaching of the "scientific method."  One of the major charges of the NGSS is for us to no longer misrepresent the process of science as a linear "method" and instead provide students K-12 with a more accurate picture of the dynamic, creative, and often messy process science actually is.  

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for students to engage in the Scientific and Engineering Practicesbut also require that we build students' understanding of the Nature of Science, a field of study that is known by NOS for short.

The NGSS outline eight different aspects of NOS, I only highlight one in this post:  "Scientific Knowledge is Open to Revision in Light of New Evidence."  

A major shift in this representation of the process of science, is providing opportunities for students to revise their models of how the world works when new evidence and observations challenge their current understandings.  Beyond discussions of the outlier, we are now asking students to develop and revise models based on this new evidence and make sense of phenomena to develop a more scientific world view.

Below a one line from the matrix presented in Appendix H of NGSS which shows the student progression for the Nature of Science progression strand: "Scientific Knowledge if open to revision in light of new evidence." The development of this concept progresses from left to right: K-2, 3-5, middle, and then high school.

Q: How do we anchor teacher professional development in this aspect of NOS? 

A: Most recently, we've been using an article about the how scientists are dealing with the discovery of new flying avian fossils that are far larger than the current range for flying birds that they have developed.  The article delves explicitly into how the scientific community has, and will have to, deal with this new data to revisit and revise their model of not only the scale of flying birds throughout the history of life, but also what this large size tells us about their structure and function (Scale, Structure & Function are Crosscutting Concepts from the NGSS).  

"According to scientists in the article, 'It’s a scaling problem,' says Ksepka: Theoretically, extremely large birds cannot fly, because the amount of power they need to fly surpasses the power of their muscles." In other words: If a bird that large could fly, how did they do it and what can we learn about flight, form, function, scale, and adaptation from our investigation into the past?

Anchoring teacher learning with current research that explicitly discusses how scientists revise models, can serve as a great jumping off point for work directly related to student exploration of structure and function. This specific example could also provide ideas for a variety of rich experiences in the class for students to grapple with developing useful explanatory models in the life sciences based upon physics.

The article on newly discovered giant avian fossils can be found here. 

 

How to Build a Culture of Science Talk in the Classroom

It's the beginning of the school year where we set the norms and expectations for our classrooms. When doing this, how can we also build a culture of science talk in the classroom?

Try on this tool: Talk Moves

The Talk Moves checklist is one page guide designed to provide any teacher with some basic supports so that they feel more confident responding to student ideas and questions. The simple responses are designed to increase the importance of student ideas in discussion and classroom learning, specific to science.

Talk Moves represent a simple checklist of teacher responses to student talk that promote students to clarify and expand their thinking, listen carefully to one another, deepen their reasoning, and work with the reasoning of others. Based on research on teaching and learning, the Talk Moves are focused on making student thinking visible in the classroom.

If you are new to the idea of Talk Moves, here is a great introductory video from the Teaching Channel which provides a teachers' perspective on howTalk Moves help her to reach her goals for student talk.

With the rollout of Common Core many districts have started using similar talk moves in math, but often these teachers already implementing it in math do not, independently, transfer the approach to other subject areas such as science.

For professional development, a great resource is the Talk Science Primer by Sarah Michaels and Cathy O'Conner. This primer is easy to read and does a great job of actually translating research into practice giving many reasons to focus on student talk in the classroom.  It is a resource written for teachers and a selection from this short primer can be used for grounding small or large group discussion, a reading preparation for looking at classroom video during professional development, and to ground discussion of our transition to NGSS in the shifts we need to make in classroom culture so that student ideas are at the center.

Once educators get started with this tool, they also soon realize that the Talk Moves are simply a jumping off point and that they can create similar phrases with the same goals in mind to probe and press for students thinking in new ways. 

To see Talk Moves in action head to the Inquiry Project web site and take advantage of their library of videos and articles developed with teachers for teachers and professional developers.