Tag Archives: Elementary

Elementary Science Transition to NYSSLS

Having spent a career teaching high school science, I am now engaged with the world of elementary science. The adoption of the New York Science P-12 Science Learning Standards (NYSSLS) in December 2016 has apparently rejuvenated interest in elementary science. Recently retired (meaning time on my hands?) and involved with the transition to our new science standards based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education and NGSS, I was drawn into professional development opportunities. I’ve learned a lot about how students should learn science, reasons to shift to significant core ideas, how to incorporate engineering, provide meaningful hands-on experiences, and engage with phenomena. These standards should address the needs of all students, incorporate real-world scenarios and when possible be community-based. What really excites me the most about the NYSSLS is the impact this will have on our youngest learners.

The hours spent with our elementary colleagues has given me some insight into their challenges teaching science. Besides the many times that their students are involved in activities outside their classroom, most admit their world is driven by and focused on ELA and math. Teacher evaluation, APPR, and district initiatives typically don’t elevate science learning to the level it deserves. Many are lucky if they get a couple of hours a week of science. Unfortunately, some only do “science” by using the literacy-based science in the ELA domains and modules from www.engageny.org. I’ve seen a wide variety of programs with science “push-ins”, STEM specialists, family STEM nights, STEAM classrooms and varieties of publisher and BOCES kits. Even with that support, most admit science can be short-changed. Since the past standards outlined in Elementary Science Core Curriculum Grades K-4 isn’t grade banded, each district has been left to develop their own scope and sequence so there may be a lack of coherence or much repetition based on “favorite topics.” Students that transfer between districts and sometimes other schools within a district can miss important foundations of science literacy. Sometimes, it’s the grade 4 teachers have the primary responsibility of preparing the students for the Elementary-Level Science Test given in grade 4.

Our New York State P-12 Science Learning Standards is very different for our young learners. Grade banded P-5 with specific Performance Expectations gives teachers and curriculum designers guidance as to what students are expected to know and do at the end of instruction. Coherence is presented by the progressions in grade blocks of K-2, 3-5, MS and HS for the three dimensions (Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts). This means that students learning science using curriculums developed from the NYSSLS will experience increasing expectations in how they learn (Practices), what they learn (Core Ideas), and what they look for in the questions they ask (Crosscutting Concepts). Students are expected to construct their understandings by doing science. Much greater depth in learning occurs when the focus shifts from knowing about science to them figuring out about science.

Many elementary teachers admit to me that their students say science is their favorite subject but the teachers are looking for support. The teachers I’ve worked with are among the most pedagogically talented teachers. I have seen them run with a token of an idea and turn it into fun activities, make ELA connections, and be totally appropriate to their school community. The challenge for STANYS and the science specialists across New York is how to support the transition of elementary teachers into NYSSLS. I’ve worked as a life science consultant with teams of elementary teachers and other science specialists writing grade 1 and 2 for Science21 and I can admit it is very challenging. Many elementary teachers feel they lack the background and confidence to dive into developing curriculum for science. They also wonder what these standards will look like on the student assessment which can help when developing curriculum. Our elementary programs need a good curriculum that maintains fidelity with the intent of the new standards. The elementary teachers and administrators need the training to recognize materials that are aligned and provide constructivist learning opportunities. They should be aware of the limits of the science content in the NYSSLS so they’re not compelled to teach well beyond and be sure to address science literacy for all the students.

This is an exciting opportunity for our elementary colleagues to teach science and for students to experience science as a platform for interdisciplinary learning. It has been shown that students that learn science this way not only show significant gains in science but students of high needs subgroups exhibit high gains, and positive gains are also demonstrated in subjects other than science.* Districts need a plan, decide on resources, and provide the support for the transition to an NYSSLS based elementary science program. It’s time we take advantage of our young student’s natural inquisitiveness and sense of wonder as an opportunity to teach and for students to learn science.

*Smithsonian Science Education Center. (2015). The LASER Model: A Systemic and Sustainable Approach for Achieving High Standards in Science Education. Executive Summary. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Calling All Elementary Science Teachers: Building Great Science Units Around Phenomena

Wild Rabbit by Tim Felce

When we think of phenomena, we usually think of things that are big and dramatic, hence the expression, “that’s phenomenal!”  The biggest science phenomenon of the summer may have been the solar eclipse – huge and spectacular (unless you watched it from Long Island, in which case it may have felt like a bit of a tease).  The devastating hurricanes that came at the end of summer are also awe-inspiring (although devastating) phenomena.

But “phenomena” has a broader meaning.  In Next Generation science, a phenomenon doesn’t have to be big –it can be anything that sparks curiosity and makes us want to know more. A tiny ant carrying a larger insect, a drop of water clinging to a leaf, a magnified grain of sand are all phenomena that can be used to introduce science units because, more than anything, they can inspire us to ask questions like:  What is this? What is happening?  How does that happen? Can we change what is going on?   In Next Generation science, phenomena may or may not awe and amaze us, but they always make us wonder.

As elementary teachers we know all about getting kids to wonder – it’s a key part of our job.  Now, as we begin to introduce Next Generation units, we’ll be thinking very deliberately about phenomena that can anchor units as well as phenomena that can introduce particular lessons within those units.  The key is to choose phenomena that will get the students wondering, questioning, and lead us into investigations that allow them to discover core science concepts and make connections across disciplines.

Phenomena can be introduced as photographs, videos, demonstrations, sensory experiences; but the best may be those we bring students outside to directly observe.  For example: Rabbits are everywhere this fall.  Take young students outside to observe them!  Then show a photograph that highlights the ears.   This will generate lots of questions: Why do they have such big ears?  Do they hear better with those ears?  What if their ears were not so big?  This can be an excellent way to induce a grade 1 unit on sound, or a grade 4 unit on external structures of animals.   After the rain, take young students out to see earthworms on the pavement. Then do some digging and observe them in the soil.   This will generate lots of questions: Why do they come up from the ground when it rains?  Will they die on the pavement?  Will they drown in the water?  How do they move in the soil?  This can be a way to introduce a grade 3 unit on environment and survival, grade K unit on push and pull.

Getting outside provides us with an endless source of phenomena to grab student interest, generate excitement and elicit the kinds of questions we need in order to build understanding as our youngest students discover for themselves the amazing way our world works.