Students in Suzan Locke’s first-grade science class are learning about plants. They’re studying structures, environments, and what kind of resources plants need to grow. At the same time, they’re getting their first lesson in package engineering, constructing a model that will help their plant travel safely home.
Surrounded by plastic soda bottles, cotton balls, and scraps of aluminum foil, the students work in groups to propose design elements based on the criteria and constraints of the project, just like the professionals.
For this exercise, Suzan adapted an instructional unit from the Boston Museum of Science’s Engineering is Elementary curriculum to fit her own classroom.
"The engagement and interest around science was so great," she said. "The kids got to debate and talk and discuss around their ideas, but they also used data and evidence to support their claims. Even as first-graders they can do that, and it’s a lot of fun to watch."
Making Connections Across Subjects
These 6- and 7-year-olds are learning to consider a problem, use scientific thinking to come up with a solution, model it with sketches and real materials, and evaluate their work to suggest improvements—an integration of biology, engineering, and critical thinking encouraged by theNext Generation Science Standards.
"The engineering piece is exciting, as a first-grade teacher. Students can think about problems they see in their own communities and ways they would go about solving them. As a teacher I can then bring in the scientific principles that they need to learn before solving those engineering problems."
An Introduction to the NGSS
In addition to being a first- and second-grade teacher, Suzan is also a science teacher leader for the Hartford School District in Vermont. She leads workshops on curriculum and lesson instruction to help other teachers move from traditional grade level-based learning expectations to the more integrated teaching style of the NGSS. Suzan specializes in embedding Common Core English Language Arts and Math into science instruction.
Suzan first became involved with the NGSS when her state asked her to participate in a professional development course called Literacy in Science: A Natural Fit, where she learned to support literacy learning with science instruction, and vice versa. The NGSS were being drafted at the time, and Suzan participated in the document review for her state, asking questions and giving feedback about how the new standards might work in practice.
Slowing Down and Taking Time
Between the time she’s spent working with the standards and experiences in her own classroom, Suzan’s done a lot of thinking about what the standards will mean for teachers.
"It’s not one-dimensional science anymore," Suzan says. "All three [disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts] have an equal part in your instruction, and you really have to look at balancing all three."
As a result, Suzan says teachers will need more time to weave the dimensions together as they plan their lessons. They’ve got to slow down and really understand how the three work together before picking an activity or choosing what their lesson will be.
"I was working with a group of teachers on developing an instructional sequence, and they didn’t realize how much time they needed to spend just getting to know what the NGSS was asking them to do before they started," says Suzan. "One of them looked at me and said, ‘We just spent an hour and I haven’t even chosen an activity!’"
"She said ‘You know, I used to always focus on the activity and not on making sure I understood what the standards were asking me to do. I think I’ll do a better job of choosing lessons and activities because I have a better understanding of what I’m supposed to teach.’"
An Exciting Time for Science
For administrators, it’s important to understand that teachers will need time to learn and become familiar with the NGSS document before they can begin the process of adapting their lessons.
"For elementary teachers right now, everything is new: the ELA Common Core, the Math Common Core, and now the science standards," says Suzan. "They need time to develop instructional sequences so that their writing time, their math time, their science time during the day can all be supporting each other and not just be isolated in one place. So you’re not doing science just during science time."
Once teachers become familiar with the NGSS, they can more easily see how its components work together to engage students in a more meaningful understanding of science, as well as how it connects to their other subjects.
"It’s an exciting time for science and theNGSS," says Suzan. "Teachers will see over time that they can go deeper into subject matter than they used to, they won’t be feeling like they’ve got to move from one topic to another. Instead it’s not about the topic, it’s about the science and getting to see how different core ideas can fit together."
Suzan’s Favorite NGSS Resources
As a teacher leader for her district, Suzan says it’s always about sharing. Here, she’s shared some of her favorite resources for integrating NGSS principles into your classroom instruction.
WCAX News Visits Suzan Locke’s Classroom to Look at Changing Science Standards
NGSS Classroom Activity
The Moon Challenge