If you’re reading this, odds are good that the idea of implementing the NGSS in your classroom is enough to keep you up at night. For many teachers, the task of updating their curriculum to reflect the new standards can appear extremely daunting. If you are one of these teachers, I say to you, “fret not”; with some modifications to the labs and demonstrations you already use in your classroom, you’ll master the NGSS and thoroughly impress your administration.
Most current science teachers were taught their subject matter in a very traditional way and carried this style of teaching with them into their own classrooms. The following steps may sound familiar:
1. Teacher shows a demonstration
2. Teacher leads the class through notes in a formal lecture/discussion
3. Teacher shows a few example problems
4. Teacher gives students a lab, complete with step-by-step procedures, to confirm something the teacher already told them
5. Teacher gives some type of assessment with open ended and multiple choice questions
In this scenario, the students are not learning science by DOING science! They aren’t asking their own questions or making their own discoveries; if we want students to understand science, we need to treat them like scientists! We urge children to be curious, make discoveries, and to ask questions as they grow up, but for some reason when students enter our classroom they seem to check their curiosity at the door. For example, you don’t teach kids to ride a bike by giving them notes on how to ride a bike. You let them get on the bike and try it for themselves. Sure, they may fall but you’re there to encourage them to get back on and try again until they can do it. We need to do the same thing in our classrooms. Students have been trained to be given the answer and apply a concept/equation to a very linear problem or question with no room to think for themselves or experiment. As teachers, we need to ask ourselves, “my students may understand the rules, but are they able to play the game”?
At their core, the NGSS focus on applying science to the real world and allowing students to make discoveries for themselves aiming to keep scientific curiosity alive in our students. Therefore, steps 1-5 above can be rearranged and slightly modified to allow for this. For example:
1. Teacher shows a demonstration to engage students and spark curiosity
2. Students perform a lab or complete station activities to try to explain the demonstration for themselves
3. The students and teacher discuss the students’ findings during step 2. In other words, the teacher helps students solidify concepts explored in the lab.
4. The teacher gives notes (definitions, equations, etc.)
5. The teacher gives a formal assessment (may include an exam, but usually isn’t only an exam)
By following these steps, we allow students to DO science. They can ask their own questions, create their own “experiments”, and make their own scientific discoveries. I was speaking with a co-worker and he said that after each observation during his student teaching experience, his professor would ask him “who did the most work in class today, you or the students?”; if he could answer “the students”, his professor knew that he had followed the NGSS. In a traditional classroom, most of the class time is consumed by a notes session, whereas in an NGSS-ified classroom, most of the time is spent with the students in the lab making their own discoveries (step 2 in both cases).
There are three main ways that the NGSS system can be implemented effectively in your classroom.
Model 1 – The 5E Lesson Model
• emphasizes inquiry, critical thinking, and the process of science.
• is backed by countless scientific studies that demonstrate its effectiveness.
• is built around the idea that humans construct knowledge and meaning from their learning experiences. That they build upon their prior knowledge and to be effective, learning needs to be active and allow the participants to construct new knowledge from their experiences
You don’t need to use each “E” in every class period, but over the course of the “mini unit”, your students should be actively involved in each of them at one point or another. Let’s take a look at each of them so that you have a better understanding of how you can use them in your classroom.
This is where you get your students interested in your lesson, you want them to be excited to learn, so do something that will grab their attention. Show a cool video, allow students to take part in a demonstration, show a discrepant event; anything that gets them interested and allows them to begin to ask questions and possibly use their prior knowledge/thoughts is great. In this step, you can identify their current level of understanding of the topic at hand and decide which misconceptions need to be addressed.
In this step, give your students the opportunity to get their hands on the material you’ve prepared. There are a number of ways this can be done (I highly recommend lab station activities, which will be explained later) but no matter what method you choose, your students will use and develop their critical thinking skills, make observations, collect data, and make connections to prior learning as well as the real world. In this stage of a 5E lesson plan, students are learning science by doing science.
Notice that this stage occurs AFTER students explore the concept, not before as it usually happens in a traditional science classroom. Again, the NGSS push towards students making their own discoveries, not being given them. After students have explored the topic they may have a bunch of pieces of the puzzle, but they may be unsure of how to piece them together. Therefore, you will use this stage to help them to do so. You can lead the class in a discussion/formal notes session using student observations and questions as ways to keep the conversation going. Use the discussion in order to clearly present the information to your students. Use this opportunity to: develop critical vocabulary, discuss and critique student observations during your explore phase, and help students to connect the concepts being discussed to the world around them.
In my classroom, students are given the opportunity to expand/elaborate on their knowledge by applying knowledge/skills developed in the explore and explain stages. The primary way that I achieve this is through the use of a digital scavenger hunt activity or scientific topic reading. Both options require students to apply their knowledge and solve real world problems while developing critical thinking and scientific literacy skills.
Students then present their understanding of the topic through some kind of assessment which is evaluated. The evaluate stage is part of the learning cycle where a teacher may decide to give an open ended test/quiz as a formal assessment. I emphasize the use of open ended questions because they afford students the opportunity to apply their knowledge to the real world. They are a better indicator of student understanding as they require students to support their claims (answers) with evidence and reasoning. Once the teacher has determined the level of understanding, he/she can pinpoint weaknesses in their students’ understanding and reteach if necessary.
Model 2 – Guided Inquiry PBL Labs
Imagine asking your supervisor (Principal, Department Head, etc.) to come and observe you and give feedback during a guided inquiry problem based learning lab. Their jaws will drop. Trust me. Full inquiry (giving students no direction at all in the lab) is very difficult to achieve, especially with students/classes that aren’t self-motivated. Therefore, before diving into a full inquiry PBL lab, I recommend starting with guided inquiry. For example, during my unit on inclined planes and friction (after students have already worked through Newton’s Laws and inclined planes without friction) I pose the following scenario to my students:
You work for a materials testing company that offers other companies ways to make sure that their products are safe and are made to a high degree of quality. A new customer has come to you to see if you can design a solution to a unique problem she is having; she owns a company that makes flooring materials such as ceramic tiles and hardwood floors. However, in order for her products to be sold at home improvement stores, she has been told that she needs to ensure that the amount of friction between her products and other household items is safe. She has no clue how friction works but is willing to pay you a great deal of money to partner with her company and develop a method to test it.
I then give them the following task:
Design a prototype for an apparatus capable of testing friction. You have never tested friction before, and frankly, you have no clue what it is or how it really works (but you’ll NEVER tell her that… you want the money). You must provide the customer with the following:
1) Background theory (proof you know what you’re talking about) – what equations do you use? What concepts must you understand in order to understand friction? Are there different types of friction? What affects friction?
2) A blueprint of your apparatus as well as materials that you will need for it
3) Procedures describing how to use your apparatus
4) All calculations
5) Data analysis – how do you know that your data is reliable?
By giving students a real world problem to solve (one many students interested in physics can relate to as many want careers in engineering), the task becomes much more tangible. They actually have a reason solve the posed problem and they are given the creative freedom to create a prototype of their own design. However, you are still there as a guiding hand for the students by giving them a place to start their experiment (i.e. the background theory in step 1). You may already do a lab like this with your students, but by eliminating step-by-step procedures and incorporating an engineering aspect, you allow students to make discoveries and do science – welcome to the wonderful world of the NGSS. This lab would take place over a few class periods (2-3 56 minute classes). On the first day, I allow students to do some research on Chromebooks or their textbooks and begin to create their procedures and design their prototype with their “engineering team”. On the second day, students set up their lab and collect data. On the final day of the lab, students complete their data collection and analysis and are given time to begin their lab write up which I use as a formal assessment.
When you (and your students!) feel comfortable employing guided inquiry, you may want to test the waters with a full inquiry “lab”. An example of this type of lab would be to give your students the following background and problem during your centripetal motion unit:
Background: In the trial of the century, an unnamed driver from Howell, NJ is suing New Jersey’s Division of Highway Traffic Safety for not properly constructing exit ramps on the Garden State Parkway. The plaintiff (the driver) got into an accident while exiting the highway on one of the banked off-ramps and claims that he was going the speed limit and following all safety laws at the time of the accident. Therefore, he believes that the angle the off-ramp was built for was not safe for the posted speed limit. The defendant (the state of NJ) claims that the off-ramp was constructed to the correct specifications and that the plaintiff must have been speeding at the time of the accident.
Problem: Both the plaintiff’s and the defendant’s team of attorneys has approached your science and engineering firm asking you to be expert witnesses in the case because of your unbiased viewpoint and knowledge of the physics behind banked curves. Your firm does not want to put their reputation on the line by choosing the wrong side to serve as a witness for. Therefore, you decide to perform some calculations prior to making a decision.
You then ask students to discuss what the best way to determine who is at fault would be, then give them data (angle of the incline, the speed limit, and the radius of the curve) and ask them to use that data to determine who is at fault. What makes this full inquiry is that the students are given no initial direction and are free to test any solution they want. Again, students are able to connect their learning to real world scenarios and they buy into the problem – they WANT to solve it. This doesn’t mean that students won’t get frustrated – they’ll want you to just give them the answer. It’s easier for them. Hold your ground and make sure that you don’t give them the answer. By all means, help them to the answer by asking leading questions but it will be so much more valuable and lasting for your students if they can answer the questions on their own.
Method 3: Experiment Stations
Similar to the explore phase of the 5E model, experiment stations provide a unique opportunity to create excitement and engagement for both you and your students. This is by far my favorite way to ensure students explore multiple facets of a concept and I use it in my classroom throughout the year as a way for students to discover equations or other more difficult concepts.
One of my favorite equation discovery equations I use is for torque. Torque is a physical quantity that is directly proportional to the net force, the distance from an axis of rotation, and the sin of the angle between those two quantities. In my classroom, I have six lab tables so I divide the class into six groups and set up each station with mini demos/experiments at each station. These demonstrations include many of the common demonstrations physics teachers do in front of the class already, such as balancing masses on a meter stick. I make one station an actual meter stick on a fulcrum with hanging masses with different values and another station a PhET simulation – the balancing act. Even though both stations explore the same parts of torque, you can accommodate different student learning styles by utilizing the proper technology. Another station is a torque feeler (a constant mass that can slide along a meter stick), and yet another is simply the door to the classroom. The possibilities are endless and you can get as creative as you want with the activities at each station, but at the end of the day, the students are given the same task: come up with a testable idea at each station, describe and conduct an experiment to test that idea, then write down any observations you can make. I give groups 6 minutes at each station and when the time is up, they rotate to the next station until they have visited each one.
As students work at each station, I circulate around the room listening to their conversations, ask them what their experiment is and what they’re testing, and encourage them to test the force, distance from the axis of rotation, and the angle by using leading questions. It is important not to specifically tell the students what to test – let them come up with (or at least believe that they came up with) the testable values. After students have visited each station, they share their observations with the class through a shared google document. Students then use the observations to determine what torque depends on and whether it directly or indirectly depends on that value. After determining this relationship, they write an equation (mathematical model) and submit it to me as an exit ticket. I use the results of those exit tickets to decide if my students “got it”. When they do, I move on to practice problems or a PBL activity that allows them to work with the mathematical model that THEY CREATED. They’ll be so proud of themselves, and you’ll be so proud of them.
When you provide students with a means of learning that allows them to really delve deep into a subject, come up with an equation on their own, or solve a real world problem, you’ll see the beauty of the NGSS. It’s that magical moment every teacher dreams of – the light goes on, they got it. There is no better feeling. Your students are actually doing science. They’re riding the bike. They’re playing the game.