NGSS Your Science Class

When I first started this site, my goal was to provide NGSS-aligned curriculum and instructional materials, plus some teaching ideas, to science teachers who were struggling to find resources that were truly aligned to the standards.

As our Facebook community grew and I interacted with more and more teachers, I realized that what everyone really needs is the training to create NGSS-aligned curriculum and resources for their own classrooms.  We are all teaching so many different subjects, grades, and standards — there was no way I could help everyone by just creating resources.

So I started exploring the idea of providing training on the NGSS, and last night, I did my first online workshop — Conceptual Shifts: The New Science Mindset.  If you would like to see the replay, click here. That said, one hour of time is just a drop in the bucket, and many teachers may be looking for additional training and guidance.

Enter Science Teacher Tribe and the NGSS Your Science Class course, launching August 1.

If you are in the thick of implementing NGSS in your own science class and are looking for support in the transition, the NGSS Your Science Class course may be for you.  In addition to 12 weeks of lessons, the course also includes complete access to the Science Teacher Tribe community and growing library of NGSS-aligned resources.

Course topics include: bundling standards; creating storylines; choosing anchoring phenomena; using performance expectations to create assessment tasks; three dimensional learning; deep dives into the 5E Model; formative assessments; content literacy strategies and writing in the science classroom; and differentiating for all learners. 

Course material will be presented through a weekly video workshop, accompanying resources for planning and classroom use, a weekly virtual PLC meeting where we can actually interact face-to-face, and personal feedback on the units, lessons, and instructional materials you develop.

Check out the course and Science Teacher Tribe here. Keep in mind, the resource library is growing and will include all of the resources currently available at my TeachersPayTeachers store by August 1 – plus additional resources that are currently in the works. And don’t delay too long – membership pricing will increase as the library grows.

If you have questions about the growing content (topics, disciplines, grade levels), please email me at and I can let you know if my resources would be a good fit for your classroom.

Likewise, if you have questions about group pricing for the course or site for your science teachers at the school or district level, please contact me at


Easy Strategies to Implement Three Dimensional Learning

Incorporating three dimensional learning can feel like trying to put together a million-piece puzzle. But relax, it's not as hard as you think!There’s a good chance the Next Generation Science Standards are unlike any standards you’ve used to teach in the past.  Old school science standards typically outlined content students needed to know, and separately, skills students needed to master.

“Students will be able to… explain how sedimentary rock forms.”

“Students will be able to… balance a chemical equation.”

“Students will be able to… graph data collected from an experiment.”

These standards not only lacked depth, but they also failed to demonstrate to students the interconnectedness of the natural world and the science and engineering fields that investigate it.  Students and teachers were getting hung up on minute details they didn’t need to know (hey, Google!) and completely missing out on the big picture concepts that foster engagement and deeper understanding.  And skills? Typically taught in a SINGLE unit as the “scientific method.” We were failing to develop science practices in our students.

Enter the Next Generation Science Standards.  These standards are literally designed to blend three important aspects of science and engineering education: the content, the skills, and the big picture ideas. The content is contained in the Disciplinary Core Ideas.  The skills are represented by the Science and Engineering Practices. And you can find the big picture ideas in the Crosscutting Concepts. There’s your Three Dimensions.

Breathe. I know, it’s a lot.  And the thought of figuring out how to weave it all together is probably overwhelming.  Check out three easy strategies below to begin integrating Three Dimensional Learning in your own classroom.

Side Note: In addition to your basic Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts, the NGSS also identifies two other “connections.” The first is Connections to Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science. And the second is Connections to the Nature of Science. I’ll be honest – I don’t want to overwhelm you or make this more confusing than necessary, so I have not included those in this post.  That said, ideally you will want to incorporate these understandings into your instruction. But, one step at a time!


1 – Three Dimensional Learning From The Standard

For one, you don’t technically have to weave anything together yourself.  The Performance Expectations are written in a way that blends it for you. Your job is just to pick the standard and identify the important parts (again, mostly done for you!).

The NGSS performance expectations are designed for three dimensional learning. The Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts are already bundled right into the standard!In the example above, you can see that the obvious SEP is “analyzing and interpreting data to provide evidence.”  Right off the bat, you know you need to include some activities that focus on using data tables, graphs, maps, etc.  Whenever I see a standard like this, I automatically integrate data (in whatever form makes sense) into all stages of my 5E instructional sequence.

I also take a look at the Crosscutting Concepts.  For this standard, “cause and effect” is the primary focus. As I think of the examples I will use to teach the content, I will want to focus on examples that show a very clear cause and effect relationship.

See It In Action:

I’m currently working on a unit that focuses on this very standard (as well as MS-LS2-2), and my Engage activity has students dive right into the data.  I chose as my introductory example the interaction between the snowy owl populations and Arctic lemmings. This example shows a very clear cause and effect relationship, which makes it perfect to emphasize that Crosscutting Concept.

The Activity

Students are divided into two groups, and each group is given a different graph.  One graph looks at the snowy owl population, while the other looks at the lemming population.  Working with their groups, they try to make sense of the changes in population shown on their graph by making observations and generating questions of their own. (Side Note: “Asking questions” is another SEP! See what I did there?!)

After students have some time to talk about their ideas, the groups are brought together and shown how the data looks when the graphs overlap.  They realize that the populations are rising and falling together. So when you throw in the fact that snowy owls feed on lemmings, they can begin to make the connection that populations change based on the resources available. Changes in one population CAUSE changes in another. (Oh hey, Crosscutting Concept!) This is three dimensional learning in action.

Students investigate data to determine cause and effect relationships in this NGSS-aligned activity.

Right from the beginning, my students are working with data, trying to puzzle out its meaning.

If you’re interested in the strategy I use to help students breakdown data presented visually (graphs, maps, etc.), you can sign up for my email list. You will get my free data analysis strategy guide, Activity Pack: Making Meaning From Data immediately.  Stay subscribed to get access to additional resources and teaching ideas.

It doesn’t end there, though.  The rest of the unit is likewise filled with data-related exercises.  In Explore activities, students repeat this process with data they collect themselves as they investigate relationships in ecosystems.  Then, in the Explain phase, students analyze their data to support claims about the effects of resource availability in ecosystems. Students repeat similar activities in the Elaborate phase.  They work independently now and extending their learning by making connections to previously learned material about biotic and abiotic factors. Finally, the assessment is taken right from these tasks.  Students analyze data to support a claim that organism interactions affect individuals and populations. Again, three dimensional learning. SEP: analyze data. CC: cause and effect. DCI: interactions between organisms.

Sum It Up:

After identifying the SEP that my Performance Expectations focus on, I attempt to incorporate some aspect of that SEP into the majority of my activities. Knowing the Crosscutting Concept (cause and effect), I choose examples that show cause and effect. I use the practice to teach the concepts.  In this case, I use the data we are analyzing to teach the core concepts:

– that the growth of organisms and populations is dependent upon resource availability,

– and that the interactions between organisms in an ecosystem affects the survival and growth of organisms and populations.


2 – Sprinkle On Some Extra Three Dimensional Learning

In addition to the SEPs and CCs that the Performance Expectation focuses on, I try to sprinkle in some “extras” to really integrate three dimensional learning.  The more I can do it, the more of a habit it becomes.

For example, it may mean simply taking two extra minutes to have students generate some of their own questions about a phenomena. Why does the snowy owl population rise and fall every four years?  Or it could mean adding a short research component to a homework assignment.  The first example touches on the Asking Questions SEP, while the second addresses the Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information SEP.  I might ask students to draw a picture with captions to explain something we observe (Developing and Using Models). Or make a claim to explain something observed (Constructing Explanations).  Or provide evidence for a claim I provide (Engaging In Argument From Evidence). As you become familiar with three dimensional learning – and the three dimensions themselves – you will begin to see opportunities to incorporate a practice in each and every activity, even if it’s not the focus of the activity.

In terms of Crosscutting Concepts, I try to look at the activity I have envisioned and ask myself, what CC aligns? Are we discussing cause and effect relationships? Is this a system we are talking about? Based on my interpretation, I throw in a question or two that directly addresses the CC.

How can you sprinkle in Crosscutting Concepts to better implement 3D learning? Check out these sample questions to get your brain in gear.

See It In Action:

For example, I might ask:

Patterns What patterns do you notice in the locations of earthquakes?
Cause and Effect In your opinion, did the introduction of cane toads cause a decline in native frogs? What could be another cause for the population’s decline?
Scale, Proportion, and Quantity How do populations grow?
Systems and System Models What is the role of living things in the movement of carbon?
Energy and Matter Can you describe how energy is moving through this ecosystem? Where is it entering? Where does it go?
Structure and Function How does the structure of H2O explain adhesion?
Stability and Change How does an increase in atmospheric carbon result in changes in ocean salinity?


3 – Direct Instruction On The Three Dimensions

While the goal is to integrate the three dimensions into your curriculum and daily lessons, your students may benefit from occasional direct instruction on a SEP or CC.  This may occur during the Explain phase of a unit, or you could allot a “random day” to focus on a specific SEP or CC. Really, you could be doing both.

See It In Action

For example, in my Interactions in Ecosystems unit, the emphasis is on the CC of cause and effect.  I take some time during the Explain phase to directly teach this concept. We discuss what a cause and effect relationship is, how we can determine cause and effect relationships, and then explore some examples of cause and effect relationships.  Throughout the remainder of the unit, I incorporate the concept into activities to reinforce their understanding. I ask, do you think this is a cause and effect relationship? Why or why not? Or students may be asked to highlight the information that suggests a causal link in a text.

Alternatively, I may utilize an entire day to teach a SEP or CC when we have one of those random days between units, right before or after a break, or when the schedule gets all wacky with assemblies or other disruptions.

See It In Action

In this case, studying forces in a physical science classroom is a perfect opportunity to discuss stability and change.  The motion of an object is determined by the forces working on it. When those forces change, the system becomes unstable, and there is a change in motion.  Forces can build up slowly, or they can change suddenly. And small changes in one part can cause big changes in another.

Students could explore this concept by playing with dominos.  A sudden application of force to the first domino can have big repercussions down the line as it takes down an entire series (of potentially even larger dominos)! After introducing the concept in this initial activity, I could follow up with other examples and lead students in a discussion of the CCC’s main ideas.  Instead of wasting a day watching a movie or filling it in with busy work, I’ve taken advantage of another opportunity to integrate three dimensional learning.

Three ways to integrate 3D learning? Use the NGSS standards. Sprinkle it in. Teach it directly. Learn more here.

If you want to learn more about integrating engineering practices specifically, check out these recent blog posts:

Engineering In Science: Why You Should Be Teaching It

Teaching Engineering: What NOT To Do

Integrate Engineering: A How To Guide For Science Teachers

Integrate Engineering: A How To Guide For Science Teachers

So far we’ve discussed WHY you should integrate engineering and how NOT to integrate engineering… so what SHOULD you do?! I’ve compiled a few ideas to get you started!

First, let’s define what engineering IS. According to the National Research Council’s “A Framework for K-12 Science Education” — which the NGSS are based on — engineering means “any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems.” I know I have always thought of engineering in the sense of – let’s build something. While that is certainly a part of engineering, “engineering” encompasses a whole bunch more skills than just “building stuff.” So you can put that hard-hat wearing, steel-toed manufacturing man out of your head right now! Engineering is MORE than that.

Essentially, an engineering activity could be anything where students are working toward solving problems using a “systematic practice” — aka, not just blindly throwing things together but rather, approaching the task in a structured, focused way.

When you think of engineering in this way, it opens up TONS of opportunities for incorporating the engineering end of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). So let’s dive in!

1 – Integrate Engineering as Practices

You don’t have to engage students in the entire engineering design process to integrate engineering. You can incorporate different parts of the process or just the skills that are used in the process through the very same activities that students are doing to explore the science content. How could that work?

Example 1: Defining Problems

The SEPs expect students to define problems. This is not quite as simple as telling you there’s a problem, but that’s a start. Students must take that a step further in middle school and specify criteria and constraints. Criteria are the requirements that would make the solution a success, while constraints are the limits on the solution.

How to integrate engineering into your science curriculum.

In practice, you could see students doing this when discussing earthquake safety measures. The problem people want to solve is earthquake-proof homes.  Criteria might include that it (obviously) can remain standing through an earthquake.  Additional criteria could be that it has several floors, doors, and windows. Why? Because these are all things that people would likely want to have in their homes. Constraints could relate to aesthetics, the technology and materials available, and the cost. Engaging students in discussions like these is one way to integrate engineering practices into your daily classroom. Plus, this type of activity would not take very long at all.

Example 2: Optimize A Solution

Another engineering practice that students can engage in is optimizing solutions. To build this skill, students would examine existing solutions, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. “Existing solutions” can be pieces of technology, systems, or even processes. They would consider how each solution stands up to the criteria and constraints in a structured manner.  They might use an evaluation tool or matrix to do this. To take the activity a step further, students could actually test several different designs against a set of criteria. They may then consider and develop ways to improve the proposed solutions.

For more ways to integrate engineering practices into your classroom, be sure to tune in to the workshop on July 12! Subscribe to the email list here to receive a reminder.

2 – Emphasize the Engineering Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards really set you up to integrate engineering, even if you may never have planned on it. How? They directly incorporate those practices into the content standards. Both the Middle School Physical Science and Life Science standards contain PEs that directly assess engineering practices.

A quick list of middle school NGSS standards that focus on engineering practices.

The best way to address these standards (actually, ANY NGSS standard) is to examine the Evidence Statements. These can help you structure the assessment and guide your instructional sequence.

Example 1: MS-LS2-5
Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.*

In the past, I have met this standard during my ecology unit through an Invasive Species Project. While it is the capstone activity of the ecology curriculum, I interweave the issues and practices through all of the instructional sequences leading up to the project. So before we even dive into ecology, we do some current events work with the issue of invasive species.  We get out into the community and do some service learning (want to pull garlic mustard, anyone?). And we set the stage for discussions of ecosystems by talking about disruptions in ecosystems. Only then do we dive into learning about ecosystem organization, interactions in ecosystems, food chains and food webs, and the cycling of matter. We wrap up the entire learning sequence with this project.

You can learn more about the project in my blog post, Teaching With Invasive Species. The gist is that students research an invasive species and then design a community action plan to address the problem of its presence or spread. Looking at it, you may be surprised this qualifies as an “engineering project” because it does not always involve designing some sort of prototype or tech gadget. Some students design their plans based on education or altering human behavior, while others may design an actual device to remove or prevent the spread of the invader — or otherwise aid native species. If you think about it though, either approach is developing engineering skills. Students identify and define problems. They describe criteria and constraints — economic, social, or technological.  They brainstorm and create solutions. Then, they evaluate the solutions proposed in relation to the criteria and constraints identified. In that sense, even the groups that focused on education and human behavior were working those engineering muscles.

Teaching with invasive species creates a connection to the local environment AND engage students in real world problems!

That said, a more traditional approach to an engineering standard would be something like the Save Peter Penguin! activity.

Example 2: MS-PS3-3
Apply scientific principles to design, construct, and test a device that either minimizes or maximizes thermal energy transfer.

In this project, students are tasked with building a home for a penguin ice cube that minimizes the transfer of thermal energy — and keeps Peter from melting. Before engaging in this project, students would undertake a unit that investigates thermal energy, temperature, the conservation of energy, energy transfer, and conductors and insulators. In order to fully align this project to the NGSS engineering practices, instruction and implementation should emphasize two things.  First, students should have a scientific rationale for design decisions and engaging students in a structured redesign process — not something added on “if there is time.” Evaluating and then redesigning solutions is a KEY part of the engineering process, and it should be a key part of the project as well.

3 – Connect With The Community

Lastly, you can integrate engineering into your curriculum by bringing your students into the community — from local to global. Locally, you can reach out to companies with a presence in your area and see if they offer any educational programs, field trip opportunities, or partnerships. In my hometown, there are a number of companies that love to pair with schools — from Eriez Magnetics to GE Transportation to BASF Corporation. You may even have some parents who work for companies like this that would be interested in making connections for you or even guest-speaking. The value here is that students can see the types of work and career options available to them if they pursue STEM fields.  Plus, these partnerships could lead to significant other opportunities for your classroom or district, in terms of programs and funding in the long run.

Beyond the corporate world, colleges and universities that offer engineering and technology majors may also have opportunities to work with their students or faculty. In Erie, Penn State Behrend offers engineering programming for preK through 12th grade students — both on-campus field trips and off-site school visits. Students get a taste of a college campus and get to work with real scientists and engineers in hands-on activities. You may be surprised what your local universities offer.  And if they don’t, you might be able to create your own opportunity by reaching out to faculty and staff. Don’t be shy! The worst they can say is no!

4 – Compete

On a more global scale, students can participate in national and international STEM competitions. My fifth grade students participated in Toshiba ExploraVision, where students research and design cutting edge technology to solve a real-world problem. A similar competition, eCybermission, asks students to work in teams to investigate and solve pressing international issues — from food security to energy resources to water quality.

Engage your students in engineering by participating in national and international competitions!

So What’s Next?

There are so many ways to integrate engineering into your classroom. You DON’T need to be an engineer yourself to succeed. Start with baby steps.  Incorporating engineering as practices. Then, work your way up to designing instruction to meet the engineering standards. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others for advice, support, and learning opportunities. Whatever you do – just do SOMETHING. Give it a try – it’s what engineering is all about!


If you are looking for support in incorporating the NGSS into your classroom, I’d love to have you join the community, NGSS for Middle and High School Science Teachers.

Teaching Engineering: What NOT To Do

Someone once told me that the things you dislike most about other people are actually the things you dislike most in yourself.  I’m not a psychologist or anything (obvi), but I can say that from my own limited experience, I can see some truth in it. Some of my biggest “teacher pet peeves” are things that I have struggled with in the past, and one of those things? Teaching engineering.

If you’re familiar with the Next Generation Science Standards, you’re aware that the “Scientific Method” is a thing of the past and has been replaced by the concept of Science and Engineering Practices.  The key difference is that these practices don’t have to follow a linear progression — they can be incorporated at any stage of learning. While the “scientific method” was typically a one-and-done lab or project, the Science and Engineering Practices (henceforth SEPs) can – and should – be incorporated in some way into ALL of your lessons and activities. (If you aren’t sold on WHY, check out last week’s post!

What are the SEPs?

                         Teaching science and engineering practices should be a part of every class. Teaching engineering practices and science practices should be a part of every class.

Ok, so those are the SEPs, but that’s not what we are chatting about today. Today, we are looking at – basically – how NOT to teach the “engineering” part of the SEPs. By observing other teachers, administrators, curriculum creators, and so on and so forth, I’ve identified a few big “NO NO’s” when it comes to teaching engineering – and trust me, I did ALL of these things.  But just because you did them before doesn’t mean you should keep doing them, right? So stop. Stop them right now.

Three mistakes you might be making when teaching engineering - ok, actually, it's FOUR ways! This guide will tell you what NOT to do when it comes to engineering!

Way # 1 – NOT TEACHING Engineering

Ok, so this is actually like Way # 0 because it’s not actually a way at all… but a lot of teachers do this (again, myself included). I didn’t know how to teach engineering, I didn’t really like teaching engineering, and so I just didn’t. I ignored the engineering standards, I ignored the engineering SEPs, and I just skipped over all that. Oh, I had my excuses. “Engineering takes too much time.” “It’s too messy.” “It requires supplies I don’t have.” “It isn’t really a part of my curriculum.” (LIE!) But basically the gist was, “I don’t know what to do, and I don’t want to figure it out.”

Here’s the problem — your students are missing out.  YOU might not like teaching engineering. But THEY might like learning it. In fact they probably do.  And even more than that, your most difficult kids? Those are the ones who would probably LOVE an engineering activity, and they are the ones who need those positive experiences most. It has absolutely been my experience that the most “difficult kids” are the ones that excel at engineering challenges – they bring creativity, innovative thinking, determination, and enthusiasm, and their projects generally ROCK.

Way # 1 (The Real #1) – Using Engineering As A Filler

Been there, done that.  Engineering activities are always a filler, right? You need something to do before the classroom Halloween party or on that weird half day before Spring Break.  Engineering is perfect for that! Quick activity, fun and hands-on, and it keeps them busy and entertained on those days where you probably won’t get much work done anyway. Eeeeexcept that’s not showing our students what engineering is, why its valuable, and how it is completely intertwined with the study of science (and basically all other fields, too).

Engineering activities are fun, but they are more than that.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t incorporate engineering as a filler activity ever – I’m on board with you using it on those off-schedule days.  But that should not be the PRIMARY way you teach engineering. Or you’re going to find your students value it just as much as you do… (which is obviously not a lot).

Way # 2 Teaching Engineering As A Unit

I actually haven’t done this one, BUT I have fallen for the “Scientific Method Unit” early on in my career. And um, FAIL. Neither of those things should ever be a stand-alone unit.  When you do, you’re conveying to students that those things happen independent of all other things. That is simply NOT the case. I think this is why we have moved away from talking about the “scientific method” in favor of SEPs.  You’re not going to teach a whole unit on SEPs. You’re going to use them as they are intended, as PRACTICES that students PRACTICE throughout the year.

Engineering works the same way.  Engineering is not a unit in and of itself. The activities you engage your students on should not just stand alone with no context or reason.

I see this happen ALL THE TIME. I’ve gone to so many “engineering workshops” where students “build a parachute to hit a target.” Ok, great. Why?

Why? Why? WHY? WHY? WHY?!?

Why are we building parachutes? Why should I care? What’s the point?

Oh, and designing that parachute… I just use stuff? I just put things together? Is there a rhyme or reason to this activity? (Real Talk: There isn’t.)

And that’s NOT ENGINEERING! Engineers solve PROBLEMS – so if there’s not a problem, it’s just a fun craft.  And engineers use SCIENCE to solve PROBLEMS. So where’s the science?

When you present engineering as a stand-alone unit, you’re not tying it to the science that engineers use or the real-world problems that engineers are trying to solve.  You’re creating fun craft projects that maybe? will help students understand how the world works — but you haven’t set a real learning target there so who knows if you’ll hit it.

Way # 3 – Tack It On At The End

This is probably the most advanced way to fail at teaching engineering.  Teachers (again, like me!) who simply “tack it on at the end” have at least incorporated engineering, woven it into their curriculum, and connected it to actual content.  So for all that, I do say YAY! Kudos! You’re totally on the right track, and you’re probably way more advanced than most! You are engaging your students in engineering projects and giving them real-world problems to solve related to the content.  This is PROGRESS.

But how can you take it further? Well, right now, you’re squishing all of those SEPs into a culminating project without (theoretically) exposing students to the SEPs – and giving them time to practice them – throughout your unit.  You’re assessing the SEPs through the project without teaching them during the instruction. Uh oh!

Just like our science content, the SEPs must be directly taught if we are to expect students to learn them.  Obviously, they aren’t going to be the focus of EVERY activity. But we should be embedding activities into our curriculum that put the SEPs in the foreground, while allowing them a place in the background of other activities.


A Better Way: Teaching Engineering Throughout Your Unit

I just finished a unit for my middle school life science curriculum about biomes.  The core content of the unit is biomes, biotic and abiotic factors, and how organisms depend on abiotic factors for survival, growth, and reproduction.  The unit addresses the crosscutting concepts of cause and effect relationships and systems/system models.  It also incorporates the SEPs of analyzing and interpreting data and designing models.  Some of the activities in this unit focused on the content — learning about the biomes and figuring out what abiotic and biotic factors are.  These activities included some data — graphs that shows temperature and precipitation, maps of the biomes, etc.  But the focus of these activities was the content.

On the other hand, I also included activities where students analyzed data to understand the relationships between abiotic and biotic factors.  The focus here was on analyzing data, because – to be honest – I don’t care that students know that mosquitos grow faster when the temperature of their pond increases.  My goal was for students to be able to interpret the data and draw conclusions from it. Yes, I wanted them to come to that conclusion, because that showed that they appropriately demonstrated the practice… buuuuut the conclusion itself was not something I really cared that they remembered.  When it came time to assess their learning, the mosquito development and water temperature case study was just one of SEVERAL examples they could have used in their discussion of the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors.

See what I mean? I incorporated SEPs (analyzing data) into both activities, but it was clearly in the background of the first and in the foreground of the second.  In the same way, you can incorporate the engineering SEPs into your daily lessons so that students are building the skills well before they are asked to complete an entire engineering project.

So now what?

So now that we’ve figured out what NOT to do — what DO you do!? I’m going to dive deeper into this subject over the next few weeks to give you some practical tips, tricks, and resources to integrate engineering into your curriculum this year.

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Engineering In Science: Why You Should Be Teaching It

Why you should be incorporating engineering standards and practices into your science classroom. For the science teachers amongst us (me!), engineering can be pretty intimidating.  There’s a very real possibility that your education did NOT prepare you to teach it. Yet if you’re following the Next Generation Science Standards, it’s your JOB to.  Engineering is woven into the NGSS across the board:

  • standing alone as Disciplinary Core Ideas,
  • represented in the Science and Engineering Practices,
  • popping up in a number of Performance Expectations,
  • and integrated into some of the Crosscutting Concepts.

You can’t align to the NGSS without addressing engineering.

But if that’s not enough to convince you to jump on the engineering bandwagon, here are THREE more reasons to get your butt in GEAR. (Does that count as an engineering joke?!)

1. engineering Engages students with Real-World Problems

Engineering activities are a great way to lend authenticity and urgency to your science content, because you can engage students in solving real-world problems. Even simply DEFINING the problems is an engineering practice that students can get into!

I firmly believe middle school students want to do things that matter. Both my own memories of middle school and my observations of my middle school students have proven this to me time and again.  Engagement skyrockets when middle school students have a real-world rationale to understand and apply, and engineering can be the vehicle through which you accomplish that.

Sure, learning about thermal transfer is great — but wouldn’t it be even more awesome if they had to use their understanding of thermal transfer to design a house for some over-heated penguins?

Science concepts are so much more engaging when students can apply them to solve real world problems — like learning about thermal transfer to design homes for over-heated penguins!


2. Engineering develops 21st Century Skills

I know we are all working really hard to move away from “drill and kill” methods of teaching, trying to pour content into empty receptacles (aka student brains) and hoping they can spit it back out when test day comes.  That’s what the NGSS is all about, right? Less content, bigger concepts, more depth, and more practices.  But even so, many of our classrooms still probably look pretty traditional.  We have students working at desks with pen and paper, reading and writing, some computer work, with the occasional presentation or project.  I get it. Not only is this how we were taught, but it’s also how most of our curriculums have been designed.  And on top of that, reading and writing is absolutely a critical skill our students must master.  No argument here.

But there are some other skills, too — like creativity, problem-solving, determination, and teamwork — that need to have a place in our classroom.  These skills are really just as vital, but they often don’t receive the focus they deserve.

Engineering develops ALL of those skills.  When you give students engineering challenges, they must think creatively to solve the problem.  They must work as a team.  They are bound to fail the first time around (especially if you throw in design changes, my favorite!), so they have to develop that grit and determination to keep on going and keep on trying.  In fact, engineering normalizes failure and can help develop the growth mindsets we all want our students to have! (For a free growth mindset poster set, be sure to access the Free Resource Library!)

The great thing about teaching these skills through engineering is you’re never sacrificing content for character. Students are learning and developing both simultaneously.

3. engineering is a lucrative career option

… that we aren’t preparing our students for.  Let’s be honest – engineers can make a lot of money.  They can make a lot of money with just FOUR years of post-secondary education.  I have a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and some post-Master’s credits… and I made a third of what some engineers with a four year degree are making coming out of college. When I worked at a private, school, some engineers made EIGHT TIMES what my annual salary was! WHAT!?!

I’m not saying that all of your students are going to – or should – be engineers. But by failing to expose our students to the field, we are failing to prepare them for a career they may be perfect for.  On top of that, engineering might just be the perfect field for that student who can’t get into the novel you’re teaching or the documentary you showed, the student who can’t follow the step-by-step instructions you printed for that lab today.  By exposing them to a different kind of “science,” you could be opening a door to their future.

Great! I’m on board… now what?

I’m going to dive deeper into this subject over the next few weeks. My goal is to give you some practical tips, tricks, and resources to integrate engineering into your curriculum this year.

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Finding A Good Anchor Phenomenon For Your NGSS Unit

How to find a good anchoring phenomenon for your NGSS unit!One of the big shifts with the Next Generation Science Standards is that you are no longer teaching content for content’s sake — science instruction is no longer based around a list of facts, but rather, the focus is on the broader concepts that connect those facts together and the skill development necessary to investigate and understand those concepts. One way of focusing students on the “big picture” in a unit is to present an anchoring phenomenon that students work toward understanding and explaining.

When I first learned about anchors, I will be honest – I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about. I mean, I understood that doing a demo in a physical science classroom could be an anchor that students could explore throughout the unit — but what about my life science class? What about my earth science class?

Since then, I have spent some time learning about anchoring phenomenon, and I really feel my students benefited from what I was able to implement. Whenever we started a unit, students were immediately engaged in the content and prior knowledge began to surface. They were able to connect with what we were learning about, and they were able to see how one concept connected to the next by seeing how it all related to our anchor.

And in terms of planning, I actually always identify the anchoring phenomenon before I develop any activities in a unit. I want to be sure that my activities are tied into the anchor and providing the information they need to solve that problem or answer that question. The anchors literally hold the content together, in a way.

Obviously, choosing a good anchor is important!

So What Is An Anchor?

An anchoring phenomenon (or “anchor”) is either a fascinating natural phenomenon or a meaningful design problem that studnets must engage in science and engineering practices to investigate. Anchors can keep instructional sequences coherent and on target, allowing a storyline to develop that help students understand the concepts they are learning and how they are all interconnected.

What Makes A Good Anchor?

Choosing an anchor is an important step when you are designing your units and instructional sequences, and not every natural phenomenon makes a good anchor. So what does make a good anchor?

  • an anchor builds upon student experiences. Ideally, students should have some prior knowledge of or experience with the material. This does not mean they must fully understand it or be able to explain it — in fact, that wouldn’t be a good anchor at all! — but they should be able to connect with it in some way. For example, all students have probably watched rainwater run down the road, carrying dirt and debris with it. An anchor for a watershed unit could simply be that very description, along with the question: where does all the water go?
  • an anchor connects multiple NGSS performance expectations. When you lay out your units, you should be developing a storyline that takes you from one performance expectation to another. The anchor phenomenon should be able to flow through each of those PEs. For our watershed example above, your instructional sequence may move from the properties of water and their effects on Earth’s surfaces (HS-ESS2-5) to how changes in Earth’s surfaces affect water resources (HS-ESS2-2) to reducing the impact of human activity on watersheds (HS-ESS3-4).
  • an anchor is too complex to explain or solve after just one lesson. Students aren’t able to figure out an answer without instruction, and an online search can’t provide a quick answer that students could copy.
  • an anchor is observable — whether it is through a demo, a video presentation, through the use of a scientific procedure or technological tool (telescope, microscope, computer to see patterns, etc.).
  • an anchor should have resources available that students can explore for themselves: data, images, and texts that can provide students with what they need to know to explain the phenomenon or solve the problem. Students should be able to learn about the anchoring phenomenon and related concepts through first-hand or second-hand investigations. (First hand investigations: students conduct the investigation and collect the data; second-hand investigations: students utilize others data to draw their own conclusions or examine others’ conclusions to evaluate their reasoning.

Give Me Examples, Please!

My husband can attest to this – I am an examples person. I really need examples to understand what someone means. So what are some types of anchoring phenomena that I use in my lessons?

  • case studies (pine beetle infestation, cane toad invasive species, algal blooms in the Great Lakes, water shortages in California),
  • a problem and a challenge (how to eradicate an invasive species? how to provide clean water after a natural disaster?)
  • something puzzling (is there life on other planets? or why is Earth the only planet with life? why aren’t earthquakes common here? why do we get so much snow?),
  • or something students may be curious about (how do we know what Earth was like millions of years ago? how do we know what’s inside of Earth? why do I have blue eyes but my parents don’t? why does a giraffe have a long neck?)
  • demos (Newton’s Cradle and the transfer of energy; using elements to change the color of a flame; changing the color of flowers; osmosis demo)

What are your favorite anchoring phenomena to use in your classroom? Hop over to our Facebook COMMUNITY to join the conversation. I’d LOVE to hear what’s working for you!

An NGSS-Aligned Earth and Space Science Curriculum

A conceptual storyline for teaching Earth and Space Science at the high school level - aligned to the NGSS.As I mentioned in my previous posts, the curriculum I was given for my first year as a ninth grade earth/space science teacher was basically a list of content students had to “identify” or “explain” plus a copy/paste of the relevant Next Generation Science Standards, coupled with a “pacing guide” that was essentially a table of weeks aligned to textbook pages. Real top notch, right?


Obviously, I needed to make some changes. That said, it was my first year in a new school in a new district, and I had to co-plan with another earth science teacher who had been there for ages. I was determined to align the units with the NGSS, but at the same time, I definitely wasn’t in a place where I could make drastic changes to the structure of the course.

That would change, however.

By the end of the year, I had enough clout with my principal – as well as the support of a great colleague (who had moved into an academic coaching position!) – to write a proposal for a revamped earth/space science curriculum. And it was accepted by our district’s science coordinator for use at our high school!

NSTA Conferences 2016 // You always have a travel companion when you’re nursing. #teachermom

How did this come about? Well, first I attended the National Science Teachers Association’s National Conference in Nashville in 2016 and was able to participate in a workshop about writing curriculum aligned to the NGSS. They provided an amazing tool to help organize units into conceptual storylines, which is what we worked from to build our new earth/space science curriculum. While I have developed my own “tool” I use to plan my year-long courses now, this was very helpful to us as we started our process. If you would like to learn more about the process I use today, check out my previous blog post – How To Create An NGSS-Aligned Course Curriculum.

Working together, Mindy and I created an awesome curriculum that our principal and science coordinator loved, and this was even shared with other earth/space science teachers in the district through our shared drive. While the district has yet to officially revise and adopt a new earth/space science curriculum (one actually aligned to the NGSS!), we were given permission to use this new model at our school – which I’ll call a success!

Sign up for access to my Free Resource Library TO DOWNLOAD the curriculum outline and pacing guide for the ninth grade earth/space science (Earth Systems) course.

a high school earth science curriculum, ngss-aligned

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a pacing guide for the high school earth science curriculum, ngss-aligned

How To Create an NGSS Aligned Curriculum for Middle School Life Science

Step By Step: Creating An NGSS-Aligned Life Science Curriculum

A Step by Step Guide to developing a life science curriculum aligned to the NGSS. Hit all the life science and related standards in one year!One of my favorite times of the school year actually happens right before school starts. I love the excitement of August — decorating my classroom, establishing my classroom management strategy, and developing my curriculum and unit plans. I love that I have the time to really dive into everything, to explore new ideas and approaches, and even get ahead. Unlike planning during the school year, when you squeeze it in during 20 minutes of your prep period (the 20 that weren’t spent peeing, copying, or dealing with parents), you really have the time to thoughtfully consider the progression of your lessons, the developing understanding of your student. I just love it.

Considering this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the first thing I did after officially accepting an offer in our city school district was to email the principal and ask about the courses I would be teaching and the curriculum for them. In response, I was directed toward the district webpage, where all of the curriculum documents could be found.

And probably a familiar experience for many of you — what I found left me wanting. Essentially, the ninth grade course curriculum was a list of Next Generation Science Standards, followed by a list of student learning objectives. The “pacing guide” that was meant to structure the course was a table that included the week of the school year, the topic, and the textbook chapter I was supposed to cover. When I got my hands on the textbook, I found it had last been printed in the late 90s and its reading level was far beyond that of my future students.

Aside from issues with the textbook, the most disappointing aspect of that “curriculum” was the fact that they essentially just took the old-school science approach of listing facts and ideas, copied and pasted in the relevant Next Generation Science Standards, and handed it out to their new and old teachers to do with what they will. And while I was ready to take on that challenge (because I am a nerd and love lesson planning), I can imagine many of my colleagues were not as thrilled about the idea of developing entire unit concepts, let alone the lessons that went with them. I’m sure many of them simply resorted to that awful textbook — or taught whatever they felt like for the week.

Neither approach is particularly ideal, but at the same time, I don’t blame them. Teachers are busy — we spend the bulk of our days with our students (sometimes even eating lunch with them!), our prep times are often intruded upon by meetings with parents, administration, or other faculty, and districts and states are constantly adding additional requirements in the form of data tracking, student documentation, professional development, so on and so forth. And while I absolutely support all of those measures — there simply isn’t enough time in the day to get it done… so what do you do? You spend your nights, and your weekends, and your holidays… and that’s rough. That’s rough to do when you’re single, and it’s even worse when you have a family. I’ve been there, and it’s not fair.

That said, because it is something I actually do enjoy doing, I’ve taken the time to create curriculum for a number of courses that I have taught — integrating the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards into a conceptual storyline that hits all of the relevant standards in a way that builds upon prior knowledge and provides a “flow” for the year. You can access one of my favorite curricula here — my middle school life science curriculum — but in case you would like to dive into writing curriculum yourself, I’m going to briefly walk you through my process.

(I’d like to side note — developing NGSS-aligned curricula is best accomplished when working with a multi-grade level team, and I want to recognize that.  Ideally, districts can implement the NGSS as they are intended, building on knowledge and skills each year, K-12.  That said, that has yet to be my experience. On a few occasions, I have been able to work with colleagues to develop curricula, but in other positions, I have been the sole science teacher in the school.  Obviously, no one else was interested in working on science curricula. So as always, you do what you have to!)

Step One: Identify The Standards

First, I identify the standards I’m going to be expected to cover in this course. It’s pretty easy to do if you are structured on a disciplinary model — life science, earth science, physical science, biology, chemistry, etc. It can be a bit trickier if you are using an integrated model, and ideally, you would need to work with the other grade levels to ensure all standards are being addressed. For the sake of simplicity here, let’s focus on the disciplinary model, and in a future blog post, I’ll discuss how to develop an integrated curriculum.

For middle school life science, it’s pretty obvious which ones I would be including — the “life sciences” performance expectations would be where I would want to start.

Step Two: Identify The “Topics” That May Be Explored

First, I make a concept map of any topics I MIGHT cover in my curriculum.

This concept map is from my earth/space science curriculum.

For this step, I usually create a concept map with topics that are relevant to life science courses. At this point, they are not aligned to the NGSS or in any sort of order.

With my life science course, I looked at the curriculum I was provided (as well as some unit ideas from other school districts), I browsed a life science textbook to see which concepts are generally covered, and lastly, I scanned the Disciplinary Core Ideas from the NGSS. I figured out that typically life science courses are going to cover things like ecosystems, living things, evolution, cells, and sometimes health/human body systems. As I move forward, I will align the content under these concepts to the NGSS, but this was my starting point.

Step Three: Creating A Storyline Structure

After identifying the standards and topics, the goal is to develop a conceptual storyline based on the standards — not just a list of facts or topics students need to memorize. We want students to understand where they came from (prior knowledge), how it connects to current learning, and then to build on to that in the future.

In the life sciences, I have found two approaches that work well — starting BIG and moving SMALL, or starting SMALL and moving BIG. I personally prefer the starting BIG and moving SMALL, but I know many life science teachers that do the opposite. I totally understand their reasoning — obviously the small things build up into the big things — but I have found students can relate to the concepts in a unit on ecosystems better than they can a unit on cell biology or processes, and at the beginning of the year, my focus is very much on building relationships and rapport, establishing classroom norms, building confidence in science skills and practices, so on and so forth. I want to excite them with science early on, and I find it’s easier to do by starting with the BIG concepts. But again, that’s just my preference.

So after I’ve decided that my storyline is going to move from BIG to SMALL, I start organizing the topics I identified earlier using my BIG to SMALL structure. For the middle school life science standards, I came up with:

Ecosystems → Life → Evolution → Genetics and Heredity → Cell Biology → Health/Human Body

I figured I could do the health/human body stuff at the end of the year, because it’s engaging, testing isn’t super focused on it (in my state, at least), and if I didn’t get to it, oh well. It’s not really a major part of my district’s standards.

Also, you’ll notice that while that’s what I came up with at first, as I delved deeper into this process, I actually flipped Genetics and Heredity and Evolution. I realized as I was investigating the concepts and standards that it would be helpful for students to have a firmer grasp on the mechanics of genetics/heredity before getting into natural selection and evolution.

Step Four: Elaborating On The Conceptual Storyline

But anyway, after creating my initial outline of topics, I started to consider what I wanted students to be discovering in these units and how I could tie it all together. This is the storyline — connecting one thing to the next. For example, in the ecosystem unit, they are considering things like, “What is biodiversity? Why should we care about it? How is everything connected?” This takes them into a unit on living things (life), where they then look at, “What kind of life is there on Earth? How are things similar and different?” You can see the rest of my questions there on my notebook page.

I organize my topics by a predetermined structure (big to small? chronologically? local to global?), sort my topics, and start identifying standards, practices, and crosscutting concepts.

As I moved more into the units, I realized (as I said above) that Genetics and Heredity needed to come before Evolution. I switched my focus from “How does evolution happen?” to “Why do we have so many differences?” I can then focus on the idea that organisms have traits that may help them survive in their ecosystem that were inherited from their parents — how the diversity of environments (ecosystems unit!) is connected to the diversity of organisms (life unit!) through the mechanisms of genetics and heredity. Then, in the evolution unit, they will dive deeper into how it works on large scales to produce changes in populations through natural selection.

Step Five: Assigning The Performance Expectations

Once I have the general storyline down, I went through all of the performance expectations for the NGSS in my disciplinary area and jotted down which category it would fall under. If it might relate but maybe wasn’t totally my focus, I put it in parenthesis. That indicates I will touch on the concept, but it would be better addressed in other units. I also then scanned through the other disciplinary areas (although the NGSS does a good job of pointing you in that direction if you look in the orange box on the performance expectation pages) to see if there were any other standards I might touch on in my life science units. Even in a disciplinary model curriculum, you can still have some overlap (because Earth is an interconnected system!), so it’s great to incorporate other science disciplines when you can so that students understand that.

Step Six: Creating The Sub-Units

My last step is to start identifying the general ideas or units I would need to address all of those performance expectations. I come up with these ideas by examining the performance expectations and disciplinary core ideas I had already sorted into my broad categories. And I also repeat the process I completed above, where I worked to flow one sub-unit into the next. For example, in my ecosystems unit, I have several sub-units. Students move from studying biomes (answering questions like “Why can’t a cacti live in Pennsylvania?” and “What is the relationship between living organisms and abiotic factors?”) to investigating Interactions and Interdependence in Ecosystems (looking into “How do organisms survive in their environment?” and “How do the interactions between organisms affect the survival, growth, and reproduction of individual organisms and entire populations?”). Then, they move into the transfer of energy, the cycling of matter, and lastly changes in ecosystems. The concepts build one upon another until they can complete a unit task that unifies the many ideas. As they move into the next unit, I always try to find connections to the previous unit to keep that conceptual storyline rolling.

Step Seven: Focusing The Sub-Units With Essential Questions

One of the last things I do is create those essential questions I have been giving examples of above. For each unit, I try to identify a real world case study students can connect with and interact with throughout the unit. While I usually have one very general essential question, I develop a few specific questions based around that case study (like How do organisms survive in a frozen desert? vs. How do organisms survive in their environment?). Students should be able to answer the first one initially, and then through elaboration activities, answer the second more generally (or with other specific ecosystems).

Step Eight: Incorporate the Three Dimensions (Science and Engineering Practices & Crosscutting Concepts)

To add that three dimensional learning component, I identify the practices I am focusing on in this unit. While you should be incorporating a variety of science and engineering practices in your lessons and units daily, I do focus on the one most relevant to the performance expectation throughout the sub-unit. By doing that, I can be sure that I have really addressed all of the practices in depth by the end of the course. I just identify the practice I’m focusing on and keep it on my unit plan, so that I have a frequent reminder to incorporate that whenever I can create an opportunity to do so.

I do the same with the Crosscutting Concepts. These are identified in the NGSS – it literally tells you which performance expectation each is aligned to – so that you can easily notate that that is the “lens” you want to be looking through throughout the unit. I keep that there as a reminder to touch on those big ideas as we explore the disciplinary concepts.

Step Nine: Pacing

To figure out pacing, I simply examine which big ideas have the most performance expectations and disciplinary knowledge and chunk out time from there to start with. If there are more Performance Expectations and Disciplinary Core Ideas in a particular area, that area should be given more time during the course.

I always give myself a few weeks of a buffer, because I know I always go over with everything. And then after running through the curriculum and getting a better idea of my student population, I can usually pinpoint the timing a bit better for subsequent years. I just know that if I don’t give myself a time limit for each unit up front, I would end up with a five year long science course.

Step Ten: RELAX!

Voila! You have your curriculum, and at least now you can answer the question: WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO TEACH?

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What the heck does that performance expectation mean!?

NGSS Quick Tip: Evidence Statements

Pin - performance expectations mean.jpgEver struggled to figure out what the HECK the NGSS performance expectations are ACTUALLY asking?!? I will admit, I have! When I figured out the EASIEST way to decipher them, my mind was BLOWN.

Check out this quick video to learn a little bit about Evidence Statements — or visit my post from earlier this month Designing 5E Instruction: Unpacking The Standard to dive a little deeper into understanding the standards!

I’ll be using MS-LS2-3 as the example here: “Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.”

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glasses on book, quote saying designing instruction from the ngss

Designing 5E Instruction: Unpacking The Standard

glasses on book, quote saying designing instruction from the ngss

Top Three Takeaways

  1. Identify the Performance Expectation you are focusing on, and its accompanying Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts. You can find this on the NGSS site.
  2. Use the Evidence Statements (available on the NGSS site or via Google Search) to clarify what students should be able to do. You can use these to build your assignment and your rubric.
  3. Develop the assessment before planning any further unit activities. This backwards design approach will focus your instruction so that you, your students, and the activities planned are all working toward the same learning goal.

I started my first public school job as an Earth Science teacher at an urban high school.  I was coming from a private school where I kind of “owned” the science domain as the veteran science teacher in the school. I taught fifth and sixth grade general science, planned the school’s science fair (turned STEM Expo under my direction!), and developed summer science camps for school students.  I was used to “doing my own thing,” to say the least.

photo of author

But, I will be honest, it was hard making ends meet on a private school salary (I made less per day than public school substitutes!), and after attending the interview, I had a HUGE “boss-crush” on the public school’s principal. I knew this was an administrator I wanted to work for.

So when they offered me the job, I jumped on it! I knew it would be a huge change — wealthy middle school students to urban high school students, general science to earth/space science, and private school to public school — but I was excited for a new challenge. It didn’t occur to me right off the bat that I might lose some autonomy when it came to lesson planning.

Like many teachers, I spent the few weeks before school started preparing my classroom and planning my first lessons. I examined the curriculum my school provided (a list of basic objectives and the NGSS standards the course should cover) and began to piece together units. I had it all mapped out in my head!

So when I first heard that I had to participate in team planning, I freaked out a little inside. Was all the work I had put into planning my course going to be wasted? Was I going to be stuck doing dumb activities from a dumb textbook from a dumb curriculum? (Can you sense the “pout” here?)

Well, as it turns out, I lucked out. There were two other teachers who had earth/space science courses.  One of them was, like me, a new teacher to the district. She, also like me, was a veteran teacher. And also like me, she was all about the NGSS, 5E learning, technology, so on and so forth. She was on board! The other teacher was an older gentleman who might not have been entirely on board EXCEPT for the fact that, if we wrote the lessons – he didn’t have to! So basically, in that first meeting, I pretty much volunteered to write all of our lessons. Because I’m insane. And also, because I love it.

Oh, do I love it! I love lessons and planning and standards! I could probably go on and on about it, but I’ll refrain. Let’s move on to the real purpose of this post, which is to provide some information on how I develop my lessons and units.  While there are absolutely many approaches, and there are absolutely many experts, I have found that this way is relatively quick, definitely efficient, and it’s something any teacher can do! You DON’T need to be a NGSS-expert to put together a unit plan aligned to the standards.  Yes, ideally, curriculum should be developed by a team of teachers who can examine the standards and combine their many years of experience to develop engaging, authentic topics and investigations, three-dimensional assessments, so on and so forth. But realistically, how many of you have the TIME to do that, let alone the resources?

Since many of us work for schools and districts with outdated curriculums, ancient textbooks, and high demands, developing amazing curricular materials when you need them can be a challenge. So consider that this is simply a starting point — something you can do as you work through the year (you know, how EVERY teacher spends the first few years). That said, you SHOULD go back each year and improve your investigations, strengthen your assessments, and incorporate additional opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. But in the meantime, you have to do what you need to in order to get by — while still providing high-quality, standards-aligned instruction, of course.

So let’s get to it.

Starting With A Standard

So each Next Generation Science Standard is built on a three dimensional structure — basically, there are three components to each standard: the science and engineering practices, the science concepts (aka disciplinary core ideas), and overarching themes (aka crosscutting concepts).  We’re going to look at MS-LS2-4 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, because I just got familiar with it this past week while working on an (extensive) update of one of my best-selling resources.

So the standard itself is Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, but what does that mean? To get an idea of the content you’ll be covering, you would want to check out the Disciplinary Core Ideas section of the standard. Now, if you look below, there’s a whole big long list. You aren’t going to cover every single one of those points in the same unit — more likely, you are going to break those up into the Performance Expectations you see at the top of the page.

NGSS MS-LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

Performance Expectations are statements about what a student should be able to do. They are, essentially, your unit assessment.  For that reason, if you were to fully align to the NGSS, you would really have between three and five mini-units as a part of an ecosystems unit. (I say three to five because you can usually bundle a few performance standards together into a single assessment.)

So like I said, PEs are basically what you are going to build your unit assessment on. I always start here – I need to know what I’m going to be assessing before I can start building my unit. There’s tons of wonderful information out there, but I simply don’t have time to cover it all. And while I will likely touch on other PEs in my final assessment, the PE we are looking at right now is, “MS-LS2-4. Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.”

NGSS standard LS2.C

To get a better idea what that means, I’ll take a look at those boxes at the bottom again. The information that aligns with that standard under DCI includes: LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience “Ecosystems are dynamic in nature; their characteristics can vary over time. Disruptions to any physical or biological component of an ecosystem can lead to shifts in all its populations. (MS-LS2-4)” So that’s the general idea we want students to walk away with: ecosystems change, and any change in an ecosystem can lead to changes in its populations.

science and engineering practices NGSS MS-LS2-4 We also want students to have some skills — the skills included in the PE are pretty obvious, “construct an argument supported by evidence.” The Science and Engineering Practices (blue) box gives you a little more information on that – Engaging in Argument from Evidence:
Engaging in argument from evidence in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to constructing a convincing argument that supports or refutes claims for either explanations or solutions about the natural and designed world(s). “Construct an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem. (MS-LS2-4)”

Lastly, the overarching themes (green box, crosscutting concepts) for this standard include Stability and Change, i.e. small changes can lead to large changes. That is basically a “lens” through which you can examine information and issues.  

So anyway, we want students to be able to argue that populations are affected by physical and biological components of ecosystems.  We want them to use evidence to do that. And we want them to understand that even small changes can result in large changes.  While it took a little bit of deciphering, the NGSS does a lot of the work of figuring out, “well what should I teach!?” for us!

NGSS standards - how to find evidence statementsAnd in case you didn’t already know, they give you even more information to help you construct an actual assessment! If you venture on over to the right side margin of the standards page, you’ll see “Related Evidence Statements.”  When you choose the set of statements for your PE (MS-LS2-4 for us), it opens up a PDF that shows you the standard information relevant to specifically our PE. So basically everything we found above, we could have just skipped the searching and clicked on Evidence Statements. Well, now you know.

But you’ll find the real reason we are here if you scroll down a little farther on this Evidence Statement page.  The creators of the NGSS basically tell you what students need to be able to do in order to meet this part of the standard — this makes both the construction of the assessment and the construction of your entire unit incredibly easy!

Using Evidence Statements

I always like to print out my Evidence Statements and start breaking it down before I construct the assessment itself. It helps me to put everything in the simplest terms possible, and it allows me to list out some of the important information students need to know.

For example, looking just at that first box, I jotted down — “changes to phys/bio components lead to changes in population.” And I also bulleted, “population, biotic and abiotic factors.” Those are two topics we will need to discuss during the unit to meet this standard.

annotations on NGSS MS-LS2-4

In the next box, it states that students must identify and describe changes in an ecosystem, and then it provides a bunch of examples. This part really helps to clarify the topics you will study — you can choose the “case study” you want to work with (or work with several) over the course of the unit.  MS-LS2-4 suggests “rainfall, predator removal, species introduction.” These suggestions offhand bring to mind possible case studies related to global warming, the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone, or any number of invasive species scenarios.  While I ended up providing examples of many of these changes in ecosystems in my mini-unit, I focused my end-of-unit activities on the introduction of cane toads in Australia — the introduction of an invasive species.

Side Note: As much as possible, you want to incorporate real data and scenarios into your NGSS standards.  While it might take some digging, you can find real data tables and graphs online that you can use in your assessments. Another great resource for data – and simplified data designed just for student use – is Data Nuggets. So before you select your case study, I highly suggest finding the data you will have students use as evidence.

After students explain the change that occurred (introduction of cane toads), they will need to be able to describe how populations in the ecosystem changed as a result. For my assessment, cane toad populations rose, native frog populations dropped. During a unit activity, students concluded this consequence themselves by examining graphs I found from a study conducted in Australia.

Lastly, they will need to provide evidence that there is a causal or correlational relationship between those two events — the arrival of cane toads and the decline in native frog populations.  These are concepts students would need to be introduced to during the unit – cause vs. correlation.

How can you tell the difference between causation versus correlation? It can be tricky. Some things you might want to point out for students:

  • Plausability: Considering the cause, does the effect make sense? For example, we know cane toads eat native frogs. Therefore, it is logical that an increase in cane toad (predator) populations would cause a decrease in native frog (prey) populations.
  • Consistency: Could this relationship be replicated? Obviously, we aren’t testing it.  That said, we can look at other examples of the introduction of new species to an area. Do native species often decline as a result of the introduction of a new species?
  • Specificity: Could there be any other likely cause? This requires additional research.  Were there any other changes in the ecosystem at the same time that could have resulted in a decrease in the native frog population?

When evaluating cause and effect, students will not have all of the answers. That said, students can discuss these ideas, what they do know, and even what questions remain as a part of their assessment to demonstrate their understanding of this concept.

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I continue to break down the standard in this fashion.  Because this is a “construct an argument” PE, I developed a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning writing task to assess the PE.  While I chose writing, students could alternatively participate in a debate, a Socratic Seminar, or complete an oral presentation to present their argument. Either way, after students have engaged in some learning activities about the general concepts (physical and biological components aka biotic/abiotic factors, ecological structure, interactions in ecosystems, invasive species, specifically cane toads, etc), they will have the knowledge and resources they need to “construct an argument based on evidence.”  

No matter what means you will have students present their arguments, I have found that they typically need some guidance.  I always try to scaffold the task so it is very clear what I expect.  I use the C-E-R format to guide student writing, and I use a graphic organizer with specific questions to help them prepare.  This way, they have a better understanding of the information they should be including. And how do I create those questions? By looking at those Evidence Statements. It is all based on what the Evidence Statement asks for, and I likewise use the Evidence Statements to develop my rubric.


For MS-LS2-4, the questions I asked students to address in the Reasoning section include:

  • How can a change in a biotic factor – like the introduction of invasive cane toads – result in changes in other populations?
  • Explain how a single change in a biotic factor can cause a chain reaction of changes in an ecosystem

Then, the top level of my rubric asks for:

  • States that a change in one factor can affect the likelihood of survival of other species. Uses the example of the cane toad to illustrate this concept. Explains how the arrival of the cane toads led to hardship for native frogs, which led to decreases in their populations.
  • Provides detailed examples of other potential biotic and abiotic factors that can impact an ecosystem.
  • Describes how the immediate effect on native frogs could have long term consequences for the ecosystem. Provides detailed examples.

Voila! Standard unpacked, and assessment complete.  Check back in soon to see how I continue to develop a 5E, NGSS-aligned science unit.