That’s Portland, Oregon… just to be clear. And, this is my first National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference. This is perhaps not surprising since I’m an elementary level teacher. So I teach science, but traditionally I’ve taught everything else too. Elementary generalist by training means jack of all trades but master of none. Recently, I’ve moved into a STEM support role so teachers are asking me a lot more science questions. Hmm… better figure out what I’m talking about.
*Warning: blog in the browser may be longer than it appears. Apparently, sending a blogger to his first NSTA conference to do his first live blog (#F.A.I.L. by the way) is like sending a kid into a candy shop with a credit card: he wants to blog it all! Okay, you’ve been warned. Thus ends this public service announcement.
Don’t Be Like Me
So, merrily on my way down to Portland, I realized that the conference started earlier than I thought. Yikes! Having researched the schedule online two weeks prior, apparently there are multiple sections to NSTA conference schedules. I’d learned that the exhibits opened at 11 AM on the first day. However, the keynote speaker was first thing in the morning. Unfortunately for the keynote speaker, he became ill and was replaced last-minute. So we were both out of luck.
Having recovered from this set back, I made it in time to check in and catch the featured afternoon speaker. I walked in by myself but soon found some friendly faces. Ellen Ebert from WA OSPI saw me, smiled, and offered the open seat next to her. The gentleman on the other side from Gig Harbor was also very friendly and we were soon swapping science strategies. Before that presentation was over, two more friendly faces would stop by and say “hi”. The greater Pacific Northwest science community was perhaps smaller than I realized. This was great, as I connected with many colleagues. A little distracting when you’re trying to “live blog” a conference though… so semi-live blogged it is!
It was the Best of Times… it was the Worst of Times
It was the National Science Teachers Association conference in Portland… it was also in the middle of the protests over the recent election. This is why I appreciated Dr. Philip Bell’s presentation. He opened with a very appropriate quote from Bruce Alberts, “Science and democracy accommodate, and are strengthened by, dissent. Science’s requirement of proof resembles democracy’s system of justice. Democracy is buttressed by science’s values. And science is nurtured by democracy’s principles.” I think the quote largely speaks for itself, but at our profession’s heart we are teachers first and foremost. We must impress upon our students that we are ultimately better together, while at the same time intelligent dissent–when we do disagree–strengthens us all. Science for all means justice for all, which both grow out of and extend into true democracy.
Worthy of an Entire Post… but I’ll Shorten It Anyway
So many good things about this presentation! Since the NSTA is mostly about best practices for effective science implementation in our classroom, most of the information focuses on implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Dr. Bell’s presentation tackled the multiple dimensions of this phenomenon.
This is not an exact quote, but generally speaking my biggest takeaway was the following: “Quick implementation is the enemy of complex systems.” This helped me to better appreciate and put in perspective the sometimes glacially cautious pace that NGSS implementation seems to be taking at times. It’s warranted. We have by far and away the best guiding standards ever for science, but as Dr. Bell pointed out: “Having amazing standards and guidelines doesn’t necessarily equal or equate to amazing implementation.” We cannot take this for granted and must work hard to make sure we get this right. With this in mind, Dr. Bell advocates for sharing the agency of implementation across all educator roles. Teacher agency drives better implementation and stronger standards-based instruction.
Dr. Bell covered many things, but a driving theme was capitalizing on culturally-relevant science capital. Take advantage of the science already in students lives, e.g. students from farming families know agriculture. Build on these strengths to better engage students in their education through frameworks such as place based learning. Speaking of frameworks, Dr. Bell encourages our understanding of the NGSS to extend beyond the official book and the appendices to the original, “A Framework for Understanding K-12 Science Education,” because it is the “foundation that reveals and unveils a lot of the potential that is inherent in the NGSS. He then encourages us to check out chapter 11 on “Science Learning as Cultural Accomplishment” because Dr. Bell believes strongly in promoting equity and social justice as the leading edge of NGSS implementation. Indeed, diversity makes us smarter.
The NSTA App is Your New Best Friend
So, to say that there is a plethora of scheduling, presentation, booth, and exhibit information available at an NSTA conference would be an understatement. What I didn’t realize was that you can download add-on information specific to the current conference to your NSTA app. There’s all of the information available and searchable right there in the palm of your hand. It’s downloaded so that if the wireless connection is spotty (I’m looking at you Oregon convention center) then you can still sort through all of your tagged and saved sessions. The maps are extremely useful, the schedule built around your choices is handy, and the class descriptions help immensely.
Too Many People to See, Places to Go, and Things to Do
There are so many people to talk to, so many presentations to go to, and so many workshops to do that you can’t possibly do it all. I saw my blogger friend, Tom Hawthorne, from Bethel school district in WA. He’s doing some amazing stuff there in regards to quantifying and simplifying complex NGSS ideas. I sat next to Kirk Robbins (science consultant) at a few workshops and took in everything from blearing eyed early morning thinking to sobering questions about the recent elections implications to new thinking around truly integrated STEM instruction at the elementary level. Ellen Ebert from WA OSPI was around and friendly as ever. I reconnected with several people from around the region, met new colleagues in elevators, and saw too many science colleagues from my own school district (like Annette Venegas and Kerrin Mazzetti) and educational service district to name them all (a nice feeling).
My second day at the NSTA conference was an incredibly full day to say the least. I considered sleeping in but then saw a tweet that sold me on an early morning presentation. I was not disappointed by Deb Morrison (the presenter). We covered too much for the early morning in fact, but in a good way: implicit bias because science is cultural, equality versus equity, using NGSS practices as a way to build community, strengthening science instruction through community, and student learning through talking (the person talking is the person learning).
Next up was a workshop on implicit bias presented by Deena Pierott (a delightful woman by the way who I had the pleasure of meeting via another friend, Dr. Phyllis Harvey-Buschel of WA MESA). Deena disarmed us with her charm and comically exaggerated fear of spiders, and then she delved deep into challenging us on our thinking: “If ever there was an important time for a “teachable moment”: that time is now.” This challenging session brought out tears and healing and renewed commitment to fighting for our students. She also helped us to let go of some of our fears of educators because we all have bias: “At the root of all bias is the unconscious bias: if you have a brain then you have a bias.” I have a brain so I do have a bias, but I can choose to work around and through that bias to overcome any adverse effects it may have teaching all of my students with fairness and equity.
Emotionally drained but persevering, I moved on to looking at deeper and more meaningful integration opportunities for the NGSS at the elementary level with Carla Zembal-Saul. We looked at the overlap of practices in ELA, math, and science via one of my favorite NGSS three-circle VENN diagrams. This was followed by an analysis of what an integrated activity looks like, and the answer that integration often depends on context as well as the occasional semantic interpretation. Carla honed in on what counts as text for science and how this should be open to interpretation before delving into applications of CER (Claim, Evidence, Reason) via KLEWS (Know, Learning, Evidence, Wonder, Science Words). And if that paragraph doesn’t contain enough acronyms for you than we have some work to do.
Carla left off with teachers having the power to impact future generations more than arguably anyone, which was fitting since I was heading off to what largely amounts as a teacher-driven movement: networking the STEM Lighthouse Schools across Washington State. Mark Watrin from Battleground did the work of contacting this elite group of schools across Washington State. Each school was selected through a rigorous grant application process and awarded $20,000 to work towards becoming a model STEM school for other buildings across the region to visit. Some amazing projects have grown from this seed money and recognition. Mark’s idea is to get us all connected, networked, and sharing what we’re doing and how we’re doing it as well as leveraging our group’s efforts to share what we’re doing with others. I admire his tenacity in regards to herding this group of cool cats, but I think his organizational efforts will benefit all involved.
Winding Down a Full Day the Right Way
The final presentation I attended was jam-packed, and frankly I was nearing done. There was some very good information at the beginning, but as we began the activity mid-workshop I realized that I’d done this before. Analyzing assessments for their level of three dimensional NGSS integration and application is a good one. However, since most of the remaining session was a repeated activity and I was standing by the door, I exited stage right towards happy hour. I hadn’t planned this but had run into Michelle Morrison from Kent, WA just before the session. Ever the friendly person, she invited me. I met a wide ranging group of people here interested in the many different science curriculums developed by The Lawrence Hall of Science in California. Had a good visit with the Oregon State teacher of the year and also with several teachers from Nebraska. My night was capped off by meeting a University of Oregon professor on the way back to my hotel who shared with me about teacher research partnership opportunities across the Pacific Northwest. All in all, a good way to end the day.
The last day of sessions is a half-day time-wise but still a full-day opportunity-wise. I told Dr. Bell that I was upset with him and his team for doing such an awesome job because it meant that I had to wake up in time for early morning sessions two days in a row. Thanks to their amazing work though, I did manage to squeeze in 10ish sessions despite my late start on the first day. The early (ugh) Saturday morning session was lead by the (wonderful) Deb Morrison and centered on culturally-based formative assessment. This powerful work brings science to life for students in their home cultural contexts, or at least as close as we can come to making these connections in a school setting.
The next section was on the science and engineering practices with NSTA standards guru Ted Willard. Ted gave a nice overview and basic introduction. I thanked Ted and excused myself midway at a breaking point though, because I realized that this was more of an entry-level class. I’m familiar with Ted’s work and, in fact, his NSTA NGSS books are some of my favorites. Ted is perhaps more confident in his material than I am comfortable, but he has good reason to be I suppose. Sheepishly, his stuff is often the first NGSS material that I share with teachers after reviewing the NGSS website, phone/tablet app, and NSTA NGSS hub.
The last class that I planned to attend was focused on the STEM tools by Dr. Bell’s team. However, his team covered these and utilized them in every workshop that I attended so far (roughly 3-4). So I felt comfortable enough to access and utilize these materials now. So, I finished the last of my session visits and headed over to the exhibits.
Please See Exhibit A for Evidence of Science Learning… and Exhibits B-Z while You’re at It
I did the exhibits and book store in three rounds. Thursday’s round one saw me through the first half of the booths while Friday’s round two saw me through the second half. There was an amazing breadth of options and a lot for elementary which surprised me a little bit. I expected to see science curriculum vendors there and I connected with ours that we recently selected (FOSS NGSS & Hand2Mind, from a dozen vendors evaluated by 40 elementary school teachers over the course of last year). Both were friendly and helpful, but so were all of the other curriculum vendors with whom I interacted. I also expected the science tools, technology, and software vendors. They were also helpful and friendly. Explore Learning’s Gizmo platform has really impressed me and they walked me through some more in-depth lesson plan applications. I also got to see the Micro Phone Lens in action which I thought was too good to be true and gimmicky, but they’ve convinced me to order at least one to pilot. What I did not expect, was the number of foundations and free science outreach resources. Seattle Times has an impressive educational outreach program that’s free to educators. There were programs through the national parks, NOAA, the US Army, and a variety of government programs. Toshiba, Shell, and Vernier both have extensive grant opportunities in partnership with the NSTA. There were also several professional organizations with vested interests in science doing outreach including several engineering associations.
The bookstore is worth mentioning because they had every amazing NSTA book imaginable. Nothing that you couldn’t find online at the NSTA website (well, maybe some cheesy cheap swag), but the ability to flip through possible books to purchase was nice. I of course drooled over the books that I don’t have access to yet, but reminded myself that my pile of books to read from NSTA is still too large to buy more. So, several are waiting with my name on them. They are amazing resources though and time is certainly the main limiting factor in that department. Well, money too when it comes to equipping my teachers with the tools they need handy in their classrooms.
Butterflies and Robots and Engineering Kits Oh My!
Exhibits that were personally of the most use to me were those that addressed my curriculum, materials, and professional development needs within my educational context. Not sure how useful to others, but these three areas were very helpful to me.
Animals in the classroom can be difficult at best. They are controversial, escape, and require additional ongoing care for continued use (otherwise known as survival). While, circle of life lessons are useful, I prefer to keep classroom pets… I mean specimens alive to reduce workload as well as emotional trauma. Carolina has a nice range of options for this and I’m particularly interested in their butterfly set up. It was a nice netting that housed a good number for study. The other enclosures seemed very user friendly as well and designed for the classroom. Plus, unlike the booth down the way that had some escapees, Carolina seemed to have their specimens under control.
I’ve been working to complete our K-6 continuum of robotics instruction. There are many awesome options out there, but we’ve done very well with the LEGO Mindstorms platforms in grades 3-6. Tyler is the sales rep for the Pacific Northwest and is a very down-to-earth and friendly guy with grandiose plans for LEGO education in Washington State. At a separate non-LEGO booth though, I was able to fill in our gap for grades 1-2 (we start using Mindstorms in spring of 2nd grade) with the Dash and Dot systems as well as the Ozobot systems. Both use Blockly which is the programming language of choice on Code.org (Hour of Code). Our 6th graders need to start moving into more text-based programming (which they can do with Mindstorms) but the Raspberry Pi robotics options allow use of Scratch as well–a much more robust visually-based programming language that means a smaller jump to text-based work.
We’ve adopted Hand2Mind’s engineering kits. On average they’re great with more kits being hit than miss. The teachers I work with prefer them to almost any other tool that we have for STEM. I’m learning more though and watching for additional applications. Hand2Mind has a new pocket sensor box that is amazing. It’s 6-7 sensors wrapped up in plastic that transmit wirelessly and can be dropped by the average elementary student and survive (in fact designed to be dropped for experiments). Adding this sensor box to an engineering kit is a game changer in terms of potential function and data collection. Additionally, the always-helpful Tamy had my answer for robotics in kindergarten with a programmable plastic mouse that runs an adjustable maze to find its cheese based on student input. Nice.
Bringing a Baby to the Exhibits is Apparently a Great Strategy
My third round through the exhibits was with my wife and baby in tow. A special shoutout to the NSTA staff who issued us an extra pass during the closing hour. We raced–as best you can with a baby–through the exhibits one last time and found several great finds along the way. Vendors apparently love to throw stuff at you around closing and doubly so if you have a cute baby. I had several really great last-minute finds in terms of information here including answers for our cubesat experiment questions and some cool tools bridging our electronics to robotics lessons via an adapted and simplified Arduino. I’m also grateful to the recently rebranded Kid-Wind Project (now REcharge Labs) who gave me tons of information and a qualify renewable energy game based on monopoly.
My Biggest Takeaways from NSTA Conference 2016 in Portland
This is definitely yet to be determined, but I hope you have enjoyed sharing the journey with me. There was so much and so little time relative to what was available. The number of amazing people doing amazing things is overwhelming and impossible to fully capture in a blog post (even a really long one like this, by the way, congrats and bonus points if you made it this far and double bonus points if you say so in the comments). My brain is mush, but at least it’s a happy sort of standards-based mush. Lots to think about in terms of three-dimensional NGSS-based instruction, the need to lead with equity and science for all, the role that culturally responsive formative assessment can take, the importance of effective student dialogue for learning, and so much more. At the end of the day, do I feel it was a good use of time? Well, I know that my students will be better prepared for their futures because I came away with more NGSS tools in my NSTA toolbox. Enough said there. Until next time… happy inquiry!
Additional Links and Resources
Deena Pierott’s iurbanteen program: http://iurbanteen.org/
Douglas Ferguson’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/DaskalosDouglas
Gates Foundation Blog on My Lightbulb Moment: facebook.com/tchr2tchr/post…
Hour of Code: https://code.org/
Kirk Robbins’ Twitter: https://twitter.com/science_4_all
Kirk Robbins’ Website: https://teachscience4all.org/work-with-kirk/
NGSS App Website: http://ngss.nsta.org/ngss-app.aspx
NGSS Cat Blog (like the NGSS and cats… well I have a blog for you): http://corelaboratewa.org/the-three-dimensions-of-the-ngss-according-to-science-cat/
NGSS Engineering with Those Darn Squirrels: http://corelaboratewa.org/engineering-with-squirrels/
NGSS Website: http://www.nextgenscience.org/
NSTA 2016 Portland: http://www.nsta.org/conferences/area2.aspx
NSTA NGSS Hub: http://ngss.nsta.org/
NSTA Twitter: https://twitter.com/NSTA
Phillip Bell’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/philiplbell
STEM Lighthouse List of Schools for WA: http://www.k12.wa.us/STEM/LighthouseSchools.aspx
STEM Lighthouse Martin Sortun Elementary: http://teacher.kent.k12.wa.us/martinsortun/dferguson/stem-lighthouse-home
STEM Teaching Tools: http://www.stemteachingtools.org/
Star Wars & the NGSS Blog: http://corelaboratewa.org/ngss-according-to-star-wars/
Ted Willard’s books on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/NSTA-Quick-Reference-Guide-Elementary-School/dp/1941316115/ref=pd_sbs_14_img_0/151-0720324-4189004?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=CCS1PDYPFXAZJQZVDJMA
Ted Willard’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/Ted_NSTA
WA MESA: http://washingtonmesa.org/
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