Category Archives: K-12 General Science

Book: Thing Explainer- Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Monroe

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-8-02-51-pmFile this one under “fun” but I’m sure most science educators can find several uses for this book with students. I have owned Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Monroe (Creator of xkcd) for a couple of years. I keep it in my office and every so often I find myself opening it up and spending several minutes examining the brilliant labeled diagrams (they are amazing detailed systems models) that show how common and important living and designed systems work.

Mr. Monroe committed to using only the “ten hundred” most common words. This constraint creates a beautiful simplicity that gets to the essence of these systems. As science teachers we can learn a lesson from this. Too often we value vocabulary words as evidence of student understanding. Perhaps we should push more for simplified explanations that use everyday language.

I think that any human being will find this book to be interesting and any scientist, engineer, or STEM educator will also find it to be inspiring and valuable. There is something about the clearly illustrated systems models that mesh perfectly with the vision of the Next Generation Science Standards. This book also makes a wonderful gift.


LINK: Thing Explainer

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Claim, Evidence, & Reasoning (CER) Resources Part 1

supporting grade 5-8For the past several years I have been supporting pre-service and inservice teachers with the use of the Claim, Evidence and Reasoning (CER) framework for scaffolding students’ writing and talking about scientific explanations and arguments. This framework provides a common language for discussing the elements of powerful explanations and arguments. It isn’t a formula to memorize but a framework for support and improvement.

I have used the following books in professional development and also in college courses I’ve taught.  I highly recommend these:

whats your evidenceTogether these books provide a very clear and engaging look at how to use a Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) framework to improve student writing and discourse in science. The CER framework can support not only science explanations but also the Common Core State Standards’ focus on using evidence and argumentation in math and English/Language Arts.

Over the years, I’ve developed some tools that could be useful for professional development providers, professional learning communities, and ultimately students who are engaging with a CER framework.


1. An activity for writing a scientific explanation of whether soap and fat are the same substance. This is directly from the first book with some added reflective questions for teachers. This could be used as an initial activity with teachers before revealing the CER framework. CER writing an explanation fat and soap

2. A set of 3 Formative Assessment Probes (based on Page Keeley’s work) to uncover student ideas about science explanations- the probes include a DRAFT facilitation guide. Feel free to improve these:

3. A video “think sheet” for participants to track their thinking while watching the first video clip from the book where a teacher introduces the CER framework to a class of 7th graders- introducing CER framework vid 2.1 think sheet

Please let me know if you have any revisions/changes/improvements to any of these documents. Hope these are helpful… enjoy.

I’ll add a few other resources in an upcoming post. What CER resources have you found most useful in your own work with students?

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WA NGSS WCAS Test & Item Specs Released

Many of us science assessment nerds have been anxiously awaiting for the NGSS Test & Item Specifications for the Washington Comprehensive Assessment of Science (WCAS). The anticipated arrival of these document reminds me of an iconic clip from Steve Martin’s movie The Jerk (see below).

These documents are organized into the following grade bands:

I’m assuming that these documents might be useful to science educators outside of Washington. You will see that there is support for each NGSS Performance Expectation from Grade 3 through High School and there are some pretty cool features such as:

  • information on items types and assessment design
  • a variety of 2 Dimensional versions of each PE
  • details and clarification that provide greater specificity to the original PE for not only assessment but also instruction

See the screen shot below for 5-PS1-1 to get a sense of some of the extra information provided by the item specs.

Screen Shot 2019-09-06 at 5.18.25 PM

So You’ve Been Hired as a Science TOSA | Part 1

This is the time of the year when a new group of science TOSAs (teachers on special assignment) tend to enter the realm of school district office science support. Now you may have a different term than TOSA in your neck of the woods- but basically this is a position where a classroom teacher continues to be paid a teacher salary (with perhaps a few extra hours thrown in) but does district office administrative level work to support science implementation.

Over the last 10 years I have worked with and supported many people in these Science TOSA positions and I’ve noticed that many school districts do not adequately support  those who take on these positions. The skillset of a successful classroom science teacher is often not the same skillset necessary to be a successful science education leader. I’ve also noticed that there are a huge variety of roles that these Science TOSAs might be expected to take on- here are a few that come to mind:

  • Science Curriculum and Assessment expert K-5, MS, HS or all 3
  • Mentor teacher
  • Instructional coach
  • Professional Development Designer and Provider
  • Meeting coordinator and facilitator
  • Science Materials Manager
  • Science Curriculum Review Committee Leader
  • and so much more

Some skills that Science TOSAs may need (that may differ from classroom teaching):

  • advocating for science instruction within your own district
  • working in uncertain and ever-changing environments
  • working with mostly adults (vs mostly kids)
  • navigating school district politics
  • managing a budget

While the following is not an exhaustive list- here are a few books that I highly recommend for the beginning Science TOSA. By the way- most of these are not science education specific. I’ll post a Part 2 in the future with some of my favorite science ed resources for new TOSAs.

Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Math and Science (3rd edition) This is an oldie but a goody- the framework for developing and planning PD is just as effective and useful today.

Leading Every Day: 124 Actions for Effective Leadership A set of short snippets that can be used personally or with small groups to focus on leadership.

Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools Another oldie- but this book provides an excellent framework for coaching and working with adults.

Choreography of Presenting A short and readable guide on effectively presenting to adults.

Evaluating Professional Development So you’re delivering PD…but how are you evaluating the effectiveness of that PD? This is the book to get you started.

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2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 3.16.42 pmHorizon Research, Inc recently released their findings from the 2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education (NSSME+). The plus sign signifies the inclusion of some computer science in the survey. This project surveyed over 7k teachers of science, math, and computer science across the US.

This report provides some excellent evidence for future research, district implementation, teacher education, professional development, curriculum development and much more. The survey itself might be of interest to many and provides a strong model for developing surveys.


Click HERE to visit the NSSME+ site

Click HERE to download the report

Realizing the Vision: NGSS District Implementation (Webinar Jan. 9th)

Hi all,

This is a short post to let you know about a webinar this Wednesday, January 9th titled: Realizing the Vision: NGSS District Implementation. In Washington, the state, we are engaging statewide to better support districts with NGSS implementation and I’m sure there will be some important ideas shared at this meeting.

The text below is copied from the Eventbrite site. Click HERE to register.

The Board on Science Education (BOSE) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and Achieve are convening a meeting to explore the needs of districts implementing the Next Generation Science Standards and similar standards based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education.

The meeting is intended to surface lessons learned, productive collaborations across districts, and future challenges of implementing these standards and to identify ways that Achieve and BOSE—as well as other organizations with an interest in the Framework and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)—can work together to build districts’ capacity to improve science instruction for all students.

The focus on districts here is intentional: while the work enacting NGSS takes place at many levels in the educational system, school districts play a critical role as they implement national and state policies while managing local needs and the complexities of classrooms and communities.

NGSS Science Assessment Task Screeners

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 8.48.58 PMOverview: Achieve recently released two tools for screening and reviewing science assessment tasks- the Science Task Prescreen and the Science Task Screener. These tools will be necessary additions to your toolbox of NGSS assessment resources.

Purpose: The Science Task Prescreen (my personal favorite) is a 1-pager with 8 questions that an individual or group can use to quickly review an assessment task and make some decisions about how and if it requires modification to meet the expectations of NGSS assessment shifts. The Science Task Screener is a more substantial tool that could be used for more in-depth review and modification of assessment tasks.

Audience: Teachers, curriculum developers, assessment writers, PD providers, teacher educators, others



Equity-Focused Science Leadership

My friend and colleague, Tom Hathorn (@thathorn), recently launched his own website and blog that is focused on telling the ongoing story of his equity-focused science leadership learning and professional development. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Tom on multiple equity-focused events and I highly recommend adding his site to your equity and science bookmarks.

HERE is the link to Tom’s site.

HERE is the link to Tom’s blog.


Updates STEM Teaching Tools: SEP Task Formats & CCC Prompts

OVERVIEW: The STEM Teaching Tools group recently updated two of my favorite resources and I want to make sure everyone has the “latest and greatest”.

PURPOSE: These two tools are some of the best resources available for identifying prompts, tasks, and questions that guide students in engaging in the science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts as they solve problems and explain phenomena. These tools have been updated and revised as feedback has come in from the field and other partners.

AUDIENCE: teachers of science, administrators, curriculum directors, curriculum developers, pre-service teachers, teacher educators, PD providers, & others


Click to access STEM-Teaching-Tool-30-Task-Formats-for-3D-Assessment-Design-v2.pdf

Click to access STEM-Teaching-Tool-41-Cross-Cutting-Concepts-Promptsv2.pdf


Project Phenomena

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 3.15.22 PMOVERVIEW: As many states, districts and schools move forward with implementation of the NGSS we all invariably encounter the idea of using phenomena to anchor our units of instruction. There are many great phenomena resources and I wanted to add another to the list- Project Phenomena is a Google site run through the San Diego County Office of Education where you will find a variety of searchable phenomena with information about recommended grades, NGSS PEs, and links.

PURPOSE: Project Phenomena is a worthwhile addition to  and other resources as we continue to design NGSS-based units of instruction that are driven by engaging and anchoring phenomena. Project Phenomena is nicely organized and provides clear information with each possible phenomena.

AUDIENCE: Curriculum developers, teacher teams, PD providers, etc