Modeling is More Than Replicating

Students often examine and interact with models as they learn content. But is it really modeling when students create a 3-dimensional representation of a cell?

cell model

We’ll use the word “modeling” here to refer to the practice of developing and using models in science. Teacher modeling of behaviors, skills, and cognitive routines is incredibly important in classrooms, but this post will focus on students’ interactions with conceptual models.

From the page 50 of the Framework for K-12 Science Education:

Science often involves the construction and use of a wide variety of models and simulations to help develop explanations about natural phenomena. Models make it possible to go beyond observables and imagine a world not yet seen. Models enable predictions of the form “if … then … therefore” to be made in order to test hypothetical explanations.

Creating the cell representation pictured above might demonstrate a student’s ability to design to criteria or to recall the shape of organelles, but it isn’t really an explanation or prediction. Continue reading “Modeling is More Than Replicating”


EPS Integrated Scope and Sequence Site

It’s here! We’ve been working on the new integrated scope and sequence for elementary writing, reading, social studies, and science for over a year now. Thank you to the teachers, coaches, and principals who have provided feedback throughout the process.

You can access the site through the links provided here, using the Evergreen Bookmarks folder in Chrome, or through ClassLink.

At the site, you’ll find information specific to the content areas of  ELA, social studies, and science with images and links to resources. On the grade level pages, all 36 units for grades K through 5 are included, with unit themes, standards, resource suggestions, and integrated literacy task ideas.

We’ll continue to improve the format, add more details, and link more resources to make this resource as valuable and accessible as we can, but we continue to need your help. If there’s something that we can do to make the site better, please let us know! Your ideas and feedback will help us prioritize the ongoing work.

Engineering in Unexpected Places

We all engineer parts of our lives every day. Children (and adults!) engineer structures with blocks, Legos, and Minecraft. Cooks engineer recipes. Teachers engineer learning experiences.

Engineering K-2There are many different graphics of the engineering design process. The image above comes from Appendix I of the Next Generation Science Standards. At its core, engineering consists of three key processes: identifying a problem, developing solutions, and optimizing those solutions. Sounds a lot like a teaching and learning cycle, right?

TL CycleIt sounds a lot like almost any artistic process, too. A “problem” is identified (a piece of music to perform), solutions are developed (rehearsed) and optimized (director feedback).


What about mathematicians? Don’t they identify problems, develop solutions, and optimize? And how about writers? How are the processes of drafting and revising similar to designing and testing?

Engineering, design, and art are not always distinct activities; the lines between them are often fuzzy. Our students should know about and appreciate this “fuzziness”. It brings them closer to understanding the outside world and eliminates some of the potential barriers to STEM careers that students encounter. Students benefit from seeing engineering as something that everyone engages in because it makes the field more approachable and provides a set of useful problem-solving skills that students can apply in many different ways.

Interested in some additional reading? Check out this research brief:  Learning STEM Through Design: Students Benefit from Expanding What Counts as “Engineering” or this blog post on the connections between engineering and social emotional learning.

Rewriting Chapter 1

Pete A’Hearn of the California Science Teachers Association has a great post describing the need to rewrite chapter 1, or whatever we call our introductory science unit. This encapsulates a great deal of what is different (and great!) about the Next Generation Science Standards: learning happens best when it sits within a context that is relevant to students. Teaching one thing at a time might make planning and assessment seem simpler, but it robs students of the best ways to learn and grow. Continue reading “Rewriting Chapter 1”

SEL and Empathy through Engineering

As we work to support students with their social and emotional learning (SEL) at all grade levels, we need to find ways to make this learning accessible and relevant, in the same ways that we work to personalize other learning experiences. When we ask students to problem solve, are we helping them to see themselves as engineers?

Engineering instruction presents an underutilized opportunity for supporting SEL. Empathy is at the root of all engineering. The empathy component of engineering might not be obvious from reading the Merriam-Webster definition, but the acts of identifying a problem to solve, designing solutions, and optimizing those solutions require the engineer to have a level of empathy for the people (or other organisms) involved in the problem. When we ask students to be engineers, are we being transparent enough about the need for empathy?

Particularly in the early grades, students need help sorting out big problems from small problems in their interactions with others. Identification and classification of problems is a key component of the engineering design process. By making the connection between students’ work with social problems (i.e. Kelso’s Choice) and engineering, teachers can help to encourage all students to see themselves as both engineers and problem solvers.

Engineering in the classroom provides students with opportunities to fail safely and try again. This process of iteration is a great way for students to build their persistence and support a growth mindset. Students can also consider engineering (or design) in contexts outside of building. As we involve students in setting up flexible learning environments or establishing group norms, they can be engaged in a form of process engineering. A classroom culture is one example of a designed system; students can be made aware of this and take an active role in engineering the systems and processes in place at school.

Group collaboration is critical in professional engineering contexts: Engineering is a social activity. Group engineering tasks allow students to practice and develop their skills with collaborative relationships and positive social interactions. When a team goal is in place or a problem needs to be solved, many students are more engaged and collaboration occurs in more authentic ways.

Student decision-making and self-management skills can also be developed, refined, and assessed through engineering activities. Time management is almost always a factor in an engineering task – the problem needs to be solved in a reasonable time frame. As students consider the reasons why a design has failed or how to optimize a solution, they consider trade-offs and which solution is truly the best fit for the criteria. By providing authentic experiences for students to practice these skills in a way that teachers can assess and provide feedback.

Intentionally linking SEL and engineering instruction is efficient and will increase student access to critical life and academic skills. Here are a few resources for you to consider digging into that help connect engineering with concepts in SEL:

  • Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking – a fantastic Edutopia post by Rusul Alrubail
  • An Introduction to Design Thinking – this look at Stanford’s process guide begins with empathy
  • Ann McMahon’s TEDx talks in 2012 and 2015 – these videos provide a great look at the role of empathy in engineering from the perspective of an aerospace engineer and educator
  • STEM Teaching Tools #7, #36, and #39 – these tools offer ideas and insight into helping to engage students in relevant design and engineering processes that can help support a variety of SEL goals
  • TeachEngineering – as the name suggests, this site offers a variety of engineering lessons and units aligned to a variety of standards for every grade level

Diagnosing Student Thinking

“Why did they give that answer?”

When students provide unexpected responses, they provide a glimpse of not just what they know but what they are thinking. While student thinking is distinct in many ways from knowledge or skills, it is equally critical to learning. The ways in which a student processes new information and combines that with their prior learning and experiences shapes their long term memory. Being able to diagnose that student thinking and respond in a way that shifts thinking improves the chances that students will persist.

Jim Minstrell and Philip Bell have coauthored a brief on STEM Teaching Tools that details some suggestions for moving beyond thinking about “misconceptions” and “wrong”answers toward thinking about “facets of student thinking.” One of Jim’s projects,, provides a useful tool for diagnosing student thinking, particularly around physics, and has helpful tools to aid teachers in establishing a diagnostic classroom environment. Diagnoser’s tips on the what, how, and why of assessment may shift your own thinking:

Most teachers would say they assess all the time. But typically this means they identify whether the student has the “right” idea, and if not the instruction presents more of the right idea. We mean something different here. To us diagnostic learning environments are more like the diagnosis and prescription that a medical doctor does. The doctor doesn’t just find out that you are not healthy. She/he assesses to find out, as specifically as possible, what the trouble is and then prescribes treatment to address that specific difficulty.

Measuring student thinking is critical to changing student thinking. Deciding what to do with the information is just as important. Diagnoser also has prescriptive activities that suggest activities or teacher responses designed to shift student thinking from problematic to be more in line with instructional goals. These activities can be a great source of inspiration to help address student thinking on topics not specifically included on the site.

What are your practices and ideas for addressing student thinking?

Talking is Sense-making

If we believe that whoever is doing all the reading, writing, and talking is doing the thinking (and learning!), then we need to intentionally plan for student talk to serve as opportunities for sense-making and self-assessment.

Students need these opportunities to grapple with their own non-expert thinking in order to shift misconceptions and make learning persist over time. By engaging in dialogue with their peers, all students have the opportunity to strengthen and refine their own positions and to learn from one another. The structure can be formal, like a gallery walk, or less formal, like a think-pair-share. The key is to intentionally plan chances for students to think and talk in a safe atmosphere before evaluation occurs.

One of my favorite structures is for students to consider the question “Why would an intelligent person think ___?” This frame works whether the blank contains a correct response or a plausible misconception. Considering alternate viewpoints allows the student to more clearly frame their own thoughts, and this frame allows students who might have misconceptions to safely engage in the discussion. After all, the idea being considered isn’t necessarily “theirs” – it belongs to “an intelligent person.”

This brief from STEM Teaching Tools contains a number of helpful links to ideas, articles, videos, and research on improving both the quantity and quality of student discourse in your classroom. While the content is intended for science and STEM teachers, sense-making through talking is a critical component of personalized learning in any content area. Check it out!