TCHERS' VOICE / Next Generation Science Standards

Ecosystems: An NGSS-Designed Unit


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Every teacher seeks opportunities to engage students, but how often do you have the opportunity to truly immerse your students in the discipline you love? And how can you be certain that the resources you choose are high quality and grounded in best practices?

Experts at Achieve, NSTA, EdReports, BSCS, and Learning Forward have been engaging in a process of helping the science education community come to a consensus on what counts as “high quality.” And both federal and private STEM funders are supporting the work of researchers and developers to create open access curriculum materials.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, educators from the American Museum of Natural History, The Lawrence Hall of Science, and University of Connecticut are wrapping up a four-year project that sought to create both an exemplar unit (along with student assessments) and a professional learning program to support the enactment of the NGSS-designed curriculum.

The project was a huge success, and after a few years of field testing in New York City, the middle school ecosystems unit is becoming well known across the country -- rated “High Quality, If Improved” by Achieve’s EQuIP Peer Review Panel.

One missing piece in all of the work was video of the enactment of the Disruptions in Ecosystems unit in a classroom. Video-based professional learning tied to NGSS-designed instructional materials can support teachers with developing a more concrete understanding of what it feels like to be in an NGSS classroom. It answers the frequently asked question, “What is this supposed to look like?”

Thanks to generous funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York, Teaching Channel had the opportunity to capture one of our New York City field test teachers, Sabrina Van-Phanz, during her first year using NGSS-designed instructional materials.

Through these videos, we get a glimpse of what it looks like when a teacher is attempting to shift his or her practice to align with the NGSS. The classroom footage will be used for a video-based online course offered by Teaching Channel this fall. However, just as the instructional materials are free and accessible for anyone to use, we’ve edited the footage into videos that are also free and accessible -- even if you aren’t taking the course.


The Unit: Disruptions in Ecosystems

The Disruptions in Ecosystems unit (click here to download the unit as a zip file) consists of five instructional sequences, or chapters, that address two or three NGSS performance expectations each. All of the chapters use the BSCS 5E Instructional Model as a framework.

Six New Teaching Channel Videos

The six videos in our series correspond to the first six activities in the first chapter of the Disruptions in Ecosystems unit. Our window into Sabrina’s classroom allows us to witness the challenges that emerge from teaching in a way that is new and unfamiliar to both her and her students. However, we also have the opportunity to observe the strategies she uses and how the instructional materials support her in making necessary changes to her practice.

One of the reasons we selected Sabrina’s classroom to film was because she had already established a classroom culture based on routines that support the transition to NGSS in her practice. Her students were already comfortable working collaboratively in groups and peer-to-peer conversations were already built into her lessons. Sabrina also was already using a notebook system that supported her students with scientific reading and writing.

Through professional learning, Sabrina worked to adapt the ecosystems unit in a symbiotic way with those classroom routines that she had already put in place. This is important because we want to send a clear message to teachers that shifting one’s practice does not mean doing everything over again from scratch. NGSS implementation doesn’t mean all of the things you used to do won’t work anymore. High-quality materials can help teachers learn what they’re doing well, and what they might do differently.

In our first video, we see Sabrina introduce the investigative phenomenon of the chapter to the students. They learn about the wolves in Yellowstone, and begin to think about the question: What happens when you reintroduce a predator into an ecosystem?

Students ask questions and speculate about what might be occurring, based on their prior knowledge and opinions. As we progress through the videos, we see students engaging in sense-making practices such as developing and using models and analyzing and interpreting data in order to justify their claims with evidence and reasoning, not just their opinions.

Video two focuses on using food webs to make predictions. Engaging with models allows students to develop an understanding of the types of relationships we find in ecosystems.

In our third video, students learn the scientific terms of those relationships and apply them to their understanding of the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Video four shows how students use graphs of real data to learn that it isn’t just living things that can cause changes to populations -- non-living things also can have an impact.

By the time we get to video five, we see how students are able to make sense of these complex ideas and to describe the patterns they see, connecting explicitly to the crosscutting concepts.

In our final video, students have the opportunity to apply everything they've been learning and engage in an argument about whether wolves should be introduced to the Adirondacks. Students refer to evidence from the chapter and various activities in which they've engaged, mentioning what they read in the text as well as data they analyzed. They use the scientific terms they learned throughout the chapter appropriately and, more importantly, you can tell they're having fun and are really invested in the discussion.

To view two more teachers trying out lessons from other chapters in the Disruptions in Ecosystems unit, see this blog post on moving NGSS from theory to practice.

We'd love to hear from you. Share your ideas about the Disruptions in Ecosystems unit and the lessons featured here in the comments below.

Dora Kastel is a science instructional specialist at New Visions for Public Schools. In her previous role as a leader of professional learning programs at the American Museum of Natural History, she was co‐project director of an NSF-funded curriculum and research study titled “Moving Next Generation Science Standards into Practice: A Middle School Ecology Unit and Professional Development Model” in collaboration with SEPUP and the University of Connecticut. She was also a 2016-2017 CADRE fellow. Prior to her work at AMNH, she was a middle school science and math teacher for six years in East Harlem. She earned her B.A. in Geology from the University of Pennsylvania, along with her M.A. in Science Education and Ed.M. in Mathematics Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. She recently returned to Teachers College and is two years into completing her Ph.D. in Science Education. Connect with Dora on Twitter: @Dora_Kastel.

1 Comment
Hello, my name is Becky, and I just finished my first year teaching as a middle school science teacher in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This article provided me with an incredible example of NGSS student-centered learning in action. My district switched to NGSS-aligned curriculum this year, and I have noticed that students learn much more effectively when they investigate knowledge, rather than when I present knowledge to them as a “sage on the stage.” Following the videos, I have a few questions based on challenges I encountered this year when implanting NGSS: 1) How can we share out the important ideas that are generated in small groups (seen in the video as able groups) to the whole class? How should we document these ideas throughout the unit (on chart paper or otherwise)? Is there ever a time to return to these ideas or student questions? 2) Time limit – I work with students that have a variety of reading levels (from kindergarten to grade 7). How can I scaffold the learning for my students so that they all still understand the important concepts and vocabulary for a unit? Were the lessons in the video recorded over multiple days or one class period? I believe that it is extremely important that students investigate scientific learning for themselves rather than us teachers simply presenting the information to them. Sabrina’s classroom is an exemplary model for how I would like my classroom to run. Student-led voices, investigations, and collaborations that are grounded in NGSS phenomena that is relevant to their own lives will help the learning stick for students and will effectively engage them. Thanks so much for sharing!
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