Tuesday, June 23, 2015

HF Schoolyard Ecology-NGSS Links

How do Harvard Forest Schoolyard Eco Projects Align with Next Generation Science Standards? 

Okay, if you are like me, you are SO SICK of seeing commentary on NGSS everywhere and find it a bit of OVERKILL. That said, I'm hoping that this might be of help to some teachers who are in districts and states where they must show the links to NGSS to administrators.

In short, the best way that Harvard Forest Schoolyard Ecology assists teachers in meeting the NGSS standards is by providing a way for your students to engage in authentic science practices.

Science and Engineering Practices in the NGSS

The following practices fit most closely with the way our Schoolyard Ecology projects are executed:

Practice 1 Asking Questions and Defining Problems
 Students at any grade level should be able to ask questions of each other about the texts they read, the features of the phenomena they observe, and the conclusions they draw from their models or scientific investigations. (NRC Framework 2012, p. 56) 

Note: Schoolyard projects are based on study questions that have been developed by scientists at Harvard Forest.  We encourage teachers to engage students in developing questions about the protocols themselves, related text, what they observe, and the conclusions they can draw.

To find specific grade level connections, see the complete document showing HF Eco alignment with NGSS on our website at: HF Schoolyard-NGSS links

Practice 3 Planning and Carrying Out Investigations 
Students should have opportunities to plan and carry out several different kinds of investigations during their K-12 years. At all levels, they should engage in investigations that range from those structured by the teacher—in order to expose an issue or question that they would be unlikely to explore on their own (e.g., measuring specific properties of materials)— to those that emerge from students’ own questions. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 61)

Note:  This is the big one that fits most perfectly with every student/teacher that participates in our projects.  Every student has the opportunity to carry out a field investigation that has been structured by a team consisting of a professional ecologist, data manager,  HF educator, and classroom teachers. We always encourage teachers to allow students to plan and carry out investigations that emerge from their own questions.  Some of our teachers already incorporate this more inquiry based approach along with the structured projects.

To find specific grade level connections, see: HF Schoolyard-NGSS links

Practice 4 Analyzing and Interpreting Data

 Once collected, data must be presented in a form that can reveal any patterns and relationships and that allows results to be communicated to others. Because raw data as such have little meaning, a major practice of scientists is to organize and interpret data through tabulating, graphing, or statistical analysis. Such analysis can bring out the meaning of data—and their relevance—so that they may be used as evidence. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 61-62)

Note: This is another excellent fit with HF projects.  We put a lot of attention on data management and analysis.  Schoolyard Eco projects allow students to practice organizing and presenting authentic data that they have collected in the field.  An online database coordinated by a professional data manager at Harvard Forest allows teachers and/or students to input data online, where it is shared with a large network of schools and the general public.  An online graphing tool allows students to easily create graphs of their own data and/or related data from other sites.  Teachers are invited to data workshops at Harvard Forest led by our data manager and project ecologists. At these workshops, teachers learn more about how to choose the best graph for the story they would like to tell about their data, and methods they can use to create those graphs either using the online graphing tools, Excel, or hand graphing. Teachers are then able to guide students through that process in their classrooms.

To find specific grade level connections, see: HF Schoolyard-NGSS links

Practice 5 Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

Although there are differences in how mathematics and computational thinking are applied in science…, mathematics often brings these two fields together by enabling engineers to apply the mathematical form of scientific theories and by enabling scientists to use powerful information technologies designed by engineers. Both kinds of professionals can thereby accomplish investigations and analyses and build complex models, which might otherwise be out of the question. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 65)

Note:  Graphing and data analysis as described above in practice 4 notes involves mathematical thinking and are therefore included in mathematics frameworks/standards as well as science standards.  Teachers always have the option to do more with statistics, math, and computer skills to deepen this experience.

To find specific grade level connections, see: HF Schoolyard-NGSS links

Practice 6 Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

 The goal of science is to construct explanations for the causes of phenomena. Students are expected to construct their own explanations, as well as apply standard explanations they learn about from their teachers or reading. The Framework states the following about explanation: “The goal of science is the construction of theories that provide explanatory accounts of the world. A theory becomes accepted when it has multiple lines of empirical evidence and greater explanatory power of phenomena than previous theories.”(NRC Framework, 2012, p. 52)

Note:  This is a step we encourage teachers to take, using Schoolyard studies as a basis for constructing explanations for what is happening in a given field study and related scientific phenomena such as global climate change, decline in tree populations, effects of invasive species, carbon cycling, photosynthesis,  seasonal water levels, etc.

To find specific grade level connections, see: HF Schoolyard-NGSS links

Practice 8 Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
Any education in science and engineering needs to develop students’ ability to read and produce domain-specific text. As such, every science or engineering lesson is in part a language lesson, particularly reading and producing the genres of texts that are intrinsic to science and engineering. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 76)

Note:  We strongly encourage teachers to engage students in reading and communicating about project themes and outcomes.  Many of the lesson plans teachers have submitted that are available on our website, include these components in the form of recommended reading and related questions; Powerpoint presentations, videos, and scientific posters created by students, etc.

To find specific grade level connections, see: HF Schoolyard-NGSS links

NGSS Disciplinary Core Idea Progression Core Concepts: 
There are many links that can be made between Schoolyard Ecology projects and NGSS core concepts.  These concepts must be taught by teachers as supplemental lessons that relate to the project themes.  Most teachers who participate in Schoolyard Ecology already teach lessons that tie to our project themes in order to deepen student understanding of their field studies.  I have pulled out the NGSS core concepts that I feel best relate to our projects in the complete NGSS-HF Schoolyard document available on our website at:   HF Schoolyard-NGSS links

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts

All of the following concepts apply to Schoolyard Eco project themes. How these concepts are integrated and at what levels, is dependent on how the teacher chooses to integrate these concepts in lesson plans and activities related to project themes.

1. Patterns. Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them. 
2. Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation. Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts. 
3. Scale, proportion, and quantity. In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance.
 4. Systems and system models. Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering. 
5. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation. Tracking fluxes of energy and matter into, out of, and within systems helps one understand the systems’ possibilities and limitations. 
6. Structure and function. The way in which an object or living thing is shaped and its substructure determine many of its properties and functions. 
7. Stability and change. For natural and built systems alike, conditions of stability and determinants of rates of change or evolution of a system are critical elements of study. 

Teachers- Please provide us with feedback as to how you see the best fits between NGSS and HF Schoolyard. 

What have I missed?  What changes do you recommend to our documentation of NGSS alignment?
Do you have any examples of "models" that your students have created related to project themes?  

What else do you have to say on this topic?  

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Some views and comments from teachers who participated in last year's HF-LTER Schoolyard Ecology Summer Institute for Teachers 

Hoping you will spread the word to some new folks to join us this summer on Aug. 20th at Harvard Forest. Share the link to this blog with any teachers who might be interested in getting their kids involved this coming year.

Please share this HF schooleco blog link with teachers who might consider joining a Schoolyard project this summer.  

Register by downloading the flyer and registration form from our website at: teacher registration form and flyer

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Vernal Pool Student Projects

Vernal Pool Student Projects

Concord Middle School Students worked in teams to create slide presentations about Vernal Pools as an enrichment activity related to their Schoolyard Ecology Vernal Pool project.

Teacher Tara Fernandez-Davila set the students the task of developing pages with a graph, an intro. to vernal pools, and one question of interest, using Google.docs.  See samples of their work below. Comments from Project Ecologist, Betsy Colburn and Tara F.D. are interspersed with slides. 

Notes from teacher, Tara Fernandez-Davila: 

  • Students visited the vernal pool 5 times (typically) over the course of the year
  • Students spent just over a week in the spring working in groups to develop the slides.  The slides include:
  • An overview of vernal pools
  •  A graph of the data we collected from 2011-2015 (I'd like next years' students to analyze these graphs more)
  •   A food web (developed by students using vernal pool field guides)
  •   A personal question of interest.  Their questions varied a lot from research-based questions to inferential questions that require long-term study.   Time constraints made it difficult for my students to spend more time in one school year, but I'm excited to have these slides as a base for future students.  

Note from Pamela Snow, Schoolyard Ecology Coordinator:

Ecologist Betsy Colburn and I discussed the fact that the food webs are trickier than one might expect because there are so many species involved and many of the species overlap multiple times in their food chain connections.  I believe it is still a worthwhile exercise as long as you make it clear to students that none of the food webs they created are totally complete or specific to the pool  you are studying as each vernal pool community would vary somewhat.  I like including this aspect in order to have students look closely at the complex way in which organisms are interrelated. Next time, students may perhaps add a note at the bottom of each food web/chain slide indicating that this diagram does not represent every organism or every interrelationship in this vernal pool community (which of course is all we can expect at this level). 

Sample Graph Slides: 

The graphs in figures 1 and 2 make a nice contrast-same set of data, very different looking results! Great examples for comparisons. 
Betsy Colburn
Project Ecologist

Comparing the graph in figure 3 with those in figures 1 and 2 above, shows how scaling on the X axis makes an enormous difference in the result! 
Betsy Colburn
Project Ecologist

This graph is nice in that it shows diameter on each date clearly, and also somewhat gets around the time-scaling problem by showing each year individually with distinct colors for the months. 
Betsy Colburn
Project Ecologist

Notes from Project Ecologist Betsy Colburn regarding graphs:

They (graphs) show very clearly how variable the pool diameter and water depths are over time in a given year, as well as how they differ from one year to the next.  Students could put a few words on the slide explaining what the graph shows (for example, do you consider that the pool depth is pretty stable, or pretty variable, during the time when it is flooded?) In relation to the line graphs, it is interesting that the patterns are not the same in the different graphs of pool diameters over the years, even though (presumably) the students used the same set of data.  And, the question of the scale used on the X axis makes a big difference. Depending on how the data are put in and  how the computer chooses to make the graph, the distances between points on the graph might not represent the relative distances in time between the sampling dates.  There are lots of things that can be done with looking at these graphs and comparing and interpreting them!  

Note from Pamela Snow:

Graphing a real data set is complex and challenging work for middle schoolers and we are very pleased to see such an array of approaches to this task.  Isn't fascinating to see how each group of students approached the work so differently?  In talking with Betsy Colburn, we decided that these graphs provide an exciting learning opportunity.  We have chosen not to provide specific corrections/edits to any of the graphs here, but instead encourage teachers to  encourage a class/group discussions between students and teachers, to see if issues re: accuracy or the ways in which types of  graphs or the way they have been displayed might enhance or take away from the ability to effectively interpret the data.  Having this set of graphs available for the entire class to look at perhaps next year, and think about which one(s) they think most effectively tell the story of what was happening with water levels/diameters at this pool is a wonderful teaching resource.  I could imagine some rich discussions and learning coming from this. I agree with Betsy's recommendation to add a short description of what students think the graph is showing next year. 

Some broad issues to consider as represented in the set of graphs above and in the larger collection on our website:

  • Are the axes labelled?
  • Is the reader able to clearly see the information in the graph?  We saw issues with the axes here. Many of the dates on the x axis on these slides appeared too small to read even when expanded to maximum size the blog would allow.  
  • Look at the scale of the time axis to see if it properly reflects the time between observations. 
  • If choosing a line graph, remember to remove the lines connecting long time periods such as the winter. Lines in areas where data was not actually recorded can show relationships between data points that don't actually exist.  
  • Often bar graphs are a better choice for data sets such as this one that have long stretches of time (between Nov. and May) with no data.  
  • Graph type such as a pie graph would not make sense given the particular story about water depth and diameter students are telling with this study.

After Slides were Completed: 

I had my students do a peer review of the slides today to gather information from each other.  It has been a great process so far, but as a first attempt, I hope Betsy will understand the simplicity of their analysis.   I think these slides will serve as a great starting point for students to study next year because now they will have some resources to launch from for further/ deeper investigation.  Exciting!
-Tara Fernandez-Davila

General Comments From Betsy Colburn on Student Work:  

Tara, I am impressed by the multiple years of data and the results of the measurements, as well as the broad scope of the biological/ecological investigations you have your students carrying out. It is clear that the students are deeply engaged in these studies, and I hope you are finding them useful in meeting some of your goals as an educator. Do you find that having several years’ worth of data on water depths and pool diameters helps you and your students in interpreting what you see going on, biologically, in the pools? It will be interesting if, as you suggest, next year’s class looks more at the data and the year-to-year (and within year) variations in depths and diameters!

I enjoyed going through the slide shows the students prepared. Most of these slides are well laid out and easy to read, with good, clear text. Most of the photographs do a very good job of accompanying and illustrating the written information. 

Some of the slides would benefit from having the sources of information cited on them; others do have the sources right there. I think this is preferable to having the sources cited at the end of the slides, in the case of scientific/biological information. On the other hand, the description by Aaron, Adam, Josh and Garrett in the last slide of their slideshow, summarizing how they obtained their data (primarily from field work at the vernal pool), was useful for clarifying that their reports were largely self-generated, as opposed to having come from online research.

I enjoyed seeing what the students observed, and learning how they interpreted their field measurements. Great slide show! Thanks, Betsy

Wow!  What rich learning you students and teachers  are sharing with us. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for letting us get a peek at your good work!

To Learn More: 

  • See ALL of the Slides developed by Concord Middle School students on our website atthe link below. Scroll down to the vernal pool section under "Fernandez-Davila": 

If any other teachers have student work, photos, comments to share send them along to me at psnow@fas.harvard.edu

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Award Winner: Sharon McDonald, Athol High School

 Schoolyard Teacher, Sharon McDonald, Twice Awarded  

Sharon was nominated by her school principal for one award, and by her students for another.  She is pictured below holding the Award  for Excellence in Environmental Education by the Commonwealth of Mass.   See the photo and article posted in the Athol Daily News on May 22nd. 

RECOGNIZED -- Athol High School teacher Sharon McDonald was honored at the May 20 meeting of the Athol-Royalston Regional School Committee with the Secretary's Award for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. McDonald was recognized for her work with students at AHS in environmental science and the Environmental Club. 
Left to right -- AHS Principal Steven Meyer, who submitted McDonald's name for the award, AHS Science, Technology, Engineering and Math teacher Jeff Weston, McDonald, and ARRSD Superintendent of Schools Anthony Polito.Photo by Keith Kent *

Sharon was also recognized by the Athol High School Honor Society at Athol H.S.  Unfortunately, we have not yet accessed a photo or any formal write-ups from that event.  Stay tuned for that...

Highlights of Sharon's work at Athol High School :
  • Excellent overall science teaching in biology and environmental science 
  • Advisor for the Environmental Club  
  • Led a "Trash Ball"; Dance in which students dance in "upcycled" attire made from trash.
  • Organized a school-wide  environmental fair for Earth Day
  • Worked with an outside agency to provide opportunites for students to travel to Central America to engage in ecological research.
  • Led 2 Harvard Forest Schoolyard Ecology projects: Vernal Pool and Our Changing Forests

Athol H.S. Principal Meyer sums up Sharon's work as follows:  

Ms. McDonald is able to deliver a message to students that goes far beyond the classroom and truly impacts the way they view the world.

* Excerpt from the Athol Daily News, May, 22, 2015