Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Google Earth in the Science Classroom

Monday, December 12th, 2011

As I write this, I am flying high over the New Mexico desert glancing out the airplane window marveling at and wondering about the world below me.  The rectangular fields, the alluvial deposits from ancient rivers long dry, the plateaus, hills and mountains all captivate me and remind me how incredible our planet truly is.  I also wonder at the forces that created all these features.  Fields, well, they are man-made so those are easy to figure out, but the natural features astonish me.  How high were the mountains before erosion took hold? How high are they now?  How wide are the alluvial deposits? How much material do they represent, where did it come from, and how long have they been forming? What geologic wonders am I missing by sitting on the south side of the plane?


erosional features

Unfortunately, not all of our students will fly at 30,000 feet over mountains just as we try and teach them the true power of erosional and depositional forces, nor will they see this view of their own town to realize that similar (although smaller in scale) features are found almost everywhere.  Luckily technology exists to enable you and your students to view almost any place on Earth from any altitude, and better yet, the technology is FREE!!  Free?  Yup, free.  All that is needed is a computer and an Internet connection.  Ok, yes, some of you will also need your technology folks to install software for you; but other than time, it’s free.

While there are multiple places to find satellite images I have two favorites: Google Earth and NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Google Earth, which does require installation, allows users to view photographic satellite (or airplane) images of almost any place on Earth.

While the software can take a few minutes to learn it is easy to get started.

Download at

Visit the following websites for more information on how to get started using Google Earth.  Also, make sure you are on our science listserv (sign up at to receive information about Google Earth workshops coming to ESC Region XIII in Spring and Summer.

STEM: Top 10 Resources

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Transformation 2013 T-STEM Center

Transformation 2013 T-STEM Center is a partnership between ESC Region XIII in Austin and ESC Region 20 in San Antonio. Transformation 2013 T-STEM Center serves central Texas and El Paso T-STEM Academies as well as other schools focusing on innovative Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) instruction. The vision of Transformation 2013 is to provide the highest quality professional development, curriculum, and outreach programs emphasizing hands-on problem-based learning to create superior STEM scholars. Our “Top 10 STEM Resources” are cited below including a summary of each resource and a hyperlink to each full-text document.

1. Bybee, R. W. (2010, September). Advancing STEM Education: A 2020 Vision. The Technology and Engineering Teacher, 70(1), 30-35.

This document details the phases and goals of a decade-long STEM action plan to move STEM education beyond the slogan to make STEM literacy for all students a national priority. Initially, the purpose of STEM literacy must be clarified, and then the challenges to advancing STEM education must be addressed. Furthermore, the STEM curriculum will be advanced by presenting challenges or problems framed in life and work contexts involving STEM to engage students.

2. Fulton, K., & Britton, T. (2011, June). STEM Teachers in Professional Learning Communities: From Good Teachers to Great Teaching. Retrieved November 2, 2011, from National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future:

The research compiled in this executive summary is based on a National Science Foundation‐funded project: STEM Teachers in Professional Learning Communities: A Knowledge Synthesis. The NSF Knowledge Synthesis indicates that STEM learning teams have positive effects on STEM teachers and their teaching, and students of teachers participating in STEM professional learning communities achieve higher success in math.

3. Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Retrieved November 2, 2011, from American Association of University Women:

This study was conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) on the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The summary emphasizes practical ways that families, schools and communities can create an environment of encouragement that can overcome negative stereotypes about the capacity of women in these demanding fields.

4. ITEEA. (2003). Advancing Excellence in Technological Literacy: Student Assessment, Professional Development, and Program Standards. Retrieved November 2, 2011, from International Technology and Engineering Educators Association:

As a companion document to the Standards for Technological Literacy listed below, this document provides a guideline for implementation of the standards in K-12 classrooms. It details important topics such as student assessment, professional development, and program enhancement, while leaving specific curricular decisions to teachers, schools, districts, and states.

5. ITEEA. (2007). Standards for Technological Literacy. Retrieved November 2, 2011, from International Technology and Engineering Educators Association

The content standards and related benchmarks indicate what all students need to know and be able to do to achieve technological literacy. The Standards for Technological Literacy provide the foundation upon which the study of technology is built.

6. Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Beede, D., & Doms, M. (2011, July). STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future. Retrieved November 2, 2011, from Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration:

Growth in STEM jobs occurred three times as fast as growth in non-STEM jobs in the last ten years and as a result, U.S. businesses are expressing concerns with the availability of STEM workers. STEM occupations are projected to grow 17% between 2008 and 2018 compared to less than 10% growth for non-STEM occupations; therefore, STEM workers will play a significant role in future growth and stability of the United States.

7. Sanders, M. (2009, December/January). STEM, STEM Education, STEMmania. The Technology Teacher, 20-26.

The origin of STEM, the current status of how integrative STEM education is addressed for teachers and students, and the systematic changes that are needed to approach integrative STEM education are discussed. In a world where the STEM pipeline problem has been widely publicized, this article addresses the question “Why Integrative STEM Education?” rather than conventional STEM education to achieve technological literacy for all.

8. Texas High School Project. (2010, November 15). T-STEM Design Blueprint. Retrieved November 2, 2011, from THSP:

Used by T-STEM academies, the T-STEM design blueprint, rubric, and glossary serve as a guideline for building and sustaining STEM schools. The blueprint addresses seven benchmarks: 1) mission driven leadership; 2) school culture and design; 3) student outreach, recruitment, and retention; 4) teacher selection, development and retention; 5) curriculum, instruction, and assessment; 6) strategic alliances; and 7) academy advancement and sustainability.

9. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2010, September). Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in STEM for America’s Future. Retrieved November 2, 2011, from The White House:

The recommendations in this report suggest five priorities that provide a roadmap for achieving our STEM vision: “(1) improve Federal coordination and leadership on STEM education; (2) support the state-led movement to ensure that the Nation adopts a common baseline for what students learn in STEM; (3) cultivate, recruit, and reward STEM teachers that prepare and inspire students; (4) create STEM-related experiences that excite and interest students of all backgrounds; and (5) support states and school districts in their efforts to transform schools into vibrant STEM learning environments.”

10. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. (2010, March). ESEA Blueprint for Reform. Retrieved November 2, 2011, from United States Department of Education:

In providing students a complete world-class education and college and career readiness, we must strengthen STEM instruction and standards. The availability of grants will support the strengthening of state-wide STEM programs, and support districts in identifying effective instructional materials and improving teachers’ knowledge and skills in STEM instruction for all students.

Article by Karissa Poszywak
STEM Specialist
Transformation 2013 T-STEM Center at ESC Region XIII
Phone: 512-919-5139

Special thanks to Joules Webb, STEM Specialist at ESC Region 20, for recommending these top ten resources.

What Does Progress Monitoring Really Look Like?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

We are almost at the halfway point in the year and you have groups all over your classroom and so does everyone else in the school.  The questions start to echo off the walls: Is Mary in the right group?  Are they progressing fast enough to close the gap by the end of the year?  Am I doing this strategy correctly?  How do I group the students to get the most progress in the least amount of time?  Is this strategy working or not?

A critical key component to successful progress monitoring is setting reasonable goals.  We do not want to waste time implementing an ineffective strategy or taking data and then not using it to help guide our instruction.  If you have not set goals for your class as a whole and for individuals who are struggling, then you are going to have a very difficult time trying to get them where they need to be.  Consider the following analogy (Adapted from V. Lynch, C. McGuigan, and S. Shoemaker, “An Introduction to Systematic Instruction”).

Suppose you are taking a trip.  Contrast the difference between taking that trip having specified your destination and taking the trip with no special endpoint in mind.  For example, you leave Seattle this morning with a goal to reach Mexico City by nightfall three days hence, as opposed to merely leaving Seattle.  Without a specified destination and projected arrival time, you know neither in which direction to go nor how fast to travel; having established a goal, you know both these facts (head south and really hustle).  With this information you can judge whether the direction and the rate at which you are traveling will get you to your final destination on time.

If you have not set specific goals for the end of the year yet, it is not too late.  You need to meet with your colleagues/team and decide what the specific end of year goal is for each of your students.  Look back at your data and determine how many students have already met the goal, how many are close to reaching the goal already and how many students have a long way to go.  There are many research based standards for establishing performance goals using baseline data including DIBELS (, AIMSWeb (, and “Formative evaluation of academic progress: How much growth can we expect?”  School Psychology Review, 22, 27-48 (  You can also use normative peer data to establish a reference point for the initial goal for an individual. Not only is it critical to set a goal for your students but a key factor in determining success is teacher responsiveness to the data.  “Goal ambitiousness seems to positively affect student achievement.” (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Deno, 1985)  In other words, teachers and students who set their goals higher and continue to increase those goals progress at a more rapid rate than do peers who select lower performance goals and do not change them.  It is also crucial for teachers to follow specific rules for how to be responsive to the data instead of just collecting and graphing it.  Having clear and measurable goals allows teachers  to work as a team with other teachers and with the students.  There can be meaningful and concise communication with regard to how and what students need to improve, and whether they are indeed progressing.  Student progress will help keep the groups flexible as teachers adjust the groups according to student level of progress and program modification.

Let’s look at how to use goal setting, scores along the goal line, and program modification to make decisions about student progress.  If the student’s current level of performance is more than one-half of the peer norm, and if we had more than 30 weeks left in the school year, we would consider setting the goal at the current peer norm.  Since we do not have 30 weeks left in the year,  we need to reduce the goal to a level that we estimate to be attainable.  Initial goal setting may be done through estimation because it can be adjusted if the goal turns out to be unreasonable.   The main point here is to set a goal for every student so you know where you are headed.  Progress toward that goal is then represented on a student graph using a goal line.  When 4 consecutive scores exceed the goal line, raise the goal.  In contrast, when 4 consecutive scores fall below the goal line, modify the program.  Draw a vertical line on the graph to indicate where the program was modified and continue to graph the scores.  The new goal line will need to be parallel to (but lower than) the goal line beginning at the student’s present level of performance.  You may also adjust your groups at this time to regroup students who are progressing without modification and students who will all need an adjustment to the program.  Keep in mind that you will need to progress monitor the lowest 40% of your students more often than the others.  You will also need to monitor the programs in which more students are struggling more often than the programs in which most of the students are progressing along their goal line.

Program modification includes a myriad of options.  It is important to first look at the implementation integrity to make sure the program is being used in the way it was designed.  There are a number of implementation integrity checklists created by Alecia Rahn Blakeslee at  Once you have determined the integrity of the intervention, you can start to look at ways to modify it in order to meet the needs of your students and your campus.  Deb Simmons has created a chart that displays alterable variables in programs. This chart is available at  There are several other guidelines to consider when modifying any program.  Supplemental groups should optimally include no more than five or six students.  Intensive groups should optimally include no more than three or four students.  Put the most qualified staff with the neediest students.  Your campus may want to do a personnel resource inventory with ALL staff (general education, Title l and special education teachers, G/T, ELL specialists, paraprofessionals, trained volunteers) to see who has knowledge, skills and experience with the strategies you want to put in place.  Scheduling is another important factor.  Possibly have teachers teach core subjects at different times of the day or different periods so the support staff can schedule time in each classroom and students can access additional time in other classrooms.  You can list each teacher and support personnel’s schedule in 15 minute increments.  Any 15 minute section that they are not teaching core content is a possible intervention time.  This could be a way to provide the additional intervention time for the supplemental and intensive groups.

RtI implementation takes a commitment from all the staff and administrators.  Students will be successful if we use our time and resources effectively and efficiently.  At this point in the year teachers and the leadership team need to be looking at the goals for all students and their progress towards those goals.  It is critical to be responsive to the data that have been collected to modify the program after implementation fidelity has been established.  There are many resources to guide you through this process.  For more information please refer to the RtI Blueprint for Implementation- School Building Level at and the Progress Monitoring Leadership Team Content Module at

Using Released Test Items to Design Justified Lists and Card Sorts for Science

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Assessment seems to be all anyone is talking about in education these days.  Well, okay, a few people might have mentioned school financing, but STAAR, EOC, Reference Documents (the documents previously known as formula charts), and the just-released STAAR sample items… oh you hadn’t heard about those?  Yes, they were released by TEA on September 30, 2011, and can be found online.  And, since I know teachers in tested grades are going to want to look at those, go ahead.  Visit and look them over, then come back and finish this article in which I am going to give suggestions on utilizing standardized questions to design formative assessment experiences which can be integrated into student notebooks.

Standardized assessments serve a purpose in that they help to judge the effectiveness of different curricula and approaches to instruction, districts, and even teachers; but the results often inform us as to which TEKS a group of students or even an individual student have not mastered without providing insight as to what they do not understand or why.  In order to understand students’ thought processes, assessments must be written that allow for open-ended response, problem solving steps to be shown, and for students to be forced to confront common misconceptions side-by-side with the scientifically- based explanation of a phenomena and decide which explanation they hold to be true.  When these types of assessments are conducted throughout the learning process for the benefit of both teacher and student, then we call them formative assessments.  Renowned National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) author Page Keeley in her book Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning, defines formative assessment as “assessment for learning” (Keeley, 2008).  Summative exams such as STAAR are considered to be assessments of learning in that they do not provide learning opportunities to students.  Both types of assessments may provide information that informs curriculum and instruction, but it is how the assessments impact a student that is the key.  In her book Keeley provides 75 Formative Assessment Classroom Techniques (FACTs).   Two types I have chosen to focus on are justified lists and card sorts.

Justified List

One type of formative assessment is the justified list, in which students are presented with a question such as, “Which of the following are producers?” and then a list that might include, “oak tree, mushroom, grass, algae, duckweed, corn, and dog.”  Students are tasked with checking off those things on the list that are considered producers and then asked to, “Write the rule by which you decided if something is a producer or not.”  We could also ask students to write three characteristics they use to determine if something is a producer.  The important task here is that students are examining their thinking about what are examples and non-examples and then explaining and justifying the characteristics they used.  The example I described using producers would be a great formative assessment to go along with TEKS 5.9(B) which is the TEKS assessed in question number 12 of the 2011 5th grade released questions.  Students should recognize and explain that they did not choose a mushroom because it breaks down nutrients from decaying organisms and thus cannot serve as the basis of a food chain. A chemistry example (see question number 1 of the 2011 Chemistry released questions) might be, “Which of the following are considered extensive properties?”

Justified lists can be used as pre-assessments (for example, a biology teacher might ask about producers before beginning a lesson on food webs) or to assess learning after the explanation phase of instruction (as would be the case when a 5th grade teacher uses the producer list).  They can be conducted in tandem with a think, pair, share to allow students to discuss and refine their ideas or they can be integrated into a unit assessment in which case the list should include some new examples the students might not have previously been confronted with.

Integrating justified lists into science notebooks is easy.  The question, justified list and prompt can be made to fit on half a sheet of paper which students can glue or tape into their notebook at the top so the paper can be lifted up and the rule which the student used and their justification can then be written directly on the notebook paper.

In addition to Science Formative Assessment, Keeley has written a series of books entitled Uncovering Student Ideas is Science.  All are available through NSTA at  An example chapter from one of Keeley’s probe books that includes a justified list can be found online at  Scroll down just a bit under details and click on the link next to Read Inside.

Card Sort

Another type of formative assessment is a card sort. Card sorts are designed in such a way that students sort a set of cards with either terms or pictures on them into two or more categories.  For example, during an 8th grade lesson utilizing the periodic table students might sort terms such as metallic appearance, non-metal, semiconductors, conductors, non-conductors, etc. onto an outline of the periodic table that has been divided into non-metals, metals, and metalloids such as that seen in the 8th grade 2011 Released Question number 3.  The cards that students sort could also include the symbols or names of some elements they are familiar with and pictures of some of the more common elements.

To really make students think, make the number of cards unequal in each category.  For example have 7 cards belong under non-metals, while only 6 belong under metals.  Another way of making the activity more rigorous is to include cards that will not be used.  When I taught Biology I included two cards that said “Does Not Contain DNA” and four cards that said “Does Contain DNA” for my sort of characteristics and example organisms for the six kingdoms. When students said they seemed to be missing “Does Contain DNA” cards and that they had cards that didn’t belong anywhere (such as the “HIV” card) they were demonstrating understanding and mastery on a higher level than if they had done a one-to-one matching activity.

Card sorts can be integrated into notebooks through questions or stems about why certain cards were put into categories, such as having students complete the statement, “I placed ________________ in the kingdom _____________ because…”  or  “We had the hardest time deciding where ____________ goes because…” You can also make the sort one that students cut apart themselves and then glue into a graphic organizer in their notebook so students can review their written justifications while observing the results of their sort.  Alternatively, you can use pockets where students can replicate the sort and practice on their own.  This is especially useful for more difficult concepts or content that is being introduced for the first time.

Tips for using card sorts:

  • Provide a key so students can check their sorting even if they are away from the classroom
  • Students can work in pairs or small groups
  • Ensure students discuss and reflect on why cards were sorted in certain ways
  • Use sentence stems to ensure English Language Learners participate in these discussions
  • Encourage students to distribute the cards between all members of the group and to take turns placing the cards

Example science card sorts produced by ESC Region XIII are available online at



Notice how, regardless of which formative assessment strategy or technique is chosen, it is the way in which the strategy is utilized and the guiding and probing questions asked by the teacher that provide the depth and rigor required by STAAR.  Formative assessments must be developed and designed in such a way that yes, informs instruction, but the main purpose should be for students to recognize and confront their own misunderstandings and begin to correct them.  A quiz, given to students working silently and independently that is then graded by the teacher with the only feedback to the student being a grade, is not considered formative.


Keeley, Page. (2008). Science Formative Assessment: 75 practical strategies for linking assessment, instruction, and learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

STAAR 2011 Released Test Questions.  Accessed online at, October 1, 2011.

Assessment for Learning: Technology Supported Formative Assessment

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Every day in classrooms across Texas, technology tools are infused with quality instruction to boost engagement, simplify learning task management, differentiate for diverse learning needs and increase learning through exposure to content with multiple modalities.  Educators have who embrace the transformative power of learning with technology can also take advantage of the opportunities available for assessment for learning, a.k.a – Formative Assessment.

Technology-rich, authentic assessments and automated quick-checks for understanding can provide feedback to inform teachers on how to design instruction and students on how to continuously improve. In the publication “Meaningful Measurement”, author Lyndsay M. Pinkus points out:

Many formative assessment strategies address the teacher’s information needs, helping to answer questions critical to good instruction:

• Who is and who is not understanding the lesson?

• What are this student’s strengths and needs?

• What misconceptions do I need to address?

• What feedback should I give students?

• What adjustments should I make to instruction?

• How should I group students?

• What differentiation do I need to prepare? (Pinkus, 2009)

I encourage you to download and read the full publication “Meaningful Measurement”, specifically chapter 3 concerning formative assessments.


When you get a chance, passively observe K-12 students as they interact with the technology around them.  Watch as they courageously explore the buttons and features they encounter.  They risk getting stuck or lost. They risk creating a “mess” of the tool.  They risk having to ask for help, or look up answers.  Observe as they test a solution, evaluate its effectiveness and determine the next action based on the information they gather.  Or, more simply stated, click a button and see what happens.  You can literally watch learning happen, in real time.  Each action is a moment of self-teaching, learning, and formative assessment for the student.  A popular label for this type of learning is “Problem Based Learning” or in some more structured cases “Project Based Learning”.  Both are a form of “Performance Assessment” and work as your guidance system as you lead each learner down the path to understanding and demonstration.   Check out “Sources of Performance Assessment Tasks, Rubrics, and Samples of Student Work” for excellent examples, rubrics, tasks and more for each content area and general topics.


Here are a few notable technology tools that are simple to integrate and get powerful results when it comes to student quickly taking the “pulse” of learning to formatively assess student progress.

  • is “a smart student response system that empowers teachers to engage their classrooms through a series of educational exercises and games via smartphones, laptops, and tablets.” In short, it allows teachers to create a variety of short assessments, such as quizzes and exit tickets, that can be taken from any web enabled device.  The interface is extremely kid-friendly, even for young students.  Best of all, it does not require student accounts, but still provides somewhat detailed student performance data by name via secure e-mailed excel file directly to the teacher.  Visit for a preview.  The site says it is in beta as of this writing, but you can go to (teacher tool) and (student interface) and grab an account and start assessing right away.  Easy to learn… easy to use.


Use to quickly and easily set up an online place for students to post comments, questions, and answer your prompts.  Again, this does site does not require students to have accounts, and the posts expire after a time you decide, allowing for “easy cleanup” while still giving access to absent students.  You simply set up the room (one click) and share the URL.  Try this site for your next “exit ticket”.

  • Epsilen – Project Share Texas

You’ve heard the buzz, and perhaps had some professional work experience in Project Share as a Texas educator, but in case you are unaware, the project is now open for student enrollment and you are encouraged to use the learning management system with your students.  (Note: talk to your district and your Education Service Center about student accounts).  With the Epsilen platform (Project Share’s engine) you and your students can interact in a robust virtual learning environment that allows you to share files, use forums for discussion, real time chats for, full featured test/quiz making suite (and associated grade tools), wikis for collaborative writing, blogs for student publishing, electronic portfolios with interactive assessment rubrics and much more.  Having all of these tools in one, safe, uniform and free platform opens up a treasure trove of formative assessment opportunities.  For more information, feel free to check out our blog at or the State’s official page at  Also, feel free to contact Region XIII’s Project Share team at for more information and to inquire about training.

L. M. Pinkus, ed., Meaningful Measurement: The Role of Assessments in Improving High School Education in the Twenty-First Century (Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2009).

RtI: An InFORMed Framework

Monday, October 10th, 2011

How Formative Assessments Fit into the Response to Intervention Framework

Response to Intervention (RtI) is a tiered model of intervention that can be defined as the practice of providing high quality instruction and interventions matched to student need, monitoring progress frequently to make changes in instruction or goals, and applying student response data to important educational decisions. (

Formative Assessement

This model is built on the idea that we, as educators, are making data-based decisions regarding both the instruction and the interventions that we provide our students. Within the RtI framework universal screening and progress monitoring are two types of formative assessments that serve as key sources of these data.


Formative Assessment at Tier I

At Tier I (the core instruction that all students receive), RtI makes use of universal screening measures to help guide our decision making in multiple ways.  For example:

  • Universal screening or benchmarking of all students throughout the year (beginning, middle and end of the school year at a minimum) allows for us to determine whether or not the general curriculum and instruction is meeting the needs of the majority of our students.
  • Universal screening scores can also be used as one data source to help flag students at Tier I who may be in need of supplemental supports.
  • Formative Assessment at Tiers II and III

    At Tiers II and III (the provision of targeted interventions for students determined to need supplemental supports), progress monitoring tools such as curriculum-based measures or curriculum-based assessments help provide invaluable data to inform decision making such as:

    • Whether or not a student is responding to the provided intervention
    • If the type, intensity, frequency or duration of an intervention needs to be adjusted

    Whether or not students are responding at a rate appropriate enough to close achievement or behavioral gaps in learning.

  • Universal Screening: Universal screening is conducted, usually as a first stage within a screening process, to identify or predict students who may be at risk for poor learning outcomes. Universal screening tests are typically brief, conducted with all students at a grade level, and followed by additional testing or short‐term progress monitoring to corroborate students’ risk status.
  • Progress Monitoring: Progress monitoring is used to assess students’ academic performance, to quantify a student rate of improvement or responsiveness to instruction, and to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction.

For a full glossary of RtI terms see:

Science Notebooks

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

Science Notebooks: Tools to get students thinking and writing like a scientist

They were present when man discovered antibiotics, when the first light bulb was lit and have helped in the discovery of the structure of DNA.  They have been to the moon, all continents and the bottom of the ocean.  They allow us a glimpse of what science greats such as Einstein, Darwin, and Bohr were thinking as they observed the world, reflected on nature and conducted experiments.  That of Marie Curie’s is still so radioactive that it is not safe to handle.  They can serve as an integral part of the science classroom for the purposes of observation, reflection, note taking, problem solving, mind mapping, and formative assessment.

Science notebooks are now a required part of the science curriculum in Texas (TEKS K.4A, 1.4A, 2.4A, 3.4A, 4.4A, 5.4A, 6.4A, 7.4A, 8.4A, Biology 2.F, Chemistry 2.I and Physics 2.K) and can serve as a very powerful learning tool in the classroom.  However, they require pre-thinking and planning on the part of the teacher to be effective.  This article will provide some suggestions and questions to get teachers started on using notebooks and journals in the science classroom.  We have grouped items into two categories: Notebook Management, which covers the more practical, nitty-gritty aspects of notebooks; and Notebooks as Learning Tools, which will get teachers started in utilizing notebooks as an integral part of their students’ learning.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that this is the STUDENT’S notebook, not yours’.  As a teacher you will need to provide guidance, modeling, and expectations for notebook use, but the more ownership students feel, the more powerful the learning.  Teachers must find a balance between their need for control and the students’ need for autonomy and personalization.

Notebook Management

1.       What Type of Notebook to Use?

The use of spirals versus composition books is a debate that will likely continue until paper is completely replaced by a digital medium.  Composition books have the advantages of pages not being easily ripped out and feeling more “official” compared to spirals.  Spirals do offer greater surface area but do not stand up to as much abuse.  Either way you can make it work.

2.       Setting up the Notebook

Most notebooks have the following organizational elements:

  • Decorated front cover with student name, subject, and teacher name.
  • Title page with student name, teacher name, and school so the notebook can be returned if lost.  Many teachers also have students decorate this page.
  • Table of contents with title, page, and date.  If you will be using one table of contents for the entire year, leave several blank pages at the start of the notebook. Some teachers prefer to do this by unit throughout the book.
  • Page numbers.  Students should number the pages on an outer corner.  Secondary typically numbers the entire notebook at the beginning of the year while early elementary may number a few pages each week as students learn their numbers.  Some teachers require all students to be on the same page at the same time, while others allow students the freedom to write larger, insert notes taken from outside sources, or include diagrams.
  • The front versus back debate.  Teachers should also decide if they want students to write on both the front and back of the pages.  Some teachers reserve the backs of the page for later reflections, teacher comments, etc.  These items could also be added on sticky notes.
  • Extras:  Pockets, flip out information sheets, ribbons as page markers and an assortment of other items can also be added either during initial set up or as needed.

Note for first time notebook users:   Keep the set-up simple for the first year or two until you have mastered the basics and feel successful using notebooks.  More complex features can be added as your comfort level increases.

Notebooks as Learning Tools

1.       Entry Types

Notebooks can include many different types of entries: observations, questions, reflections, data tables, scientific drawings (or non-scientific ones for that matter), graphical organizers, notes, creative and expository writing, practice problems, graphs, inserts such as Dinah Zike’s Foldables®, and real objects such as leaves and soil samples (minus the bugs and water).  Anything that can be done on a regular sheet of notebook paper or a worksheet can be done in a science notebook.  If you absolutely must use them, worksheets themselves can be reduced during copying or folded and glued into the notebook.

Tip: Glue works better than glue sticks for holding power and glue is more environmentally friendly.

2.       Differentiation and Scaffolding Support

Sentence stems and prompts can be tailored to fit the needs of individuals or groups of students.  Using sentence stems and engaging prompts increases the quality of response from students.

Rubrics and expectations can also be individualized to ensure students are appropriately challenged.

Templates, stems, teacher created data tables, and more can also be provided initially and then given less frequently as students gain mastery.

Science notebooks also promote English Language Learners to utilize new vocabulary whether it is by labeling a diagram or answering a prompt.  Learning strategies such as using prior knowledge to learn new terms, internalizing language, and distinguishing between formal and informal English allow students to succeed not only in the classroom but also in life.  Strategies utilizing notebooks can also be structured so that students are participating in all four domains of language development: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

3.       Cross-curricular Integration

Incorporating reading and writing tasks into science notebooks provides for authentic integration of literacy strategies into science.  Discussing with peers enables students to develop academic language and reflect on their own learning and understanding.

Integrating mathematics concepts and skills into science notebooks develops numerical fluency and increases science literacy with regards to measurement, graphing skills, and problem solving.

The College and Career Readiness Standards also include literacy and emphasize the importance of scientific reading and presentation of scientific and technical information to success in college or a post-secondary career.  Specific CCRS to note include: Science IE1, IIIA1, IIIB1, IIIB3-4, IIIC1, and Cross-Disciplinary Standards IA1-2, IB1-4, IC1, ID1, IIB1-3, IID1-3.

4.       First Week of School Suggestions

The first week of school offers numerous notebook entry opportunities ranging from, “What does a scientist look like?” prompting primary students’ discussion and “Safety and Equipment 101” emphasizing awareness and lab expectations, to an initial “familiar observation entry” allowing students to experience and practice different entry types as well as understand expectations for their notebook use.  It is best to use something familiar to the students for this first investigation-based entry. This allows the lesson focus to remain about their notebook work and the purpose and usefulness of notebooks, rather than any new or specific content. As classroom teachers model their expectations and entry types, students are able to understand and practice entry types.

A familiar object entry can be based on literally anything, such as a hand lens, key, or even an apple. Students observe the object, record findings through technical drawings and words, add any connections they may have, and more.  Working through each of their senses, as appropriate, is a common approach for primary students. This initial observation entry is a great time to authentically integrate safety as well as classroom and investigation expectations for all elementary-aged students.

Secondary teachers may want to consider a descriptive investigation to serve as in introduction to notebook expectations and a review of scientific processes.  Observing behavior in animals, performing a simple physics lab, or making observations about a chemical reaction can stimulate conversations about the nature of science and how notebooks will be utilized, and allow the teacher time to observe students’ skills and level of sophistication in their entries.  While feedback should be provided and a completion grade can be given for this work, teachers might want to refrain from formally grading notebook entries until students are more comfortable with the expectations.

Note:  An example of a 1st week with science notebooks can be found on page 12 of Science Notebooks: Writing About Inquiry (Campbell and Fulton).

Next Steps

Ready to get started?  Here are a few suggestions for next steps.  Head to the store and buy yourself a notebook or two of the type you will be asking students to use and start planning out the notebook components you will require of students. Determine what supplies you will need for students to add entries to their notebooks (scissors, glue, colored pencils, graph paper cut into fourths, etc.).  Spend some time working with the other science teachers at your campus or in your district to discuss common elements across classrooms and grades.  Modify any syllabi or letters to parents to include information about science notebook expectations.  Decide how notebooks will be graded and write rubrics as needed.  Start planning the first week of instruction and incorporate notebooks into as many of the activities as you can.  No matter your level of implementation of science notebooks, don’t be afraid to try new things.  And remember:  record your successes, unsuccessful attempts, and reattempts in a notebook.

Sample Student Work

Suggested Books

Campbell, B. & Fulton, L. (2003).  science notebooks: writing about inquiry.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fulwiler, B. R. (2007).  writing in science: how to scaffold instruction to support learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Klentschy, M. P. (2008).  using science notebooks in elementary classrooms.  Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association. Out of print.

Klentschy, M. P. (2010).  using science notebooks in middle school.  Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association. Out of print.

Maracarelli, K. (2010). teaching science with interactive notebooks.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Norton-Meier, L., Hand, B., Hockenberry, L. & Wise, K. (2008).  questions, claims, and evidence: the important place of argument in children’s science writing.  Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association.
Online Resources

Title Description URL (to embed behind title)
Pflugerville ISD Pfugerville ISD’s collection of resources related to science notebooks.
Science Notebook Essentials Article from the NSTA journal Science and Children on effective notebook components.
Science Notebooks In K-12 Classrooms Useful site with examples of student work, templates and information about different types of notebooks.
5 Good Reasons to Use Science Notebooks Article from the NSTA Journal Science and Children highlighting one school’s implementation of science notebooks.