There is Always an Environmental Context: A Los Angeles Professional Learning Collaborative


The San Fernando Valley Science Project (SFVSP) recently hosted a two-week summer institute for middle and high school science teachers focused on incorporating the California Environmental Principles & Concepts (EP&Cs) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) into classroom lessons. This summer workshop is offered annually, with 2018 representing the third year of a four-year partnership between SFVSP and Ten Strands. This year we added a partner, local community organization Friends of the LA River (FoLAR), who brought its expertise and shared how to use local, water-based phenomena to engage students in authentic science in their own neighborhoods. The first week was focused on the Los Angeles (LA) River, and teachers were introduced to the shifts in teaching science through the lens of NGSS and the EP&Cs with a culminating field trip to several sites along the river. During the second week, teacher teams designed their own lesson series, incorporating NGSS and the EP&Cs, to be taught during the upcoming academic year. Approximately 50 middle and high school teachers from in and around LA participated in this year’s institute.  

Week One

The first week was all about the three dimensions of NGSS and the five EP&Cs! On day one we started out with a welcome session, then posed the question: where is there evidence of cross-cutting concepts (one dimension of NGSS) in our everyday lives? This question framed an activity which engaged the teachers by asking them to share pictures from their phones with each other as evidence—and there certainly were an abundance of science concepts all around us! We continued by exploring the urban heat island effect—a phenomenon which can be adjusted by grade-level to be used in all science courses. In the afternoon we expanded our understanding of the EP&Cs with Dr. Gerald and Grace Lieberman (from the State Education and Environment Roundtable) by going outside to find evidence of phenomena that we could use in the classroom. We capped our day with a short introduction to the LA River, presented by our partners at FoLAR.

Day two opened with an exciting engineering challenge: design an apparatus to collect particles of three sizes. This was a hands-on activity where simplicity ruled the day. Some teachers new to NGSS delved into the standards for the first time, and more advanced teachers looked at the vignettes embedded in the California Science Framework to identify the shifts required in teaching NGSS.

Day three introduced the 5E method of lesson planning centered on the HHMI Stickleback Virtual Labs, starting with an investigation into whether armor is always protective. Participants used data to draw a model of the river and investigate the flooding in the 1930s that led to the Army Corps of Engineers urbanizing the river. The day ended with share-outs of our models, recognizing that each group had similarities and differences in how they viewed the river.

On day four, the LA River Rover visited! The Rover is a self-contained investigative classroom on wheels. We got to head inside (and outside!) the Rover to experience, as students, what FoLAR has created. We learned about natural vs. concrete bottom portions of the river, and how much humans have impacted the river system while also delving into the history of the making of Los Angeles. The Rover has lots of hands-on, interactive activities for teachers and students, and we used the Rover to spark ideas for what we might want to measure while out in the field at the river on day five. We worked in groups to create a 5E lesson series incorporating data about the river to be used in the classroom next year, and designed experiments using equipment and tools available to collect data at a number of points at sites on the river on day five.

On day five, we met early to take the bus to our first location: the Sepulveda Basin. As we disembarked, we noticed that we were in a large park close to streets and freeways. Our first stop at the basin was under an overpass, and we observed a great deal of human impact around stagnant water. There was evidence of how high the water can get during storm seasons, with tree debris and trash almost as high as the road. We walked a hundred feet down river, just before the wastewater treatment plant discharge, to see the river flowing. We got to test flowing vs. stagnant water to compare these effects on the makeup of the water. Some groups chose to test chemical indicators of water quality, while other groups were looking at macroinvertebrates, and still others looked at the speed of the river.  

After riding the bus to our second site about 20 miles away, we reached a location at the end of a recreation area with both a natural bottom, and the beginning of the concrete bottom. We were met by FoLAR guides, who helped us understand some features of the river at this location. They introduced us to iNaturalist, an app which helps identify the plants that grow along the river bank, where we saw evidence of both native and invasive plants. For example, Arundo donax (aka giant reed)—this species grows all along the banks at this point in the river, and though not invasive it is not a native plant. We also saw some fun visitors—a group of perfectly lined up ducks! Other birds nesting at this site included black-necked stilts, one of which was ferociously warning us away. At both spots in the river we measured the same parameters as before, comparing the effects of natural bottoms with concrete bottoms. We started to see more birds, and the water was flowing much faster in the concrete channel. We could clearly see the demarcation between the two bottoms. We also managed to get covered in a thousand ants, which were dropping on us during our trek through the natural riparian area.

Our last stop for the day was Lewis MacAdams Park. The park was beautiful, and several participants took advantage of the outdoor gym equipment. Then down to the river we went for our last set of investigations. This site contained additional species of birds, including an osprey diving for fish (with a freeway in the background), and cormorants congregating both on the water and on a large island in the middle of the river. We took a botanic walk, thanks to our FoLAR guide Edgar, and admired the beautiful mission-style arches at the park. Our ending thought for the day was a quote by Lewis MacAdams, activist, poet, and founder of FoLAR: “If it’s not impossible I am not interested.”

Week Two

We began week two by looking at the data we collected at the river during week one. The teachers presented their data as slides, and discussed how they could use this in their classrooms as a part of a lesson series. The data was also shared in the cloud, so that all teachers could access it to use in their lessons.

During the rest of week two, participants dove into 5E lesson planning. Teachers looked at the California NGSS framework for their course or grade level, and chose an instructional segment for which they would design a lesson series; we encouraged them to choose lessons they could teach in the fall. This included considering which segments contained strong connections to the EP&Cs, and what sort of phenomena could be introduced to their students.

To break up the work we continued to provide short NGSS- and EP&C-aligned lessons, focusing on the 5E instructional model. For example, we engaged teachers in a lesson on climate change that integrated physical and life science concepts as well as the EP&Cs. The high school teachers looked at the life of a carbon dioxide molecule traveling through our world today vs. 100 years ago. The middle school teachers participated in a lesson where they enacted the different forms of carbon dioxide and rotated stations based on what form they were. Teachers also participated in discussions about how to guide middle school and high school students to use data to provide evidence for student-derived claims. We invited a member of the Instructional Technology group from Los Angeles Unified School District to help teachers better use the course management system Schoology in their classrooms and link their lessons to their sites.

Toward the end of the week, the teachers engaged in performance task examples of the California Science Test, and discussed how to do formative assessment in an NGSS classroom. The end result was that the teachers successfully embedded much of what they learned into their 5E lessons.

On the final day, participants presented their 5E three-dimensional lesson sequence highlighting the EP&Cs. Each group showcased its lessons, and gave the audience a chance to participate as learners for one activity. In the high school breakout we saw lessons about heat transport within the Earth, the complexities of the Salton Sea, and examining the electromagnetic spectrum using remote sensing. In the middle school breakout there was a presentation about the Salton Sea, lessons about composting as the cycling of energy and matter, and the hydrological cycle. The day closed with a celebration of how far we had come over the past two weeks. The teachers diagrammed themselves teaching, expressing differences in their self-perceptions from a month ago and identifying what it will take to continue the momentum into classrooms in the fall.

A final survey asked teachers to score their commitment to using what they learned during the institute, and it was exciting to see their responses:

I have identified which EP&Cs correlate with each of my PEs. Furthermore, my overall “theme” of the year is going to be human impacts, so I will continually connect back to the EP&Cs in my questions and activities.

I think that the EP&Cs are a great way to extend the science ideas and principles that we teach. Answering the question of how does this impact the environment and how does the environment impact us is a great way for students to consider the implications of the science ideas they are considering. Even if the topic is not directly related to the environment, there is always an environmental context.

Overall, the institute was very successful and we had a great experience collaborating with FoLAR. FoLAR wanted to look at ways of using its resources in a NGSS science classroom, and we wanted to partner with a local agency that encouraged looking at environmental phenomena in students’ own backyards. We believe this model of collaborative professional learning is transferable to anywhere in the state of California. All parts of the state are connected to water, whether it is a local lake, river, or the ocean. In many parts of the state, people’s livelihoods depend on water—including the Central Valley where much of our food is grown and upon which our economy depends. We look forward to continuing our partnership with FoLAR and disseminating our work.

One final comment from one of our teachers sums up the impact of this model of professional learning:

BEST PD EVER. Seriously. I have been to many NGSS workshops/PDs and usually leave frustrated and confused. Right now I feel way more confident and have a real understanding of the principles behind NGSS (& that EP&Cs exist!).

Jeannie Chipps
This article was written by Jeannie Chipps

Jeannie Chipps has been a high shool chemistry teacher at Granada Hills Charter High School since the fall of 2013. She teaches CP/Honors Chemistry as part of the Humanitas interdisciplinary academic program and International Baccalaureate Chemistry. Jeannie has been a teacher leader for the San Fernando Valley Science Project since 2017.

Dr. Virginia Vandergon
This article was written by Dr. Virginia Vandergon

Dr. Virginia (Gini) Vandergon is a full professor of biology at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Her research is in plant genetics, specifically looking at the evolution of genes involved in the anthocyanin pathway (red and blue pigments). Before becoming a college professor, Gini was a high school biology teacher and has been involved in many grants involving science teacher professional development. At CSUN she is also a K–12 science education liaison, serving as the San Fernando Valley Science Project director. Gini was one of the writers of the California Next Generation Science Standards high school frameworks and is currently serving as the treasurer for California Science Teachers Association.