Moving Next Generation Science Standards into Practice: A Middle School Ecology Unit and Teacher Professional Development Model

Barbara Nagle
Meeting Materials

Moving Next Generation Science Standards into Practice was funded by the National Science Foundation to develop a middle school ecology unit and professional development program that models the three-dimensional learning envisioned in the Framework for K–12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The project is using a backward design approach, which begins with elaboration of learning goals based on the three dimensions of the NGSS. The second phase of the backward design approach is the development of assessments that will serve as evidence of student learning. The curriculum outline and activities are then developed. The goal of this process is to develop curriculum and classroom assessments that fully support NGSS-aligned three-dimensional learning. During the first year of funding (2014–15), the project developed the first field-test edition of a 10-week unit titled Disruptions in Ecosystems: Ecosystem Interactions, Energy, & Dynamics. This unit will undergo two full cycles of field testing, evaluation, and revision during the 2015–16 and 2016–17 school years, and then will undergo a final year of research and evaluation.

The unit includes five chapters, each of which includes the 5E instructional model (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate). The unit brings together disciplinary core ideas from the life sciences (ecology), earth and space sciences, physical sciences (conservation of matter), and engineering, technology, and society, and focuses on several practices, including modeling, analyzing and interpreting data, explanation, argumentation, and designing solutions. In the final chapter of the unit, students use what they have learned to develop and evaluate solutions for environmental problems. The crosscutting concepts of patterns, cause and effect, energy and matter, stability and change, and systems and systems models are explicitly developed to help students understand the big ideas in the unit.

This curriculum unit was specifically developed to model the NGSS. The overarching issue of environmental disruptions runs across the unit, while each chapter focuses on a specific environmental problem or issue that provides a context for weaving together the dimensions of the NGSS.

The first year of work has focused on development of a coherent sequence that supports three-dimensional learning. The curriculum has been piloted in the classrooms of 25 teachers in New York City. Before teaching the unit during the 2015–16 school year, participating teachers received seven days of professional development on the NGSS and three-dimensional learning, the 5E instructional model, the specific curriculum units, and the assessments. They received three more days of professional development on the curriculum units and assessments as they implemented the unit, and will meet for two more days to provide feedback to the project. The evaluator reported that the professional development experiences provided teachers with opportunities to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the NGSS, the 5E instructional model, the teacher and student materials and approaches for the ecosystems unit, and the assessment system. However, many teachers still have questions and concerns about such topics as how to use the assessments, use the tools that scaffold students in the scientific practices of explanation and argumentation, and integrate literacy strategies.

Results of the curriculum evaluation will be available later in the year and will include feedback on support for the three dimensions of the NGSS, conceptual flow and coherence, assessment, integration of the Common Core standards, support for teachers, modifications for English language learners, and practical considerations such as time and materials requirements. Feedback will also include specific suggestions for revision of the unit.

Potential Applications
The unit will be available to teachers and schools for implementation in middle schools after field testing and revision have concluded. It includes complete student materials and a detailed teacher’s edition. It will also provide a model for curriculum and professional developers, teachers, and other educational leaders of three-dimensional learning as envisioned in the Framework and NGSS. In addition, the research findings will be broadly disseminated and will be useful to individuals who provide professional development for implementation of the NGSS and curricula designed for the NGSS.

For More Information
Contact Barbara Nagle at or John Howarth at