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Next Generation Science Standards Collaboratives

At the beginning of the San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative (SMELC) workshop, Dr. Gerald Lieberman asked who of us didn’t feel comfortable with or knowledgeable about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The majority of teachers in the room raised their hands. Before we joined the SMELC, I would have raised my hand, too. But when the Marine Science Institute was approached in early 2015 to join the collaborative, we saw it as an opportunity to get a head start and dive into the NGSS.

The San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative is dedicated to educating teachers about the NGSS, helping them design units of study and connecting them with local nonformal environmental educators. As a nonformal education provider, I was excited to have the opportunity to work closely with teachers and learn more about how they are making the transition to implementing the new standards in their classrooms. After taking the time to become familiar with the NGSS, it was rewarding to be able to share that knowledge with teachers and help brainstorm activities they could implement in their classrooms.

The teachers that attended the institutes were phenomenal. It was inspiring to have an opportunity to work with educators that love what they do, and pour their hearts into inspiring their students and giving them the best learning opportunities possible. I had the pleasure of teaching and observing many of the programs at MSI that SMELC teachers and their classes participated in. It was obvious that they had taken time in their classrooms to prepare students for the experience. The students arrived ready to learn and quickly engaged with the material. Because they were so well prepared, we were able to dive further into the curriculum and spend more time exploring deeper connections.

My favorite part of participating in SMELC was seeing the presentations from teachers after they had taught their units. In environmental education, our time with students is often limited to a one-day field trip. Although this gives us an opportunity to share our love of science with thousands of students each year, it often provides us with a very narrow view of their education, making it hard to tell if our programs are creating long-term impacts on students. But to see the teacher teams present and share how inspired their students were was incredible. One teacher from Corte Madera Elementary said that when we brought our rocky shore animals into her classroom for our Biomimicry program, she saw one of her new students smile for the very first time as she picked up a sea star. Another teacher from George Washington Elementary said that on their Discovery Voyage aboard our research vessel, she saw her students gain confidence in applying science.

Being able to listen to teachers talk about their units as a whole and how they integrated

science with other subjects widened my view of the entire environmental education experience. The teachers that took the time to prepare their students before their field trips, and then reflect and expand on their experiences once they got back to the classrooms, were the ones making the largest impact and most valuable connections for their students. It reinforces how important just one day in nature can be for formative young minds.

SMELC has given us an opportunity to devote time and resources to aligning our programs with the NGSS. When we joined SMELC we created an internal NGSS team of three: our school programs Coordinator Jodi Stewart, former Education Coordinator Hayley Usedom, and me, Land Program Manager Carlie Cooney. Our team has spent weeks creating alignment documents that teachers can use to decide which programs are best aligned with their goals. As we worked our way through the grades, it became clear to me that the NGSS support the type of environmental education that we strive to provide. It’s all about getting students to actually DO science, and not just learn about it from a book. As an organization that prides itself on hands-on, inquiry-based science education, we couldn’t ask for more.

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