3D Vision of Teaching: Transforming Science Instruction Using FOSS

Kristen Moorhead, FOSS Consultant, and Shannon Dadlez, Project Director, Riverside Unified School District
March 06, 2017 | FOSS Program


Students using the FOSS Mixtures and Solutions Module are excited to share evidence that challenges another group's black box model.

"What did you SAY to the boys over there?" an incredulous teacher asked me while visiting her classroom.

I replied, "I asked them what their ideas were about the investigation." "

They NEVER participate; I can't believe they are actually talking and writing about science!" exclaimed the teacher.

Statements like this that express excitement and surprise about student motivation to talk and write about their science ideas are heard throughout Riverside Unified School District (RUSD). Through California Mathematics and Science Partnership (CaMSP) grant funding, 59 teachers representing 23 elementary schools began using FOSS to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science instruction in August 2015. Teachers immediately saw a change in their students as they learned to shift their instruction toward facilitative three-dimensional learning.

Some might say that implementing NGSS is a daunting task. As a result of inviting teachers to experience what it means to figure out and explain phenomena using FOSS, the vision of NGSS came alive very quickly, much more quickly than expected.

We are now in year two of the grant period and teachers are in their second year of implementing FOSS physical science modules at grades K–5 and the FOSS Weather and Water Course at grade 6.

Students are now in the driver's seat when it comes to making sense of phenomena. They know their role is to wonder about phenomena, investigate to collect data, develop models, and construct explanations using evidence. This has led to students and teachers saying the following commonly heard statements.

"We don’t just watch; we get to DO science!"

—sixth-grade student

"My kindergarteners are learning vocabulary and science concepts and remembering it well enough to go home and tell their parents about it."

—kindergarten teacher

"Science investigations were all the kids wanted to talk about during student-led parent-teacher conferences."


The professional development program of the RUSD CaMSP Grant was carefully crafted to increase teacher content and pedagogical knowledge related to science teaching and learning. Because teachers immediately began applying their learning to their work with students using FOSS modules, three big transformations started happening quickly.

Transformation 1: Dramatic Increase in Students' Opportunities to Learn

In order for students to learn science, they need an adequate amount of instructional time focused on investigating natural and designed phenomena. Before the start of the grant, nearly 50% of participating teachers taught science less than 30–45 min per week. One year later, 94% of participating teacher reported teaching science at least 2.5 hours per week. In addition, the majority of teachers reported an improvement in attendance on days when science was being taught; students did not want to miss out! Opportunity for students to learn science has been a persistent barrier throughout the country as described in the "School Resources for Science Instruction" section of NGSS Volume 2, Appendix D (The National Academies Press, 2013). By using FOSS, each teacher participating in the grant had the material resources necessary to teach science with active investigation at the center of the learning.

Transformation 2: Experiencing How Science Impacts Writing

Teachers have learned to capitalize on the synergy with the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (ELA) by using the connections built into each FOSS Investigations Guide and the Science-Centered Language Development chapter. Instructional discussion techniques in FOSS led teachers to conduct more discussions and have students engage in collaborative conversations in other curricular areas. Once students were able to express their ideas verbally, they were able to put those ideas in writing, backed up by evidence. Use of evidence in science led to more use of evidence in ELA. Teachers were naturally creating derivative writing products with students before we even had a chance to "teach" them about it! Students were easily creating derivative writing products (e.g., science reports) even before we taught them how.


Students engage in argumentation from evidence—thinking deeply about evidence for and against a given claim.

Furthermore, derivative writing products emerged from expository writing assignments. A first-grade ELA expository class writing assignment called, "What Causes Sound?" was used in a first-grade class. A fourth-grade student's ELA writing paragraph started with this hook, "I bet you I can light a lightbulb and you can't because I know a secret." It continued later to reveal the "secret," "The secret is you touch the first wire at the bottom of the light bulb then the second wire put it on the bulb casing and it will light up." The student's supporting illustration very clearly showed correct contact points on a battery and a lightbulb, a detail often missed. Thinking through how to clearly describe the D-cell and bulb contact points in writing supports the complex endeavor of using clear and concise language to convey a message.


Students examine crystal formations to answer the question: Where does the solid material go when a solution is made?

As a result of access to high quality materials, professional development, and opportunities to creatively increase science instructional time and ELA connections, 98% of teachers report students engaging in collaborative science conversation at least once per week, and 98% reported high levels of student collaboration, especially with English language learners. At K–2, students in grant teachers' classrooms outperformed other classes at their site on DIBELS, a reading measurement. Growth in DIBELS is demonstrated in 73% of these classes. This growth occurred after a FOSS module was implemented. One participating second-grade teacher said, "Even my struggling students participate and share amazing perspectives. I never would have seen this side of their intelligence."

Transformation 3: Student-Centered Use of Science and Engineering Practices (SEP)

During the first year, we saw evidence of teachers gaining understanding of how to support students in asking questions (SEP) and planning and carrying out investigations (SEP3). This required teachers to work on "saying less" and listening to student as they came up with questions and collaboratively engaged in planning and carrying out investigations. By allowing students time and space to explore and develop their ideas, we found that students could figure things out and often had novel approaches to investigating a phenomenon. These observations led teachers to "trust" that students had the capacity to do the science using the same practices scientists use.

In year two, teachers began to think more deeply about how student science ideas developed and changed in light of the data they collected. Teachers applied their increased confidence and skill of facilitating student-centered planning and carrying out investigations (SEP3) to think about how to support students in their efforts to make sense of the data they collected while investigating. This led us to learning about how to conduct class discussions that resulted in students using evidence from their investigation to make claims to explain the phenomenon under study. As a result of practicing how to orchestrate these discussions, which came to be known as "talk circles," students were presenting claims and supporting their claims with evidence (SEP6). Through this pedagogical approach teachers were supporting students in gaining abilities to do the practice of engaging in argument from evidence (SEP7) as well. In Alicia Vannatter's sixth-grade classroom, students began requesting "talk circle" time to help them think critically about a phenomenon. According to Vannatter, "We were working through some content and it was getting tough. I had a student (who is not one of my high achievers, but she tries) ask, 'Are we going to meet in a talk circle?' I then responded, 'Do you think that would help?' And she was super happy to reply, 'Yes, please.'" The next thing Vannatter knew, students asked if they could make meaning in this way during language arts class.


Planning and Carrying Out Investigations: Is the material in the dish living or non-living? What is your evidence?


Analyzing and interpreting data: How does the staring position affect the speed of a ball rolling down a ramp?

What Professional Learning Components Led to These Dramatic Transformations in Just Two Years?

These transformations can be attributed to dedicated teachers who were provided a significant amount of professional development spread out over three years. The content and pedagogy developed through our carefully facilitated learning program consisted of three days of learning the content and pedagogy for teaching a FOSS module, paired with five days focused on the Disciplinary Core Ideas with science professors each year of the grant. Additionally, we provided follow-up support and coaching during the school year. The program design includes teachers teaching the FOSS physical science modules in their classrooms during one trimester of the school year at grades K–5 and teaching Weather and Water for one full semester at grade 6 with individual real-time, side-by-side coaching. Two FOSS Leadership Study Groups also allowed teachers to share ideas and expand their three-dimensional learning tools.

Over the course of the grant period, we expect teachers to reach the following learning outcome goals.

  • Increased understanding of the characteristics of classroom lessons that exemplify Next Generation Science Standards-based teaching and learning that is accessible to all students
  • Increased content knowledge
  • Increased understanding and use of effective science teaching pedagogies
  • Increased understanding and use of formative assessment
  • Increased understanding and use of teaching strategies that integrate science learning with ELA and STEM

Lessons Learned

Teachers embraced teaching science when supported by FOSS modules, coaching, and professional development in NGSS and foundational science content. Modeling of strong pedagogical techniques allowed teachers to learn how to support student learning. Collaboration with other teachers gave grant participants support to explore the use of formative assessment as an instructional technique. All this work pays off as teachers hear students say, "I LOVE science!"