The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

“Look-fors”: A tool for teachers

Emily Weiss

Emily Weiss

Emily Weiss ( is the school programs director at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California.

The Lawrence Hall of Science (known as “the Lawrence”) at the University of California, Berkeley, has long offered field trip workshops for students. In recent years—and especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic—we’ve found that teachers may need these experiences just as much as their students to support their own professional learning journeys.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a visionary and complex approach to science teaching. Even before COVID-19, teachers needed additional professional learning opportunities—more than has been required for any previous science standards—to increase their expertise and successfully implement the NGSS. While recent training has focused on helping teachers to master the new challenges of virtual learning, they will still continue to need NGSS learning opportunities.

In 2017, addressing the need for NGSS learning opportunities for teachers, we redesigned all of our field trip workshops to serve as exemplars of phenomena-based, three-dimensional, NGSS-style instruction. In doing so, we thought about how we could leverage the workshop experience to support teachers and began thinking about how to provide them with an observation tool they could use during workshops to support their professional learning as science educators. We dubbed our tool “Look-fors,” which we have found to be useful for classroom teachers and for the Lawrence’s own educators, and want to share ways that others might incorporate Look-fors into their programs.

How NGSS changed science education

Teacher debriefing students


Rachel Walsh, school programs educator at the Lawrence Hall of Science, debriefs pre-pandemic field-trip students, discussing the ways in which they acted like scientists during their squid investigation. Photo courtesy Lawrence Hall of Science

If your science education was anything like mine, you probably learned science as an established body of knowledge to be committed to memory. You would have spent a lot of time reading textbooks about what others had already figured out. In middle and high school, you may have engaged in science labs, usually after you’d already learned about what the outcomes should be. I remember some friends rushing to change their lab answers to the ones they knew they were supposed to get, even though their “experiments” didn’t work out as planned.

Some of the more engaging teachers might have done interesting demos. I have vivid memories of my high school chemistry teacher dropping blocks of sodium in water so we could see the explosive reaction, and of an unconfirmed rumor that he had once dropped an enormous sodium brick from a local bridge into a river, which definitely increased his cool factor with students.

Aside from a possible science fair project, you probably didn’t learn much about what scientists actually do. And even then, you probably followed the “scientific method,” an approach that doesn’t really mirror the way nearly any scientist practices science, but instead mirrors how scientists structure journal articles describing their work after the fact.

In the mid-1990s, there was a push for “inquiry-based” science education, a more student-centered approach in which student observations, questions, investigations, and sense making were at the core of learning. In 1996, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) introduced inquiry as part of the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996). Many states incorporated this new concept of inquiry as they developed their own state science education standards; however, many did not. Most students continued to learn science through a combination of rote memorization and teacher-driven instruction and—maybe once or twice a year—were given the opportunity to drive their own learning.

In 2012, the NRC released A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC, 2012), which outlined a fundamental shift in how science should be taught in order to better prepare students for college and careers and to be informed community members and voters. The Framework said that science teachers should develop instruction based on the practices of real-world scientists. Instead of focusing primarily on facts, science education should demonstrate what scientists actually do, and how science helps us to solve problems and understand the world.

In this type of instruction, students observe phenomena or solve problems, generating explanations or solutions. They engage in a number of science and engineering practices, such as asking questions and defining problems, developing and using models, and engaging in argument using evidence. They also have to consider a number of big ideas that cut across all science disciplines, such as cause and effect and patterns, to help them make sense of and connect ideas.

In this way, science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas come together three-dimensionally to support science learning. In April 2013, a derivative document, NGSS, was released. As of this writing, 20 states and the District of Columbia have adopted NGSS in its entirety, while 24 states have developed their own standards derived from recommendations in the Framework (these state standards are available online at

Filling a need

Students working together on squid dissection


Pre-COVID-19, two students on a field trip to the Lawrence look for a squid’s beak during their class’ squid dissection. Photo courtesy Lawrence Hall of Science

We recognized the need for modeling of effective NGSS lessons and observation tools. In 2013, California was among the states that adopted NGSS, releasing the standards as Next Generation Science Standards for California Public Schools, Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve. In 2016, the California Department of Education also released a complementary science framework to support educators and educational institutions in interpreting and implementing the standards.

This is where teachers’ own educational backgrounds and experience become a very important part of the story. It is really hard to do something new, if you have never seen or experienced it yourself.

Since most teachers of science did not learn science—or how to teach it—the way they are now being asked to pursue, they often tell us they find it challenging to envision what an NGSS approach to teaching and learning looks like. We hear these sentiments from informal educators as well. Just as we wouldn’t expect a surgeon to perform a new surgery on a patient without having seen a demonstration, talking through observations with another expert, and practicing on a cadaver or model, we cannot expect teachers to jump right in to a completely new approach to their craft with little support. In a cross-professional study involving the clergy, clinical psychologists, and teachers, Pam Grossman and colleagues (2009) found that when learning key practices, future professionals learned through the “representation,” “decomposition,” and “approximation” of practice, similar to the way a surgeon learns a new surgery.

Teacher preparation for NGSS implementation, especially at the elementary level, is often inadequate, typically including only a staff meeting to read through the standards and a half- or full-day curriculum implementation training. Approximately 76% of all California school districts—and 82% of large, urban districts—cite teacher training as a challenge for NGSS implementation (Gao, 2018). Compounding these problems, schools face budgetary constraints and a teacher and substitute teacher shortage (California Teachers Association, 2019) that makes it difficult to release teachers to attend traditional professional development workshops or conferences.

As a result, the importance of professional learning opportunities that are embedded in the workday has grown considerably.

In most districts, science professional learning is still not widespread, and it is not easy to observe a full, high-quality phenomenon-based, three-dimensional NGSS lesson or module. This is consistent with findings in a March 2018 paper from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) that reported uneven implementation and understanding of NGSS across California school districts (Gao, 2018). Moreover, science instructional materials incorporating NGSS were adopted by the state only during the 2018–19 school year, and many districts are just beginning their implementation, or haven’t begun implementing yet. Additionally, 2019 California Science Test results provide insight into how the dearth of professional learning opportunities and curriculum materials are impacting student understanding of science, with less than 1/3 of California’s 5th grade, 8th grade, and high school students meeting or exceeding the standards (Johnson, 2020). And during the spring of the 2019-2020 and much of the 2020-2021 school years, NGSS instruction became even more challenging, as many teachers have been working to implement NGSS virtually during distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To fill this need, the Lawrence has been supporting a number of school districts throughout California to increase their capacity to implement NGSS. As part of this effort, we redesigned our field trip workshops to model effective practices in exemplar NGSS lessons. We added an observation sheet—our “Look-fors”—as the final step to allow teachers to focus on those key practices and think critically about how to support students as they engage with an NGSS-aligned approach. We originally designed these experiences for in-person instruction during school field trips to the Lawrence, and we have subsequently designed new Look-fors for virtual workshops.

From the Lawrence’s extensive work with districts, we knew that there was a need for teachers to observe exemplar NGSS lessons with their own students. So, we redesigned all of our workshops through a collaboration between our school programs educators, curriculum development team, and professional learning experts. It quickly became clear that classroom teachers would benefit from knowing what was behind the design of each of our workshops. A team of experienced school programs educators and professional learning specialists designed an observation tool, a “Look-for,” for each workshop to provide teachers with:

  • a detailed summary of the workshop in which their students would participate
  • specific NGSS practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts addressed in the workshop
  • prompts for observations (See the Look-for we designed for our elementary squid dissection workshop.)

Until recently, classroom teachers were provided only with the Look-for that accompanied their students’ workshop when they arrived for their Lawrence Hall of Science field trip. Prior to the pandemic, we posted Look-fors on our website for anyone to download (the site is temporarily down until we’re cleared to book virtual and/or in-person field trips again, but we’re happy to provide samples of Look-fors via email). We expect that field trips (virtual and/or in-person) will come to be viewed as a learning opportunity for teachers as much as they are a treat for students.

Use of Look-fors is optional, and during pre-pandemic field trips, not all teachers tried them. We estimate that one-third to one-half of all teachers who brought their students to the Lawrence for a field trip and workshop opted to use the Look-fors. We anticipate usage will increase as we make Look-fors more intentional and prominent and as teachers seek a field-trip experience from the safety of the virtual classroom. During virtual workshops we plan to enhance the experience even further by providing teachers with recordings of their class’s workshop so they can review the recording with the Look-for after the fact.

Look-fors support professional growth

Teacher completing a Look-for


A teacher, Barbara Casimiro, completes a Look-for during her students’ Dry Ice workshop at Lawrence Hall of Science. Photo courtesy Lawrence Hall of Science

In the near future, we hope to couple the Look-for experience with wraparound professional learning workshops—using the same format for both virtual, and eventually, in-person workshops. Teachers would first have an NGSS introduction that includes engaging in and debriefing a phenomenon-based three-dimensional learning experience, then virtually attend their field trip workshop using the Look-for, then have a chance to debrief their observations and consider how they might apply what they have learned in their own classrooms. Our goal is that every school field trip (virtual and physical) will serve as a powerful learning opportunity for teachers as well as an engaging learning experience for students. This would make it easier for teachers and schools to justify the time and effort of taking the field trips. In fact, virtual workshops may prove to be even more accessible, given that there would be no cost for transportation and no time spent in transit. The workshops could also be offered to a much wider geographic range of students.

In addition to supporting classroom teachers, Look-fors have proved invaluable to our own staff at the Lawrence. They have given our staff a common language and understanding to draw from during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we designed virtual summer camps, afterschool programs, and workshops. We have used Look-fors to support the ongoing professional growth of our museum education staff, to deepen their understanding of NGSS so that they feel prepared to model effective practices. We require our new educators to complete the Look-for sheet as they observe each workshop. We also ask them to complete Look-fors for workshops they already know well—recording what they hope teachers would see if they observed a well-facilitated workshop. This last activity serves as both a reflection tool for our educators—because they must consider how their understanding of NGSS is embodied in the particular workshop—and as a tool for supervisors to gain insight into where their educators might need additional support.

Feedback on Look-fors

In early 2020, we added a question to our workshop evaluations that asked teachers for feedback on Look-fors. All of the feedback has been positive, reflecting our goals for Look-fors. Teachers said Look-fors helped them key into effective science teaching methods and provided information they could use in their classrooms. One district’s elementary science coordinator reported that using the Look-for gave her insight into what teachers needed to deliver science lessons in an authentically inquiry-driven, NGSS way.

Our school programs educators say that Look-fors provide a concise and concrete summary that helps them focus on implementing the components of NGSS that are relevant to each workshop they teach and serve as reminders of how to connect different parts of the workshop to each other and to other student experiences. One educator used a workshop’s Look-for to identify areas that could be improved or made more explicit within that workshop. Our newer educators say that Look-fors have helped them gain a more solid understanding of the three-dimensional approach and how our workshops were specifically designed to align with the standards.

Tips for using Look-fors in your own program

In the past two years, I have received several requests to share our Look-for observation tools with other museums.

The primary lessons we have learned in developing and revising our own Look-fors are as follows:

  • Less is more. It’s easier for teachers to use Look-fors when they are limited to a single sheet of paper (ours used to be as long as four pages but are now limited to a double-sided sheet—or two digital pages).
  • Provide specific information about how a practice or crosscutting concept will be addressed in a workshop, instead of just the name of the practice or crosscutting concept.
  • Keep the observation prompts proximate to the specific science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas that will be addressed. This makes it easier for teachers to attend to them in their observations. (See box for an example of how we lay out our Look-fors with observation boxes under each dimension).
  • Keep it simple. Your programs likely incorporate more than one practice or crosscutting concept, but it is helpful to emphasize only one or two so that teachers are not overwhelmed when making observations.
  • Reinforce expectations for how and why your education staff should use Look-fors for their own professional learning. This includes incorporating them into one-on-one coaching sessions and complementing existing structures, such as video reflections in programs like Reflecting on Practice.

BOX. What to Look for in Squid: The Inside Story (Grades 3–5). Download as a PDF. Courtesy Lawrence Hall of Science


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California Department of Education. 2016 science framework for California Public Schools. Retrieved from

California Teachers Association. (2019). Teacher shortage. Retrieved from

Gao, N., S. Adan, L. Lopes, and G. Lee. (2018). Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards: Early evidence from California. Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from

Grossman, P., C. Compton, D. Igra, M. Ronfeldt, E. Shahan, and P.W. Williamson. (2009). Teaching practice: A cross-professional perspective. Teachers College Record, 111(9), 2055–2100.

Johnson, S. (2020). Less than a third of California students met or exceeded standards on new science test. EdSource. Retrieved from

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2012). A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Science Teaching Association. About the Next Generation Science Standards. Retrieved from

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