Skip to content Skip to navigation

Improving Competency in Elementary Science Teaching and Learning (NSF project)

Improving Competency in Elementary Science Teaching and Learning (ICESTL) was an exploratory teaching strand project designed to provide elementary teachers, grades 3-5, with a pedagogical framework and related resources for distinguishing quality science teaching. The study focused on developing and testing a framework, the Scientific Practices Optimized for Teachers (SPOT), to determine its capacity to serve as a potent formative and collaborative tool with which teachers can reflect on their science teaching practices and recognize student behaviors that are indicators of engagement and science learning. SPOT addresses a critical need for elementary teachers to be able to understand, envision, and act on an integrated model of practice that addresses key dimensions of high quality science teaching that is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. The project was embedded within the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability (TISS), an already-established, immersive teacher professional development program for upper elementary teachers run by the California Academy of Sciences. The Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE) led the development of SPOT, the coding of teacher videos, and in-depth interviews of focus group subset of the project teacher participants. SRI International provided the formal evaluation of the ICESTL project on an annual basis.

The specific goals of ICESTL were to:

  1. Develop, test, and refine a comprehensive planning and reflection tool (SPOT) for elementary school teachers that centers on both teacher and student practices in the classroom.
  2. Test and document the contributions this tool can make to a community of learners by creating a common language and set of referents.
  3. Test and document the contributions this tool can make to positive changes in teachers' practice.
  4. Create a plausible model for integrating SPOT into a system of teacher professional development, highlighting key implementation elements that will facilitate replication and scalability at a future date.
  5. Create a video database of project teachers conducting science lessons in their classrooms to capture their teaching practices and student responses.
  6. Develop a video coding and scoring system to identify SPOT practices occurring in the classrooms of project focus group teachers.
  7. Create a set of edited videos that serve as exemplars of high-quality science teaching and active student engagement with science, and make these videos available to a broad audience.
  8. Conduct in-depth interviews with focus group teachers to determine the implications of SPOT on their teaching and student learning.
  9. Share findings within a broader community of researchers and practitioners.

Sample Video Clips of Teachers Implementing Lessons

SCALE used the SPOT video coding system to select video segments that they thought provided a strong illustration of a teacher implementing NGSS science practices. These video segments were forwarded to the TISS team which made the final selection of video clips to be edited and assembled by a staff member of the Visualization Studio at the California Academy of Science.  The final video clips are available to the public at

SPOT Full Document

This document shows the six NGSS science and engineering practices that are included in the Scientific Practices Optimized for Teachers (SPOT) instrument.  Each practice contains three key indicators for grades 3 to 5. SPOT also provides guiding question and sample “look fors” of what you might see the teacher and students doing when engaged in the specific practice.

Video Coding System

SCALE, with input from the project team, developed a coding system and training materials to prepare raters to examine and code classroom videotapes.  Codes were generated based on the indicators highlighted in SPOT and aligned to 4 of the NGSS science and engineering practices.  The coding system consists of the key dimensions of planning an investigation, carrying out an investigation, analyzing and interpreting data, constructing explanations, and arguments using evidence.  One additional dimension called “other opportunities” was created to detect specific teaching strategies being emphasized in the TISS program such as setting the context for the lesson, referring to an essential question, using science notebooks, and providing students with sentence stems. The coding system also allowed raters to capture when teachers provided the opportunity or initiated a specific behavior as well as whether students were observed engaging in the behaviors. Raters completed the coding of all the videos collected for the 6 SCALE focus teachers. Randomly assigned raters independently coded the same videos and identified the codes observed for each 5-minute segment of the videos. The 30 videos ranged in length from 50 minutes to 90 minutes. The individual codes from the two raters were emailed to SCALE staff who compared the codes for each video. Analysis of the video coding data indicated that raters could use the video coding system to reliably code videos with an interrater agreement of 93%.