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Flight of the Bumblebee

Science Scope—July/August 2020 (Volume 43, Issue 9)

By William Folk, Zack Miller, Delinda van Garderen, Amy Lannin, and Torrey Palmer

Flight of the Bumblebee

CONTENT AREA Sound Waves and Ecology


BIG IDEA/UNIT Properties of sound waves can be used to study bees, birds, and other animals.

ESSENTIAL PRE-EXISTING KNOWLEDGE Sound waves have characteristic properties, such as amplitude and frequency.

TIME REQUIRED Five lessons (50 min each)

COST Small

SAFETY No risk

Disciplinary literacy skills are essential for building knowledge in science and engineering, and teaching such literacy skills is a shared responsibility of middle school science and English language arts (ELA) teachers (NGSS Lead States 2013). However, in many U.S. schools, this is not well recognized, and little instructional collaboration between these disciplines occurs (Rhodes and Feder 2014). Even more disconcerting is that approximately 65% of U.S. eighth-grade students are not proficient in reading (NCES 2019), and diverse learners (e.g., English language learners [ELLs], those with disabilities or from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds) are especially at risk of not acquiring the skills needed for science learning. So, how do we better prepare our students?

In this article, we describe new resources based on research and practice for teaching disciplinary literacy skills (Krajcik and Sutherland 2010; Pearson, Moje, and Greenleaf 2010; Rhodes and Feder 2014; Student Achievement Partners 2011; Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts [CCSS-ELA] 2017). Reports from teachers and assessments of their students provide evidence of enhanced instructional collaborations and improved learners’ STEM literacy skills (Juergensen et al. 2020; see teacher comments and student noticings in Supplemental Online Material).

The Next Generation Science Standards ((NGSS Lead States 2013) and CCSS-ELA-Reading in Science and Technical Subjects (RST), as well as most state equivalents articulate that all learners should draw evidence from informational texts and synthesize information from multiple sources. Fulfillment of these standards by diverse learners requires content-rich and discourse-rich classroom environments in which language learning and science learning support each other (Lee, Quinn, and Valdés 2013). Furthermore, much evidence supports the use of complex texts in preparing students for college and careers (CCSS-ELA 2017). Yet many students struggle to read complex texts because of challenges with unfamiliar text structures, conceptual density, vocabulary complexity, and expectation of prior knowledge.

Chart showing diversity of bees

Chart showing diversity of bees

Effective literacy instruction for diverse learners includes use of scaffolded and segmented lessons that help move students from simple, concrete texts to complex, abstract texts (Mason and Hedin 2011). These requirements are addressed by text sets, that is, a coherent sequence of texts pertaining to a specific topic or line of inquiry that support students in building vocabulary, background knowledge, and other literacy skills (Student Achievement Partners 2011; Cappiello and Dawes 2013; Folk and Palmer 2016). However, very few STEM text sets are currently available, and guidance for their development and classroom implementation is limited. Furthermore, the disciplinary characteristics of science and engineering texts (e.g., density of information, sentence and text structure, technical language, use of background knowledge and implicit relationships) are barriers for the development of suitable grade-level complex anchor texts—the foundation texts that determine the topic or line of inquiry and that are the focus of a close reading with accompanying instructional supports.

The Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners program () is developing multimodal multigenre STEM text sets that include grade-level complex STEM anchor texts, with diverse genres, audio and visual resources, and opportunities for NGSS three-dimensional learning as scaffolds. The program includes teacher professional development in using text sets and assessments of their implementation and effectiveness, and this is a brief report of some of our efforts pertinent to MS-PS4 Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer.

An Example: “Flight of the Bumblebee” (FOTB) multimodal multigenre STEM text set

We organize STEM text sets around an anchor text describing recent studies of phenomena relevant to students’ lives (Folk and Palmer 2016). The FOTB text set has an anchor text (see anchor text in Online Supplemental Materials) adapted from recent primary science literature describing the use of acoustics to “eavesdrop” on bumblebees as they pollinate plants (Miller-Struttmann et al. 2017). The FOTB text set scaffolds include open source multigenre texts, audiovisual resources, and three-dimensional science learning (see Figure 1) chosen to promote equity and to help build vocabulary, fluency, and content knowledge relating to the anchor text (e.g., pollination, ecology, properties of sound waves, and acoustical monitoring). Teachers implement the text set in lessons designed for their learners’ needs; it is important to note that all learners engage with and work toward mastery of the anchor text.


5E Learning Cycle* Phase

Multimodal and Multigenre Scaffolds 


“The Beauty of Pollination-Moving Art™” (Louie Schwartzberg)

Bee Buzzes:

“To Make a Prairie” and/or “The Bee” (Emily Dickinson)



or other open source apps/programs


Sections of textbooks used in classrooms or open source resources:

Sound Waves:

Frequency and Pitch of Sound: Sound/

Mechanical Waves: wave/lesson/Mechanical-Wave-MS-PS/?referrer=concept_details

Wave Model:

What is Sound?:

Sound:!articleTab:content/contentSection:2bf83852-84fd-4d7f-9742- de8ef7245205/

Characteristics of Sound: Science/section/1.2/

What are waves?:



Bird Sounds: How to learn about bird songs and calls,

and Bird Song Hero: The Song Learning Game for Everyone 


Student discourse, journals, posters and presentations 

addressing MS PS4 Performance Expectations


*A composite used by both science and ELA teachers; each lesson was a 50-minute period

While the FOTB anchor text is at the upper end of the middle grade band, with use of appropriately sequenced instructional scaffolds and teacher supports, learners with very different literacy skills gain in reading and writing abilities and confidence. Here we describe how eighth-grade science and ELA teachers used the FOTB text set in a 5E learning cycle (Bybee 2015) to build knowledge about sound waves and acoustical monitoring, key elements of the research described in the anchor text. More detailed lessons/examples for in-classroom instruction are being posted at the program website (). Modifications of FOTB and other text sets for remote/online instruction are planned and will be described in early 2021 at the program website and at NSTA conferences and in publications.

A conceptual storyline (What are the characteristic properties of sound waves, and can they be used to determine properties of the source?) connects these teachers’ 5E learning cycle phases and scaffolds. Close reading and discussion of the FOTB anchor text occurred as capstones to these teachers’ overall units, and elements of the anchor text were introduced throughout the lessons (e.g., to acquaint learners with complex, informational text and use of data). For the science teacher, the sound waves learning cycle was part of an overall life sciences unit on ecosystems, comprised of five learning cycles. For the ELA teacher, the sound waves learning cycle accompanied two other learning cycles designed to build background knowledge, vocabulary, and fluency for reading and understanding the anchor text and other informational texts. Implementation of the text set scaffolds and teacher supports resulted in learners’ engaging with the anchor text as capstones to the units (see teacher comments and student noticings in Supplemental Online Materials). An important effect noted by these and other teachers is perceived gain in interest, confidence, and self-efficacy by diverse learners.

Instructional elements of 5E cycle (sound waves and acoustical monitoring)

Engage: Perceiving Sound

Key idea: There are different ways to experience (perceive) sound

To begin the 5E cycle, students in both science and ELA classes watched videos, read poetry, and were asked to free-write about what they heard, observed, and read. Students shared their thoughts with each other in pairs or groups and engaged in discussion with the following prompts: 1.How did hearing, seeing, and reading help you understand and describe the sounds made by the bees? 2.How would you change what you described if you could not hear, or see or read? 3.What is the developer of the video by Louie Schwartzberg saying about the sounds made by bees? 4.What is Emily Dickinson saying about bees? Why are bees important? What mental images of these sounds do you form from these readings? How do these images affect you?

To finish the Engage phase, the students were asked to draw in their journals the wave models of the sounds they perceived, and to discuss with partners. Their models helped them in the subsequent 5E phases and in close reading of the anchor text as a capstone activity.

This phase allows teachers to engage diverse learners, to assess their prior knowledge and misconceptions, and to help them move from colloquial or everyday language toward the disciplinary language of science. Dickinson’s poems are available in many languages and Braille, and alternate videos may be substituted for visually/hearing impaired learners and ELLs.

Explore: Visualizing Sound

Key idea: Sound waves can be visualized and modeled to help understand their properties and properties of the source

Building on the idea of perceiving sound, students in both science and ELA classes explored how to model the properties of sound waves using SpectrumView or other apps/programs (Anderson, Minshew, and Brown 2015). To begin, the students were asked to whistle and say the phrase “To make a prairie,” and while doing so, to place fingers on their throats to feel the source of the sound. Using the SpectrumView in the spectrogram view, the students were instructed to make the following recordings (~15 seconds each): 1.Whisper, speak, and shout the phrase “To make a prairie.” 2.Whistle, hum, or say “bee” using a high pitch, a lower pitch, and a very low pitch. (Students could attempt to get a range and hold the pitch for several seconds.) 3.Buzz like a bee going up and down in pitch. Several frequency harmonics are shown, and touching the screen on the line that is the lowest gives the fundamental frequency in Hertz (Hz) (see Figure 2 for example from the spectrogram of bees, taken from anchor text).

A spectrogram of a typical bee buzz.

A spectrogram of a typical bee buzz.

Golden-Belted Bumblebee [Photo Courtesy Of Zoe Moffet].

Golden-Belted Bumblebee [Photo Courtesy Of Zoe Moffet].

After recording the various sound tracks, the students were instructed to freeze the frames, examine them, and discuss with partners how the tracks were similar and different. How these tracks differed from the wave models developed in the Engage phase could be discussed. The students recorded their understanding and vocabulary and uncertainties/questions in their journals (see teacher comments and student noticings in Supplemental Online Materials). For example, one teacher recorded the following student noticings: “The whistle’s pitch/frequency varied a lot while the words stayed consistent,” “The whistle was higher in the beginning and with the words it was smaller at the beginning,” and “The whistle’s track was longer. The words’ track was shorter.”

The students were instructed to replay the sound tracks and to select the Spectrum Analyser view. As they watched the x- and y-axes, they were to think about these questions: What do you see? What information is this giving you? and What is similar and different across the different tracks? To conclude this activity, the students recorded in their journals any new features of sound noticed in this alternative view, which they then discussed with each other (see teacher comments and student noticings in Supplemental Online Materials). This phase promotes exploration of the properties of sound waves and their sources and technologies for recording and analyzing sound waves—key elements of the physical sciences and acoustical technologies used in the anchor text. By working in pairs or groups, this activity may help speech or hearing-impaired students understand sounds they cannot vocalize or hear well.

Explain: Understanding Sound

Key idea: Sound waves are generated by a vibrating source, and are propagated with particular frequencies and amplitudes

To formalize ideas about sound waves and their sources, students in both science and ELA classes were prompted to read/listen and/or view selected informational scaffolds suited for their individual skills/needs, as determined by their teacher’s knowledge of the learner’s capabilities and needs (see Figure 1) and to note in their journals what they learned, as well as new vocabulary and questions. These informational scaffolds and teacher supports provided background knowledge of the properties of sound. The students shared what they read and wrote, and discussed what they did or did not understand in answer to questions such as: 1.What is sound and how is it created? 2.How does sound travel? 3.How is sound affected by the medium through which it travels? 4.What type of wave is sound and what are its features? 5.What are frequency and amplitude of sound waves? 6.How are the properties influenced by the source of vibrations?

The purpose (key idea) of this 5E phase is undoubtedly familiar to teachers and is often cited as being challenging for learners—as wave properties can be very abstract and seemingly unrelated to their lives. However, when placed in the context of using sound waves to study bumblebees (or birds, as used in the next 5E phase), such knowledge gains significance. Resources used in this phase can be open-source (see Figure 1) or textbooks and other materials with which teachers are familiar. The teachers evaluated the learners’ understanding by listening to the students answers, discussions with peers, and reading their notes and journals.

Elaborate: Sourcing Sound

Key idea: Sound wave frequency and amplitude depend upon properties of the source

Students in the science class accessed the website listed in Figure 1 ( and watched the video about how to listen to bird songs/sounds and explored rhythm, pitch, repetition, and tone. Students listened to bird calls with these properties in mind. Students then watched spectrograms of the bird calls and recorded in journals their observations, wonderings, and explanations. Students discussed similarities and differences in the spectrograms, and how these compared with the spectrograms made in the 5E Explore phase.

The ELA teacher used the bird sound site as a whole-group activity at the end of the unit. Students “voted” for the bird (source) of the sound by going to a spot in the classroom. They discussed why they chose the spot and had the chance to move based on what classmates said; they then chose the track based on how many students were at each spot. Examples of students’ statements are: “I chose that bird because the frequency of the clip is low and that’s the biggest bird,” “That bird is really small and the frequency of the song clip is high so we chose it,” and “I could hear the pitch slide from high to low in the clip and I think that bird’s spectrogram is what it would look like.”

Evaluate: Sensemaking and Critiquing Practices

Assessment of argumentation in literacy rich curricula is still a work in progress (Pearson et al. 2015). In these units, formative assessments used by both teachers challenged students to make claims relating to phenomena studied in the anchor text and key ideas of each phase of the 5E learning cycle, and to provide evidence and reasoning for their claims. Responses allowed the teachers to adjust scaffolds and instructional supports for diverse learners to help them advance toward mastery of the complex anchor text.

In the final phase, students in the science class were asked to draw frequency graphs that depict properties of sound made by different bees; to work together in groups/pairs to develop posters, or other means of communicating factors that define and can influence sound; or to develop and communicate ideas for technologies that use sound to study properties of the sources (e.g., for different animals, using the spectogram experiences as a jumping-off point). In the ELA class, students participated in debates and fishbowl discussions to advance vocabulary and concepts regarding sound properties, and then individually developed claims, evidence, and reasoning about key concepts. These statements were assessed to determine CER progress, vocabulary understanding, and knowledge of the text set content.

In culminating activities for their units, science and ELA teachers asked students to respond to questions such as “Why are pollinators important to the environment?,” “What is the ecological problem being studied?” and “How can we develop alternate solutions to acoustical monitoring, and what are their design criteria and constraints?” Students were required to provide supporting evidence and reasoning for claims. Various response formats were used, including classroom discussion, posters, and essays.

Scenario-based assessments (SBAs) developed by the program are being used to assess students’ argumentative writing, including claims based on experimental evidence with supportive reasoning. For example, SBAs used with the FOTB text set include a prompt about Africanized bees with data about their sizes. The students are asked to make a claim about whether the acoustic technologies described in the FOTB anchor text could be used to determine entry of Africanized bees into a community containing native bees of differing sizes. Following is one sample student response: I do not believe acoustics is a good approach to tell the two honeybees apart. Their wing spans are so close together. Some European bees could have the same wing spans as Africanized bees and vice versa. This is a similar situation to the Golden-belt and Forest Bumblebees. Their wing lengths overlap each other. The simple mistake of using acoustics and seeing a honeybee and vice versa. It could cause people to be hurt by the Africanized honeybees, or be wary around the harmless European honeybees.

Left: Mason bee pollinating apple blossoms (photo courtesy of Joe Wilson). Right: Forest bumblebee (photo courtesy of Zack Miller].

Left: Mason bee pollinating apple blossoms (photo courtesy of Joe Wilson). Right: Forest bumblebee (photo courtesy of Zack Miller].

Implementation of FOTB text set: Teacher feedback

As noted earlier, implementation of the FOTB text set with the 5E lesson resulted in learners engaging with the anchor text (see teacher comments and student noticings in Supplemental Online Materials) (Juergensen et al. 2020). An important effect noted by teachers in the program is the gain in interest, confidence, and self-efficacy by diverse learners. Low self-efficacy is associated with much lower growth in math and reading through middle school grades and affects achievement gaps for ELLs (Soland 2019) and probably other learners. We intend to study this with implementation of FOTB and other multimodal, multigenre STEM text sets developed by the program.


Evidence supports the need for disciplinary literacy skills and complex grade-level texts to support science learning and college and career preparedness. Multimodal multigenre STEM text sets provide new resources to fulfill these unmet, important needs.


We thank members of the Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners team, and especially Jeannie Sneller, Lori Pinkston, Anna Scharnagle, and Sarah Hill for their input. We acknowledge financial support by NIH/SEPA award #8R25GM129228 and the University of Missouri. This publication is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH or the University of Missouri.

William Folk ( is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and co-director of Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners, Zack Miller is a NSF graduate research fellow in the Division of Biological Sciences, Delinda van Garderen is a professor in the College of Education and co-director of Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners, and Amy Lannin is an associate professor in the College of Education and director of Campus Writing Program, all at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Torrey Palmer is a project director at TNTP in Reno, Nevada.


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Teacher comments and student noticings—

Anchor text—

Environmental Science Physical Science Physics Middle School

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