September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Crosscutting Concepts – Making Connections and Creating Tools for Student Thinking

Posted: Monday, February 8th, 2016

by Sue Campbell

Have you ever wondered how they make 3D movies and why some provide a thrilling experience for the viewers and others leave the audience disappointed and even a little sick? My curiosity led to me to do a little reading and research and I discovered that the difference comes in the planning and shooting of the film. 3D movies require different lighting, shooting angles, and more. So if the intent is to have a 3D movie, then the filming must be planned accordingly. Retrofitting a movie to be three dimensional is problematic and the results are usually disappointing.

This idea of 3D movies was running around my head as I have been thinking about the goal or intent of NGSS for three dimensional lessons. A well-made 3D movie intentionally brings the viewer into the experience. It is as if they are in the movie. The intent of our new standards is to have our students be personally involved in the lessons, personally constructing meaning, personally discovering, personally engineering, personally making decisions with scaffolded support along the way. This intention needs to be present in our planning at the beginning stages, not an afterthought. To plan a three dimensional lesson requires careful thought to include all of the dimensions. For me, the hardest to intentionally and explicitly include in a lesson are the crosscutting concepts. It is the area with which I wrestle, struggle, and sometimes just don’t quite get as I plan. I am able to plan three dimensional lessons but the crosscutting concepts area is weak and generally not student centered.



As it is with many things that I don’t understand, I started reading, researching, talking with experts, and experimenting. Don’t worry. No students have been harmed in the process. My latest reading has been the CA NGSS Draft Framework. This is a massive document and I am so grateful for all those who have had a hand in writing it. Perusing through the table of contents I found the chapter covering the three dimensions: Scientific and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts. If you are looking for a good overview of the dimensions I suggest that you begin with Chapter 2: Overview of the California Next Generation Science Standards. There is a wealth of information in this chapter, and from it I gained a greater understanding of crosscutting concepts and ideas for including them in my lessons. You will also find information and examples in the chapters for the specific grade levels. Chapter 6 covers the middle school grade span.

Crosscutting concepts are more than the connective tissue between disciplines. They are also tools for students to use to learn and make sense of the science content and the world. Failing to help build the students’ understanding and use of the concepts, as well as the science and engineering practices, limits them to being a collector of information. The draft framework provides us with direction in building these concepts through questioning. To be clear, this type of questioning needs to be planned as the lesson is developed. To try to wing it as you go will likely result in something resembling a bad, retrofitted 3D movie.

Crosscutting concepts are also the connections to other content. Middle school teachers most frequently teach within a specific discipline which while it allows for a deeper level of expertise in an area, it creates other challenges. The nature of this approach means that content becomes more isolated and less connected. As the science teacher I don’t always know what is being studied in other classes. There are times when we are talking in the staff lounge that I get a glimpse. Sometimes we make a point to share what we are doing in our classes with each other. In those conversations vocabulary gets mentioned and then we all make a point of including it in our classes. Students are often surprised when I use a word that they learned in their history or language arts class. Crosscutting concepts bring another opportunity our way to help students to make connections in their world.

To make these connections, we need to spend more time with our peers who teach other content. If “cause and effect” is the main crosscutting concept in a unit of study in science, that same concept can be emphasized in a language arts or history class. This is more easily accomplished in a self contained classroom where one teacher is making all the lesson decisions. When many teachers are involved, it requires more planning. It will also take time on many levels. It will take time for us become comfortable with these new standards and approaches. It will take time for administrators to understand the new standards and changes that need to occur. It will also take time for our students to shift away from being passive in the classroom and become fully involved. And just like a well made 3D movie, it will be a magnificent experience as we see our students fully involved in learning.

Written by Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell is the District STEM Coach for Livingston Union School District and is a member of CSTA.

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CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.