May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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 CSTA’s Middle School/Jr. High Director.

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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.