January/February 2018 – Vol. 31 No. 2

The NGSS Crosscutting Concepts Make Science Learning 3D!

Posted: Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

by Peter A’Hearn

The idea that structure relates to function is pretty abstract for 1st graders. To get them thinking about structure and function in living things we started by having them draw a picture of what they thought a fish looks like. I have found that people have preconceived, cartoon versions of what things look like in their heads that can interfere with their ability to make objective observations of the real thing; it is helpful to give them a chance to draw that cartoon before having them observe the real thing and compare it to their drawing. (See How People Learn [1] for more about prior knowledge and also more about fish). 


Photo by Laura Otteson

Kids asked, “Can I draw a shark?!” Of course!

In their drawings, most of the fish looked like big round pancakes with tails, smiles, and bubbles.

Then, each group was given a goldfish and asked to compare the real fish to their drawing. They were asked to identify what was the same and what was different between the two?

“There is only one gill! They have lines in their fin. There is a fin on top and lots of fins on the bottom. Fish don’t smile!”

The students were then asked to make a second drawing. These were much more detailed, and some were excellent. Some were Picasso fish that showed all of the parts very clearly but at impossible angles.


Photo by Laura Otteson

Time to introduce structure and function.

Teacher: “Structure is a part, function is a job that it does. You have a part called a nose, what is the function?”

Students: “Smelling and breathing!”

Teacher: “Now how about the fish, what are the eyes for?”

Students: “So they don’t bump into things!” “For finding food.” “To keep away from sharks!”

At this point, now the students were ready to fill out their own charts of structure and function. As they did, they were encouraged to continue observing their goldfish; careful observers even noticed that the top fin was used to turn and two little fins in front were used to keep in place.

Photo by Laura Otteson

Photo by Laura Otteson

This was a first introduction to the crosscutting concept of structure and function, one of seven that are called out in the NGSS as the big ideas that connect the sciences. Hopefully these students will take this idea and apply it throughout their science learning to ideas across the science disciplines and to engineering.



The Next Generation Science Standards are asking for students to engage in 3D science- science learning that combines disciplinary core ideas (DCIs), science and engineering practices (SEPs), and crosscutting concepts (CCCs). I have come to think of these three dimensions as What Scientists Know (DCIs), What Scientists Do (SEPs), and How Scientists Think (CCCs). Learning science this way holds great promise for helping students learn science in a way that leads to long-term understanding and appreciation. Most science teachers are familiar with most of the core ideas and the practices, but the crosscutting concepts may be a new thing.

I first wrote about the crosscutting concepts a year and a half ago. I also created a set of symbols (structure and function above) to help teachers to connect them to their student’s learning. The symbols, printable classroom posters, and lots of resources are at: http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/.

Crosscutting symbols in Debbie Gordon’s 2nd grade classroom.

Crosscutting symbols in Debbie Gordon’s 2nd grade classroom.

I have opportunities to have many conversations with teachers who are using the crosscutting concepts and the symbols in their classrooms and are excited to share their experiences. These conversations have helped me to see the crosscutting concepts in different ways and given me new insights about how to teach science through the crosscutting concepts.

At a cross-disciplinary training with Dr. Maria Simani a participant suggested that the crosscutting concepts were the “glasses you put on” to see the world like a scientist. It also became apparent that the crosscutting concepts are central to the questions that scientists ask of the natural world. Take any system you are studying (in this case we were playing with Rattlebacks- http://www.4physics.com:8080/phy_demo/rattleback.htm) and ask questions through the lens of the crosscutting concepts: you will tap into some productive scientific questions. For example, “Why does the same amount of energy produce such different motion when the Rattleback spins in different directions? How does the structure determine its function?” How would this change at different scales? Much bigger? Smaller?”

Teachers can use the crosscutting concepts when they are designing the questions that drive their instruction. The lesson with the fish illustrates the idea that the crosscutting concepts need to be explicitly taught and in a concrete context. Abstract ideas need to be anchored to the real world to be meaningful. For example, Dr. Vickie Harri explicitly teaches the crosscutting concepts to her 8th grade students through a series of activities to highlight each one and uses kid friendly definitions. Some of her work is at: http://crosscutsymbols.weebly.com/links–ngss-and-other.html.

Gregg Borselli, also an 8th grade teacher, uses them to differentiate instruction in a end of lesson reflection. Most students chose the crosscutting concepts as they write which one best fits the lesson, but advanced students are challenged to come up with connections to the concepts that don’t have an obvious fit.

Christina Miramontes, a 5th grade teacher, asked her students to connect the crosscutting concepts, the GATE icons, and the Math Practices. Here is a snapshot of what they came up with:


At the end of a lesson, her students decide which crosscutting concept best fit what they learned- “Ball and Bat! Systems! Patterns!”

The crosscutting concepts ask us to look at science learning in new ways and to think about science in new ways. I’m excited about the learning and those who are working hard to help students see the world through these powerful concepts.

Additional resources:

[1] Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.


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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

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

2 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this article. I am learning more and more about NGSS and I hear the term crosscutting concepts and I love the way that you have demonstrated it. I really appreciate that the teachers have allowed the students to set up their way of seeing it and then at the end of the lesson reflecting on where the lesson fit. I teach HS and my wheels are turning for how this same idea could be applied in my chemistry class. Thanks so much for the share!!

  2. Thanks and please share- so many of the crosscutting concepts come together in chemistry!

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California Science Test Academy for Educators

Posted: Thursday, February 15th, 2018

California Science Test Academy for Educators

To support implementation of the California Science Test (CAST), the California Department of Education is partnering with Educational Testing Service and WestEd to offer a one-day CAST Academy for local educational agency (LEA) science educators, to be presented at three locations in California from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. As an alternative to traveling, LEA teams can participate virtually via WebEx on one of the dates listed below.

The dates and locations for the CAST Academy are as follows:

  • Monday, April 23, 2018—Sacramento
  • Wednesday, April 25, 2018—Fresno
  • Thursday, April 26, 2018—Irvine

The CAST Academy will help participants develop a deeper understanding of the assessment design and expectations of the CAST. The academy also will provide information and activities designed to assist educators in their implementation of the California Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional learning to help them gain an understanding of how these new science assessment item types can inform teaching and learning. The CAST Academy dates above are intended for school and district science instructional leaders, including teacher leaders, teacher trainers, and instructional coaches. Additional trainings will be offered at a later date specifically for county staff. In addition, curriculum, professional development, and assessment leaders would benefit from this training.

A $100 registration fee will be charged for each person attending the in-person training. Each virtual team participating via WebEx will be charged $100 for up to 10 participants through one access point. Each workshop will have the capacity to accommodate a maximum of 50 virtual teams. Each virtual team will need to designate a lead, who is responsible for organizing the group locally. Registration and payment must be completed online at http://www.cvent.com/d/6tqg8k.

For more information regarding the CAST Academy, please contact Elizabeth Dilke, Program Coordinator, Educational Testing Service, by phone at 916-403-2407 or by e‑mail at caasppworkshops@ets.org.

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.

Accelerating into NGSS – A Statewide Rollout Series Now Accepting Registrations

Posted: Friday, January 19th, 2018

Are you feeling behind on the implementation of NGSS? Then Accelerating into NGSS – the Statewide Rollout event – is right for you!

If you have not experienced Phases 1-4 of the Statewide Rollout, or are feeling behind with the implementation of NGSS, the Accelerating Into NGSS Statewide Rollout will provide you with the greatest hits from Phases 1-4!

Accelerating Into NGSS Statewide Rollout is a two-day training geared toward grade K-12 academic coaches, administrators, curriculum leads, and teacher leaders. Check-in for the two-day rollout begins at 7:30 a.m., followed by a continental breakfast. Sessions run from 8:00 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on Day One and from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Day Two.

Cost of training is $250 per attendee. Fee includes all materials, continental breakfast, and lunch on both days. It is recommended that districts send teams of four to six, which include at least one administrator. Payment can be made by check or credit card. If paying by check, registration is NOT complete until payment has been received. All payments must be received prior to the Rollout location date you are attending. Paying by credit card secures your seat at time of registration. No purchase orders accepted. No participant cancellation refunds.

For questions or more information, please contact Amy Kennedy at akennedy@sjcoe.net or (209) 468-9027.



MARCH 28-29, 2018
Host: San Mateo County Office of Education
Location: San Mateo County Office of Education, Redwood City

APRIL 10-11, 2018
Host: Orange County Office of Education
Location: Brandman University, Irvine

MAY 1-2, 2018
Host: Tulare County Office of Education
Location: Tulare County Office of Education, Visalia

MAY 3-4, 2018
Host: San Bernardino Superintendent of Schools
Location: West End Educational Service Center, Rancho Cucamonga

MAY 7-8, 2018
Host: Sacramento County Office of Education
Location: Sacramento County Office of Education Conference Center and David P. Meaney Education Center, Mather

JUNE 14-15, 2018
Host: Imperial County Office of Education
Location: Imperial Valley College, Imperial

Presented by the California Department of Education, California County Superintendents Educational Services Association/County Offices of Education, K-12 Alliance @WestEd, California Science Project, and the California Science Teachers Association.

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.

The Teaching and Learning Collaborative, Reflections from an Administrator

Posted: Friday, January 19th, 2018

by Kelly Patchen

My name is Mrs. Kelly Patchen, and I am proud to be an elementary assistant principal working in the Tracy Unified School District (TUSD) at Louis Bohn and McKinley Elementary Schools. Each of the schools I support are Title I K-5 schools with about 450 students, a diverse student population, a high percentage of English Language Learners, and students living in poverty. We’re also lucky to be part of the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative with the K-12 Alliance. 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 California NGSS k-8 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.

2018 CSTA Conference Call for Proposals

Posted: Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

CSTA is pleased to announce that we are now accepting proposals for 90-minute workshops and three- and six-hour short courses for the 2018 California Science Education Conference. Workshops and short courses make up the bulk of the content and professional learning opportunities available at the conference. In recognition of their contribution, members who present a workshop or short course receive 50% off of their registration fees. Click for more information regarding proposals, or submit one today by following the links below.

Short Course Proposal

Workshop Proposal 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.

CSTA’s New Administrator Facebook Group Page

Posted: Monday, January 15th, 2018

by Holly Steele

The California Science Teachers Association’s mission is to promote high-quality science education, and one of the best practice’s we use to fulfill that mission is through the use of our Facebook group pages. CSTA hosts several closed and moderated Facebook group pages for specific grade levels, (Elementary, Middle, and High School), pages for district coaches and science education faculty, and the official CSTA Facebook page. These pages serve as an online resource for teachers and coaches to exchange teaching methods, materials, staying update on science events in California and asking questions. CSTA is happy to announce the creation of a 6th group page called, California Administrators Supporting Science. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.