May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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:

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- 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:–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 K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is 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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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.