March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

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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California Science Curriculum Framework Now Available

Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.

For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.

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.

Call for CSTA Awards Nominations

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. 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.

Call for Volunteers – CSTA Committees

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017


CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: 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.

A Friend in CA Science Education Now at CSTA Region 1 Science Center

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw

If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.

Learning to Teach in 3D

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Joseph Calmer

Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”

I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…

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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: