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). 

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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 Teachers Association

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

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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.

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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.