September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

The Time to Be Heard Is Now Soon!

Posted: Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

by Peter A’Hearn

The first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards were expected to be released by the end of April. Now that it is May 1 and the draft standards have yet to be released to the public, CSTA has learned that the revised release time frame has been revised to mid-May. The review window will be only three weeks long once the draft is released, so please stay tuned to CSTA for word when the draft is available and take some time to study and give feedback through You can choose to provide feedback on only the areas in which you have the most expertise. CSTA will be working with other statewide organizations to alert members to public review sessions as well.  That information will be made available soon after the draft standards are released.

The Next Generation Science Standards will include the three dimensions as outlined in the framework: core content ideas, scientific and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts. This month I will focus on the cross-cutting relationships aspect of the framework. This is a new emphasis compared to the current California standards. The current standards have content (Core Ideas), and Investigation and Experimentation (similar to practices) but no analogue to the cross- cutting concepts. I have heard people complain that the “Big Ideas” got left out of the current California standards. The writers of the NGSS framework address this omission:

Although crosscutting concepts are fundamental to an understanding of science and engineering, students have often been expected to build such knowledge without any explicit instructional support. 

The NGSS framework makes them explicit and expects them to be integrated tightly with practices and with core ideas.

These concepts should become common and familiar touchstones across the disciplines and grade levels. Explicit reference to the concepts, as well as their emergence in multiple disciplinary contexts, can help students develop a cumulative, coherent, and usable understanding of science and engineering. 

The cross-cutting concepts chosen by the writers are best considered when fleshed out with an explanation. They are:

1.  Patterns. Observed patterns of forms and events guide organization and classification, and they prompt questions about relationships and the factors that influence them.

2.  Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation. Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts.

3.  Scale, proportion, and quantity. In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy and to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system’s structure or performance.

4.  Systems and system models. Defining the system under study-specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system-provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering.

5.  Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation. Tracking fluxes of energy and matter into, out of, and within systems helps one understand the systems’ possibilities and limitations.

6.  Structure and function. The way in which an object or living thing is shaped and its substructure determine many of its properties and functions.

7.  Stability and change. For natural and built systems alike, conditions of stability and determinants of rates of change or evolution of the system are critical elements of study.

This set of crosscutting concepts begins with two concepts that are fundamental to the nature of science: that observed patterns can be explained and that science investigates cause- and-effect relationships by seeking the mechanisms that underlie them. The next concept – scale, proportion, and quantity – concerns the sizes of things and the mathematical relationships among disparate elements. The next four concepts – systems and system models, energy and matter flows, structure and function, and stability and change – are interrelated in that the first is illuminated by the other three. Each concept also stands alone as one that occurs in virtually all areas of science and is an important consideration for engineered systems as well.

Chapter 9 of the NGSS framework gives some insights into how the cross-cutting concepts and practices can be integrated with core ideas in a science unit. For example in K-2 students classify animals by the foods that they eat. In doing this they learn the life science content core idea that animals need food to live and grow. They engage in the scientific practice of arguing from evidence to support their classification and presentation of information. The crosscutting concept for this unit is patterns- that animals can be grouped by what they eat. At the other end of the K-12 continuum, high school students working on the concepts of how atomic structure relates to the periodic table are engaged in the practice of modeling, but are also looking at patterns as the cross-cutting concept.

A challenge for many will be that there are not that many instructional materials that have used cross-cutting concepts to connect different area of science. There are some publishers that do use a big idea to connect may ideas together, but most leave the connections for the students to make as noted by the writers of the framework.

Your turn now- what are your thoughts about the cross-cutting concepts? Some guiding questions:

Are these the right concepts to help students to make connections across the sciences?

Do these concepts connect to other disciplines?

What are the challenges of implementing this vision of science education?

How can the use of cross-cutting concepts enrich student learning?

Are some of these more or less important?

Would you have included different cross-cutting concepts?

The purpose of this blog:

We are about to begin the period for public review of the Next Generation Science Standards. The process is being guided by the National Research Council.  Twenty-six states, including California, have signed on to be part of the development of the standards and to adopt them when complete.  The new standards will represent a big change in how science is taught in California, so teachers should be closely following the development and giving the feedback that comes with their experience. But few classroom teachers have the time to digest and respond to the amount of material that makes up the science standards. The purpose of this blog is to break it down into chunks and send it out a little at a time for teachers to respond to, beginning with the Framework.  I will be making comparisons to the current California standards, but science teachers from other states are encouraged to participate. The framework can be downloaded as a PDF from the Next Generation website at

Pete A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is region 4 director for CSTA.

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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. First, I like (very much) that science content once again is going to be connected by bigger ideas, whatever they are to be called. The term “cross-cutting concepts” is a bit pretentious for my tastes (big ideas, unifying concepts, or … perhaps better, yet … themes would seem to be far more useful), but I am not one to be hung up on the need for change and shiny new labels. The point is that with the use of these cross-cutting concepts, perhaps we can move away from using discrete factoids as the organizing principles behind science instruction, and once again help students begin to see the connections and conceptual underpinnings of scientific thought.

    I am not sure exactly what types of comments you would find most useful in this discussion, so I will use your guiding questions to get me started.

    I am not sure if these are the “right” concepts to help students make connections, but they will certainly help teachers help students make those connections. There are actually many different ways that science instruction can be organized, and many other thematic lines that could be presented. The particular organization or number of big ideas is not crucial; the organization of content along thematic lines is. Technically, these cross-cutting concepts are all correct, and they are all fundamental in helping students understand the nature of science. What bothers me about them is that they are not in kid language … kids are going to have a hard time with big mouthfuls of terms (e.g., “Energy and Matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation”, “Cause & Effect: Mechanism and explanation”, “Scale, proportion, and quantity” come to mind). They do not have to be in kid language, of course, but if they are to become “common and familiar touchstones across the disciplines and grade levels” and are designed to help students develop a “cumulative, coherent, and usable understanding of science and engineering”, then it might behoove someone to get off their high formal-sounding horse and make the terms more accessible to kids. Just a thought. See the 1990 California Science Framework for alternatives.

    These cross-cutting concepts connect across all disciplines of science. The other major discipline with which these cross-cutting concepts are best connected is history. Every single one has a place in the study of people and cultures over time. Some connect to literature and language arts, but perhaps what is most important is that in the study of literature, the fine arts, or any other human endeavor, themes and big ideas are essential to their understanding (even if the big organizing concepts are different than these cross-cutting concepts). And clearly, there are some interdisciplinary connections to mathematics. It will not be easy getting single-subject teachers in other disciplines comfortable or facile with using these concepts … either as organizing principles or as ways to integrate curriculum … but it most certainly can be done. I am sure there are many good examples out there for how this might be done … one that jumps to my mind, almost immediately, are the history and science units available from Cal-EPA and developed under the Environmental Education Initiative (EEI).

    The challenges of implementing conceptually-based science instruction are large, but it’s not like we haven’t met that challenge before. There may be some teachers out there who have entered the profession after about 2000 who may be clueless about how to conceptually organize instruction, activities, investigations, and learning … but my guess is that the hard work of groups like the K-12 Alliance, many of the California Science Projects, and others will prove very fruitful. They have never stopped supporting this type of instruction, and there are a lot of teachers who are just dying to have instructional materials that do it for them, rather than have to create and/or modify everything from scratch. It is not going to be as hard to implement this approach to instruction as it was in say, 1992. We’ve come a long way, baby … and the light is still shining brightly.

    While teachers will find conceptual instruction much more rewarding and meaningful than teaching isolated and discrete facts/phenomena, students will be the overwhelming beneficiaries of this change in direction. We all know that people construct understanding of the world by building stories in their heads, and we know that stories are held together by big ideas and concepts that are threaded through them. Isolated facts and observations may be interesting, but sense-making doesn’t occur until we connect what we learn or see to things we already know and understand. Large ideas connect facts across disciplines, and thisa is very powerful.

    With respect to the relative importance of the different cross-cutting concepts, I do not think one is more important than another.

    The missing cross-cutting concept that jumps out and bites me on the butt is “evolution”. I do not like the fact that it is embedded (and hidden) in a differently named cross-cutting concept. Yes … evolution is a type of change, and it can be subsumed under “stability and change”. But it is also very different than simple change. It is change with a direction (and that direction is time) … life forms have evolved, the earth has evolved, oceans have evolved, galaxies have evolved (interactions between them influenced by relative position, gravitational attractions, and even chemical composition). Evolution embodies history and is an integral part of every discipline that has a historical component. It is the central organizing principle of the biological sciences, and a major principle in the earth sciences. Just as importantly, though a bit more controversially, now is not the time to back away or back down from putting evolution in its rightful place as a major organizing principle of science. In too many states, in too many local districts, and at too many school sites, powerful political and social organizations are stepping up their attacks on science instruction by challenging the principle of evolution (and with attacks on evolution, similar attacks on other “controversial” science topics). This is not the time to knuckle under to reactionaries and aficionados of pseudo-science. If you doubt my word for it, why don’t you drop a line to Eugenie Scott?

    On a smaller scale, I am a little disturbed that “interactions” are not specifically included as an organizing principle. I understand that systems and system models include interactions, but it seems that kids would be much better served if they understood (and said) “systems and interactions” rather than the indirect term “models”. Modeling is, of course, extremely important in science … as well as in other disciplines … but modeling is something that you DO to better understand a thing, and an interaction is thing that a model would help you understand. Probably just a personal preference, and I have no idea what influence my preferences will have on this process at this point in time.

  2. I think these cross cutting concepts are the proverbial nail being hit on the head! I often find that students are woefully underdeveloped in recognizing, following and designing patterns. This cross cutting element will not only benefit them as science students, but across all educational areas. Just as important is recognizing the cause effect relationship in nature, as well as in our daily lives. Again, explicitly teaching this concept will benefit students both scientifically and educationally in general. All the other concepts are wonderfully exciting for me as a Biology teacher, because they apply directly to our entire curriculum. These big ideas should absolutely be taught explicitly, and merely reinforced by all the supporting details (what are called content standards now) throughout the year. For instance, students may forget the individual steps of cell division, but they should never forget that there is a process of cell division that happens in their bodies from birth to death, and that sometimes the increased frequency of cell division is to our benefit (healing a wound) or to our detriment (cancer). This type of science literacy is much more beneficial than learning and regurgitating individual and seemingly unrelated facts. I can’t wait for the new standards to be released. From the looks of it, they may very well transform the way we all teach science!

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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at 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.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. 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.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well 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.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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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.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. 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.