Are You Ready for 3D Science? Exploring the 5 Innovations of NGSS

Across the country K-12 science education is getting a make-over. We have known for many years that students need hands-on experiences to pique their interest and re-enforce conceptual development. Yet, since the publication of the Framework for K-12 Science Education in 2012, and the subsequent release of the Next Generation Science Standards in 2013, teachers across the nation have begun a massive endeavor to transform science learning. The architects of the framework introduced us to the Science and Engineering Practices (SEP), Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI), and the Crosscutting Concepts (CCC). Their claim was that effective science curriculum, instruction, and assessment would necessitate the integration of all three of these dimensions. Out of this, the world of science education became 3D!

3D learning is the first of the five innovations promised by the NGSS. It is also the focus of this blog; the first in a series on all five. When intertwined, these three dimensions offer students the opportunity to develop deeper understanding by engaging in the same sense-making activities undertaken by scientists and engineers. Within the NGSS, this is accomplished in the Performance Expectations (PE). Each was skillfully written to include one of each of the three dimensions. On first glance, these statements seem to prescribe what needs to be done in the classroom. Further exploration helps us to see that these statements are indicators of what students should be able to do at the end of instruction. This serves well as a guide for the development of three-dimensional assessment. Yet, it allows educators freedom to select a variety of combinations of SEPs, DCIs, & CCCs as they carry out instruction.

Educators wishing to become proficient in instruction for NGSS must first develop an understanding of the individual components. There are eight Science and Engineering Practices described in the framework. Each offers students a way to experience conceptual development through the same lens used by scientists and engineers. These practices simply present a new way to view science inquiry with more clarity about what it looks like as students build scientific knowledge. Effective science instruction must provide multiple meaningful ways for students to interact with scientific phenomena and the explanations that they are developing. Planning instructional sequences that give students these opportunities fall on the shoulders of teachers and curriculum developers. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) used Appendix F of the NGSS to create a matrix to show what these practices look like at different grade levels. These statements could be easily used to develop rubrics for assessment documentation.

The Disciplinary Core Ideas  are the science concepts that students develop an understanding of as they progress through their education. They are organized by the disciplines of Life Science, Physical Science, Earth & Space Science, and Engineering, Technology, & the Applications of Sciences. One of the main objective of the NGSS was to focus instruction on the “core” concepts and to reduce the amount of “facts” that students must know. While these concepts are organized into the disciplines, the standards writers did not want to limit educators’ opportunities to integrate and package these core ideas in many different ways. Bundling them in coherent ways helps students to develop deeper understanding from multiple scientific angles. Teachers must understand how the concepts that they are teaching develop over time. The matrix produced by NSTA from Appendix E of the NGSS provides a means to help teachers see what understanding students are bringing in from previous instruction and where they are headed after they leave your classroom.

The overarching ideas that tie all areas and grade levels of science together are the Crosscutting Concepts. These common themes offer a broader lens for students to see how science explains the way in which the universe operates. As educators, we know that these concepts are implicit in every unit that we teach. Yet, for students understanding of these ideas is relatively undeveloped. Seeing that there are connections that weave throughout the sciences helps students more readily make sense of new information. It then becomes the educator’s role to make these CCCs explicitly part of every lesson. Students must see that these themes are not something “extra” to learn or consider, but rather an embedded part of the instruction. This can be as simple as asking them to identify patterns in data or cause and effect relationships in experiments. A progression for the CCCs can again be seen in this matrix from NSTA developed from Appendix G of the NGSS.

So what does it look like when the three dimensions become integrated? And what does that do for student learning? When it comes models of instruction, NGSS push educators to create opportunities to “figure out” scientific ideas rather than simply “learn about” them. Brian Reiser, Professor of Learning Sciences at Northwestern, often discusses this with the use of storylines to help students uncover and explore ideas. Learning in an environment where all three dimensions are carefully woven into the lesson provides students an opportunity to make sense of a phenomenon or design solutions on their own rather than being told what concepts they needed to learn and then walked stepwise through a lab to reinforce them. This shift requires careful instructional planning and flexible delivery to help students navigate through their misconceptions to find understanding built upon evidence that they collected and constructed into new explanations.

The strategies to help educators accomplish this transformation may seem foreign to those who learned in a completely different way. However, these techniques are not new. Many of the tools needed for 3D instruction have been used for years. Science note booking, for example, takes on a new aspect when it is used for documenting initial ideas and molding them into a model to be refined through productive discussions. The Einstein Project is currently developing a playbook of these strategies and a professional development series that will support teachers as they implement them in the classroom. These strategies will then become components of curriculum updates that we are developing for all of our existing units that have potential to meet the rigors of the NGSS. Together with our educators and school districts, we will ensure that students become STEM ready!


Coming up next:  That’s Phenomenal! – Helping Students to Make Sense of the World!

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