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Meet The Next Generation Science Standards

The more we learn about the natural world, the more amazing it is. And that’s the spirit surrounding the Next Generation Science Standards: a spirit that unlocks senses of wonder and accomplishment that carries students not only through their K-12 careers, but into their futures beyond the classroom.  

Based on a concept called three-dimensional learning, the NGSS connects the natural world (science phenomena) with practical and critical thinking practices that alight students’ curiosity and creativity. As learners investigate the world around them, they also use the same practical and analytical practices used by scientists and engineers to test ideas and build solutions, giving them the chance to develop skills today that will be in demand for tomorrow’s careers.  

The NGSS Framework 

In 2012, the National Academy of Sciences published A Framework for K-12 Science Education, its first published update to recommended national science teaching since 1996.  While the 1996 standards recommended a shift from the traditional lecture-based learning (“sit and get”) to  inquiry-based (hands-on) style lessons, the framework took it a step further.  

Using the latest research in learning and teaching, the framework recommended that students develop critical thinking, as well as analytical and engineering skills, by not just investigating scientific phenomena, but then using what they’d learned to design and test solutions to challenges - just as career scientists and engineers do in the field.  

So what was the next step? In 2013, education experts rolled up their sleeves and got to work. 

Development of the NGSS

From the recommendations in A Framework for K-12 Science Education, the Next Generation Science Standards were born. Education experts from twenty-six U.S. states worked with the National Academies of Sciences writing team to develop the standards. Over the last decade, 39 states and the District of Columbia have either adopted the NGSS or based their state science standards on them.   

So what makes the NGSS so unique? As was introduced above, the magic of the NGSS comes down to three-dimensional learning.  

Three-Dimensional Learning

When you think of something that is in 3-D, what comes to mind?  



It feels like you could reach out and touch it? 

That’s the idea behind three-dimensional learning. Like a 3-D movie feels like you are in the middle of the action, 3-D learning puts students in the middle of the phenomena. But unlike a 3-D movie, the science is indeed vivid and real. Students don't feel like they could touch it, because they actually are

3-D Learning brings science to life.  

Three-dimensional learning gives students an actual, hands-on connection to not only what is happening around them, but sets the stage so they can interact with and use that knowledge to learn, collaborate, create, and apply it to solve real-world challenges. As a result, the skills and experience gained through 3-D learning not only help students succeed in science class, but those skills, knowledge and experience are carried with them to the next year’s science class, and the year beyond as they investigate more phenomena and apply their accumulated knowledge to new challenges.  

Then someday to a career.  

So what exactly are the three dimensions?  Here’s how they break down: 

Dimension #1: Disciplinary Core Ideas:

In the NGSS, there are four core scientific content topics and concepts that students study: physical science, life science, earth/space science and engineering, technology and application of science.

Why these four? 

1. They all consist of natural phenomena students see and observe throughout their entire K-12 careers: from looking up at the moon in early elementary school, to examining weathering and erosion after a rain in middle school, to explaining in high school how nuclear fusion powers our sun. Every concept in these four areas is something everyone living on planet Earth has seen, heard, felt, or touched either directly (the energy of the sun, the force of a seatbelt, a log burning to ash, etc.), or indirectly (cold water molecules slowing down, causing water to freeze into ice).

Since such prior knowledge helps set the stage for deeper learning by establishing a connection with the topic, these four science topics can light the spark of curiosity, paving the way for next steps in learning and understanding.  

2. The topics apply to countless phenomena over a variety of scientific disciplines, giving students the chance to observe them multiple times in a variety of contexts. From elementary through high school, learners have the opportunity to revisit, apply and explain that knowledge in countless ways over the course of their K-12 careers. 

For example, in studying a topic such as forces, elementary school students might investigate how a marble rolls down a hill. In middle school, those same  students might model how forces create mountains and cause earthquakes. In high school, they could examine the physics that calculate how much force (gravity) is needed to keep Earth in orbit around the Sun.  The same students, and the same overall topic (forces), but applied and practiced in a variety of different contexts over their school years. 

In essence, these Disciplinary Core Ideas serve as a “content blueprint” for what topics in science are essential for students to know and understand. But they are only one dimension of three-dimensional learning. The NGSS makes clear that while what to study is important, how students study science can make all the difference between understanding it, and knowing how to apply it. That’s where the second dimension comes in.  

Dimension #2: Scientific and Engineering Practices

What do scientists and engineers do in the real world?  

They investigate.  

They solve problems. 

They collaborate. 

They explain what they’ve learned and its potential impact.  

They design solutions to challenges, based on their existing and new knowledge. 

It’s the process where, for example, scientists may study a species of plant and communicate what they’ve discovered about its composition, its chemistry, and other properties. Then engineers can take that information to build a machine that processes the leaves of that plant into an ingredient for a life-saving medicine. This hypothetical process, as well as countless real-world examples of discovery and innovation, all begin with the investigation of something interesting, and result in the design of a solution to a problem or challenge connected to that interesting topic.

But since participating in that process takes certain practical skills, they are built into the second dimension of the NGSS 3-D model: The Scientific and Engineering Practices. The practices include activities such as asking questions, developing models, planning and carrying out investigations, collecting and analyzing data, communicating conclusions and designing solutions. These are all incorporated into this dimension, and paired with the Disciplinary Core Ideas throughout the standards to give students the chance to use them in context of not just learning about, but working with the scientific topic they are currently studying. 

Why? Because by incorporating these practices into their classroom activities, students are able to model what actual scientists and engineers do in real-world investigation and problem solving scenarios. This gives learners the opportunity to not only learn what these processes are and do, but have multiple opportunities to practice them in a hands-on environment. 

Additionally, the design component of the NGSS is an element that differs from prior focus on hands-on/inquiry-based instruction alone. This engineering practice, when applied to traditional science inquiry, helps prepare students to not only observe phenomena, formulate questions, investigate and explain what they’ve learned, but to identify issues and actually create solutions to help address them. 

In this way, the NGSS not only honors the time-honored use of scientific inquiry, but has leveled it up to provide students with additional insight and skills that can serve them in present and future careers, both STEM and beyond. 

As with the Disciplinary Core Ideas, these practices are embedded in the standards from elementary through high school, giving students the chance to regularly revisit and practice these skills throughout their entire K-12 careers. By learning and using these skills each year of their science education, students have the capability to apply these same skills to whatever career or academic path s/he/they may choose to pursue.  

Dimension #3: Crosscutting Concepts

Let’s talk about bridges. Covered bridges. Overpasses on the highway. Bridges of communication between people, groups and organizations. 

Think about what a bridge does. It links things together, right? No matter the context, It’s a conduit between two separate entities. Bridges allow passage from one side to another.  

So what do bridges have to do with three-dimensional learning?  It’s because the first two dimensions of the NGSS, the disciplinary core ideas and the scientific and engineering practices, also have a bridge linking them together: the crosscutting concepts. These concepts connect the first two domains in a way that elevates student understanding to new levels, thus serving as the NGSS’s third dimension of 3-D learning. 

Crosscutting concepts are what the first two dimensions have in common: elements found both in the science topics as well as the scientific and engineering practice skills. These concepts touch every practice and phenomenon in the natural world. So no matter on which area students are focused, whether it’s learning about forces and motion, plate tectonics, chemical reactions, astronomy or experimenting and designing projects and solutions for any of those topics, chances are that cross-cutting concepts will be present each time. 

What are examples of cross-cutting concepts? They include the ability to recognize patterns, being able to identify how things are structured or built, being able to work with models, and understanding how science, technology and engineering all impact each other in the natural world. And in the NGSS standards, students are not only exposed to these patterns, but learn how to recognize and utilize them in their investigation and design activities.  

So why should students recognize and be able to apply these concepts to their science learning? It’s all about building deeper understanding. By being able to recognize and understand how science phenomena and practice relate to each other through the cross-cutting concepts, students are able to better make sense of what they are studying, which leads to more advanced understanding and subsequently, application of that knowledge and skill set to new and more complex challenges.  

NGSS Works For Students

Research has shown that student academic performance data with educators who use NGSS elementary, middle and high school curriculum are correlated with positive movement in student learning of science.  Additionally, researchers have found that implementation of the standards have resulted in more student engagement as well as higher level and more inclusive learning.  

Research has also shown that the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards help make science more accessible and engaging for students, especially students such as multi-language learners who have traditionally been underrepresented in STEM fields. 

A “Flight Plan” For Science Success

While comprehensive, the NGSS isn’t a curriculum in and of itself. 

Instead, it’s a guide.  

Think of it as a roadmap, or flight plan of what and how students learn science. Through the NGSS guidelines, teachers have the flexibility to design and choose curriculum that fits the three dimensions it outlines and recommends. They have the freedom to choose activities that fit best with the style of practice and the unique learning needs of their students.  

But even with a guide as comprehensive as the NGSS, it also helps to have a plan. And that’s where Propello can help. Our NGSS-designed, flexible and time-saving curriculum solutions put teachers in the pilot’s seat and student learning in flight. 

With Propello as the co-pilot, teachers can easily plan exciting, standards-based, collaborative, scaffolded phenomenon-based science lessons that help students develop knowledge and skills that will benefit them for a lifetime.