Understanding the Next Generation Science Standards

Our state and district have been slow to transition into the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and after all the myths I’ve heard, I was a little reluctant to learn about them too. They first adopted the Common Core and then worked into them. Now that we have adopted a version that is nearly identical it was time to learn all about these “new” standards. I say new, but they really have been around for a while.

Anyone who knows me and how I work knows I can’t just learn a little about a topic, especially when it comes to my passion for science. I have to go above and beyond, really understand it thoroughly and deeply. At the first glance of these standards, I knew I was going to be in for a long haul. These standards appear to be no easy feat. The language appears to be confusing and they aren’t written in a way that traditional standards are. Honestly, it was a bit intimidating at first.

Transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards can be a challenge, especially if you don't understand them. This post summarizes the three dimensions and provides an analogy to help you grasp the new science standards.

Thank goodness for professional journals, organizations, workshops, and professional development, am I right?

The Next Generation Science Standards: 3 Dimensions

Let’s begin with the 3 dimensions of the overall framework of the Next Generation Science Standards. For me, this was the most confusing piece. Was I teaching all of these? How did they relate to each other? What did these pieces mean? There are 8 science and engineering practices, 7 crosscutting concepts, and 44 disciplinary ideas.

Transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards can be a challenge, especially if you don't understand them. This post summarizes the three dimensions and provides an analogy to help you grasp the new science standards.

To better help you understand them, I have to explain it using an analogy. Let’s say you are trying to build a solid structure such as a brick wall (because in science, we want to build a solid structure, right?). The core disciplinary ideas are the bricks, the crosscutting concepts are the mortar, and the science and engineering practices are the tools. All three are needed to build this strong solid structure, the brick wall. The mortar (crosscutting concepts) holds the bricks (core disciplinary ideas) together, it connects them to one another and it helps to make the brick wall become one solid structure. It helps the bricks (core disciplinary ideas) build upon one another. None of this can be done without the tools (science and engineering practices).

Transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards can be a challenge, especially if you don't understand them. This post summarizes the three dimensions and provides an analogy to help you grasp the new science standards.

The Science and Engineering Practices

The science and engineering practices are a combination of knowledge and skills. For instance, this could be asking questions (science) & defining problems (engineering), developing & using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyze and interpret data, and so on. These standards have likely been included before your transition to NGSS and listed in the “nature of science” section. These are similar to Common Core’s Mathematical Practices. The only thing that may seem a bit challenging or new is the engineering piece.

Unfortunately, some people mistakenly believe if they just complete a STEM activity once in a while that they have completed the engineering practices listed in the standards. While that is a good start, that is not completely accurate. Engineering is the application of science. Before the Next Generation Science Standards were put in place the closest most teachers got to the application of science was by implementing the scientific method in their classrooms. That definitely was not a true representation of a scientist, nor an engineer. And, if you’re purchasing STEM activities with no relation to what you are learning then you are also not following the NGSS guidelines because to be an application piece, it should be an application of what they learned from the science concepts (disciplinary core ideas). STEM should not be a stand-alone activity – but that is an upcoming post.

Science is more inquiry and about the study of… well, everything, whereas engineers are looking to solve human needs, to solve problems. When we look at the first science and engineering practice, Asking Questions and Defining Problems, the approach is different from a scientific viewpoint and an engineering viewpoint. From a scientific viewpoint, you would ask questions and use inquiry to explain. In engineering, you would define the problem and then use design to solve it.

Crosscutting Concepts

Crosscutting concepts are the fundamental themes that bridge all the ideas from one disciplinary core idea in one grade level to another disciplinary core idea in another grade level. (That was a mouth full!) It’s the piece that binds everything together to help make the structure more solid and whole. Most of these crosscutting concepts will be taught naturally with the disciplinary core ideas. For instance, it’s easy to notice patterns when classifying animals or seeing cause and effect with force and motion. These concepts also help bridge the different types of science (physical science, earth science, and life science) along with engineering together. For instance, energy and matter is not a concept only seen in physical science but can also be seen in the other sciences too.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

The disciplinary core ideas are the standards that you are most familiar with when you think of science standards. These are the content area standards of each science area: physical science, earth science, and life science. There are fewer strands because the plan is for us to “go deeper in the lake” instead of “skimming the top of an ocean”. We often have so many standards to cram in that we only “surface teach.” That’s not a good way to teach anything! Fewer standards allow us more time to really teach these concepts to mastery. This content has a progression to step students up through it over their years in school.

Ultimately, NGSS is much more involved than a quick summary in a blog post, but this is the quick gist. The bigger shifts with the Next Generation Science Standards are the addition of engineering- getting students to start thinking about solving problems and to start thinking about why something happens. There should definitely be a focus more on inquiry in the classroom rather than just handing students facts, an experiment, or simply learning about a topic. Once you get past the overall look of NGSS, it doesn’t seem as intimidating.

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