How to Teach the NGSS in Three Dimensions: Understanding the How, What, and Why

This week, we have another vlog for you! If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards, have no fear, Yen is here to help!


Hi there! This is Yen, and my blog today is about how to teach the NGSS in three dimensions: Understanding the how, what, and why. And what I mean by that is you often hear people talk about teaching the NGSS in three dimensions.

However, if we actually look at how the NGSS are laid out on paper, it can be mighty confusing. So, I thought I’d make this blog, and actually, the one next week about these three dimensions to kind of help clarify those things for you.

So, the way I talk about the standards is that they are in three dimensions, and I use this metaphor of two people putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The science and engineering practices represent the skills people need to actually put jigsaw puzzles together. And if you think about it, if you’re a really good jigsaw “puzzler,” you could put together almost any jigsaw puzzle that you can imagine, right?

Well, maybe not any. Like, I’m really bad at variation in color, but you get what I mean. Anyway, so, science and engineering practices are about the skills for piecing jigsaw puzzle pieces together. If you have the skills, you can piece any puzzle piece together, okay?

Now, the disciplinary core ideas represent the pictures that are on the surface of the jigsaw puzzle. It’s the actual puzzle picture that you’re trying to put together so that’s the disciplinary core ideas. And the crosscutting concepts are the edges of the puzzle — how these disciplinary core ideas fit with one another. With this kind of analogy, I’m going to go a little bit further in by saying the disciplinary core ideas are the WHAT of what we teach in a science lesson — it’s the facts. It’s the vocabulary at times — it’s the things that we want to know. That’s the WHAT.

However, if we don’t have people putting together the puzzle pieces together, then, you know, the puzzle pieces just kind of sit there.

So, the science and engineering practices represent the HOW of how we LEARN the WHAT. Hopefully, that wasn’t confusing. But in other words, if you focus on the practices of science, the HOW, you will get at the WHAT. Okay?

And then finally, the crosscutting concepts are the WHY. Crosscutting concepts go across different disciplines. If you look at 21st century skills, if you look at common core, if you look at science, patterns fall across all of those. That’s a crosscutting concept. The WHY means WHY is this so important for me to know? Why is this related to the environment, to my life? That’s the why piece. It’s connecting to real-world situations and contexts. I’m going to focus on the HOW and the WHAT, today.

And then next week, I’m going to go into the HOW, the WHAT, and the WHY. So the WHAT, like I said before, the disciplinary core ideas: physical science, life science, earth and space science, engineering technologies, and applications of science.

You’re probably pretty familiar with the DCI’s because these comprised most of the standards before NGSS came about. The HOW — science and engineering practices tend to be the piece that most teachers still have some difficulty understanding, and so

I’m going to talk about them a little bit in a second. Asking questions and defining problems, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematics and computational thinking, constructing explanations and designing solutions, engaging in argument from evidence, obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

So there are eight of these science and engineering practices. But what you’ll notice, although I’m not going to talk about it here, but I might later, is that these practices have a LOT in common with common core practices in math as well as ELA.

Okay, so let’s go with the what first, okay? I’m going to give you an example of a lab that first grade teachers do to teach their students heredity, okay? And the performance expectations that this lab addresses are: LS1 – Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs. Read texts and use media to determine patterns in behavior and offspring that help offspring survive. And then finally, make observations to construct an evidence-based account that young plants and animals are like, but not exactly like, their parents.

When kids do this lab, these standards are not in order. In fact, we focus on the last two standards, LS1-2 and LS3-1, first before we actually go to LS1-1, and I’ll tell you why: When kids study guppies; so, the rough story behind this, is that in first grade, teachers set up a tank of guppies, and they breed them.

And by doing that, kids actually determine patterns — which I’ll talk about in a little bit, make observations about the plants and animals that are in the tank, and then, finally, once they understand that science, once they have acquired the knowledge from that experience, they can then do LS1-1. Because now they can take what they know and design a solution to a human problem by using their knowledge of how to, you know, mimic plants and animals and their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs.

So you can see how that kind of works, okay? The driving question — and driving questions are about how do you set up the entire investigation — is, who is this baby’s mother and father and how do you know? What do guppies do to survive and what do they need in order to survive? And, How is fish survival different from plant or snail survival?

There are three driving questions — actually, there are many more than three in this study, but that’s okay, because the guppy tank sits in the classroom for over a semester. In fact, it can sit in your classroom for the whole year, if you wanted. Let me give you a background on the procedure, first. Then we’re going to talk about how this is two-dimensional. And then we’ll go into three dimensions next week. The driving questions are in the front like I had just talked about.

So what teachers do, is that they bring an empty tank in, and they cycle the tank for a month. And what I mean by cycle, is before you can put fish into a tank, or even plants, the water has to be left running for a while — at least over a month. Now, there are ways to cheat around it — you can put water conditioner and so on. I’m not a fan of it, just because it’s like, one extra chemical to put in. And besides which, it’s so much more fun to set it up where you’ve got an empty tank running in your classroom for a month, because kids want to know what’s going on. They want to know what’s in the tank — you can have them write stories about what they think will be in the tank, and so on and so forth.

But, you let it cycle for a month and then, during that time, in about three weeks, you add some plants. Let it run for another week or two, then you add snails. So, you don’t say anything to the kids. You just have the tank in there. And this goes back to what I talked about regarding interactive space, right? What are some CUES that really invoke curiosity?

Well, obviously having a fish tank in your classroom with water is ALWAYS going to be a cue! So, after the tank is cycled, then you add two female guppies who look different, and a male, who also looks different, too. And they’ll breed, and then you’ll watch for the babies. So as you’ll notice, the kids are going to be very curious about this. They observe, take data, research, analyze, and conclude. And I’ll lead you through how we actually do that with our students.

So, going back to the standards, right? Here are the practices: Asking questions and defining problems. You better believe that when kids start seeing the tank, they’re going to ask a lot of questions. So what you do, is that you take advantage of that. You have a post-it note that’s next to the tank so that kids can write their questions down. And a board where they can post their questions.

It doesn’t mean you have to answer their questions right away. All you’re doing is that you’re teaching them how to answer questions, because then, later on, you can go back and say, “Let’s categorize these questions. Which questions can we answer based on something we find in the room. Can we answer it just by watching the tank?” Those are one sorts of questions, right? What are questions that we can answer by going to the library? Or going on the internet? Or asking an aquarium person? Those are other kinds of questions.

They start to get really good at not only asking questions, but determining: Can that question be answerable? And by the way, that’s a very important question, because that goes into the nature of science. If the question cannot be answered by regular means, then it’s not science. It has to be able to be answered through scientific methods.

So, asking questions, being able to answer the problems, and then defining what some of those problems are. Although, defining problems is more of an engineering thing — it IS science, but it’s science and engineering! Okay, developing and using models. The whole fish tank is a model! It’s a model of a pond. It’s a model of, you know, an aquatic system, right? So a model is a representation of something else. That’s really the general gist of what a model is. This is a representation of a natural habitat in a pond.

You can have your kids develop models on that: Where are they getting their air? Where are they getting their food? What would they do in the wild without us feeding them all the time. Right? So, this is one way of getting them to think about a model — drawing the fish tank, labeling the parts, identifying where things go is model-building. Planning and carrying out investigations.

An investigation is not necessarily an experiment. An experiment is where you’re isolating one thing and then studying to see how or if it affected something else — that’s an experiment. An investigation is really a search to find the answers to things. Now, if you remember those driving questions, when the babies are born, your students are going to really want to know who was mom and dad. Believe me. — They’ll probably know dad, because you’ll only have one male guppy. But they’re going to have to figure out who the baby’s mom is. And they do that by carrying out an investigation.

And of course, carrying out an investigation means, making observations and saying, “Okay, I think it’s that mom.” and you going, “Why? What characteristics did you find? What did you observe? What makes you think that is that baby’s mom?” So analyzing and interpreting data goes to that. They collected data. They collected observations.

And you can — like I said — the tank is great for asking all kinds of things, too. What’s the difference between plants and animals? What’s the difference between the two animals? The snail and the fish that’s in the tank, right? What’s the difference between a baby guppy and a mommy guppy? What do they have in common? These are great questions, and notice when you ask: What’s the difference between the baby guppy and the mommy guppy, you just addressed LS2-1 about parents and offspring, and how, you know, what characteristics and behavior do they have to survive. And LS3-1, which is making observations, right?

Constructing evidence-based accounts on how they’re alike, but not exactly alike.

This all goes into that, by just having them think about the different questions that come out of it. Using mathematics and computational thinking. You can quantify things.

How much food do you have to feed the guppies every day? How many days can they go without food? Do they want to go without food? What’s the temperature of the water? How much water do they need? How much time did it take between, you know, having the parents in the tank and when the guppies were born? These are all great things to incorporate mathematics and computational thinking into.

And then constructing explanations and designing solutions. Constructing explanations is where we’re sitting with all of this, right? Explain to me why you think that this baby belongs to this mother. It’s also constructing explanations of “Tell me the difference between plants and animals.” These are all explanations that they can do, and it all comes from observations of the tank and asking questions. And then finally, engaging in argument from evidence.

Probably one of the most fun things is that you have a guppy baby that looks like dad and nothing like either of the moms. So then what do you do? Maybe you have one kid that says it belongs to this mom because of, reasons X,Y, and Z. And another kid that says, “No, it belongs to this mom, because of reasons X, Y, and Z.” Well, then you have to think okay, what makes a compelling argument? What is it about the evidence that made it look like it was more plausible on one side than the other, right?

So, anyways, I’m going to stop here, because that was probably a whole lot of stuff in just a few minutes on science and engineering practices, but now you can kind of see how we marry the HOW with the WHAT. And it’s done in a very organic way. HOW is about what processes do I have kids do in order to learn the material. That’s really what the HOW is getting at.

And NGSS defines a lot of that HOW. We want kids to learn the material by analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematics, constructing explanations, asking questions, designing experiments, so on and so forth. Thank you so much! Have a good week.

And I will talk to you next week about the WHY, which is the crosscutting concepts. Bye!

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