NGSS Standards

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SEP1 SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE 1

ASKING QUESTIONS AND DEFINING PROBLEMS


Students at any grade level should be able to ask questions of each other about the texts they read, the features of the phenomena they observe, and the conclusions they draw from their models or scientific investigations. For engineering, they should ask questions to define the problem to be solved and to elicit ideas that lead to the constraints and specifications for its solution. (NRC Framework 2012, p. 56)

Scientific questions arise in a variety of ways. They can be driven by curiosity about the world, inspired by the predictions of a model, theory, or findings from previous investigations, or they can be stimulated by the need to solve a problem. Scientific questions are distinguished from other types of questions in that the answers lie in explanations supported by empirical evidence, including evidence gathered by others or through investigation.

While science begins with questions, engineering begins with defining a problem to solve. However, engineering may also involve asking questions to define a problem, such as: What is the need or desire that underlies the problem? What are the criteria for a successful solution? Other questions arise when generating ideas, or testing possible solutions, such as: What are the possible trade-offs? What evidence is necessary to determine which solution is best?

Asking questions and defining problems also involves asking questions about data, claims that are made, and proposed designs. It is important to realize that asking a question also leads to involvement in another practice. A student can ask a question about data that will lead to further analysis and interpretation. Or a student might ask a question that leads to planning and design, an investigation, or the refinement of a design.

Whether engaged in science or engineering, the ability to ask good questions and clearly define problems is essential for everyone. The following progression of Practice 1 summarizes what students should be able to do by the end of each grade band. Each of the examples of asking questions below leads to students engaging in other scientific practices.

SEP2 SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE 2

DEVELOPING AND USING MODELS

Modeling can begin in the earliest grades, with students’ models progressing from concrete “pictures” and/or physical scale models (e.g., a toy car) to more abstract representations of relevant relationships in later grades, such as a diagram representing forces on a particular object in a system. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 58)

Models include diagrams, physical replicas, mathematical representations, analogies, and computer simulations. Although models do not correspond exactly to the real world, they bring certain features into focus while obscuring others. All models contain approximations and assumptions that limit the range of validity and predictive power, so it is important for students to recognize their limitations.

In science, models are used to represent a system (or parts of a system) under study, to aid in the development of questions and explanations, to generate data that can be used to make predictions, and to communicate ideas to others. Students can be expected to evaluate and refine models through an iterative cycle of comparing their predictions with the real world and then adjusting them to gain insights into the phenomenon being modeled. As such, models are based upon evidence. When new evidence is uncovered that the models can’t explain, models are modified.

In engineering, models may be used to analyze a system to see where or under what conditions flaws might develop, or to test possible solutions to a problem. Models can also be used to visualize and refine a design, to communicate a design’s features to others, and as prototypes for testing design performance.

SEP3 SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE 3

PLANNING AND CARRYING OUT INVESTIGATIONS

Students should have opportunities to plan and carry out several different kinds of investigations during their K-12 years. At all levels, they should engage in investigations that range from those structured by the teacher—in order to expose an issue or question that they would be unlikely to explore on their own (e.g., measuring specific properties of materials)— to those that emerge from students’ own questions. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 61)

Scientific investigations may be undertaken to describe a phenomenon, or to test a theory or model for how the world works. The purpose of engineering investigations might be to find out how to fix or improve the functioning of a technological system or to compare different solutions to see which best solves a problem.

Whether students are doing science or engineering, it is always important for them to state the goal of an investigation, predict outcomes, and plan a course of action that will provide the best evidence to support their conclusions. Students should design investigations that generate data to provide evidence to support claims they make about phenomena. Data aren’t evidence until used in the process of supporting a claim. Students should use reasoning and scientific ideas, principles, and theories to show why data can be considered evidence.

Over time, students are expected to become more systematic and careful in their methods. In laboratory experiments, students are expected to decide which variables should be treated as results or outputs, which should be treated as inputs and intentionally varied from trial to trial, and which should be controlled, or kept the same across trials. In the case of field observations, planning involves deciding how to collect different samples of data under different conditions, even though not all conditions are under the direct control of the investigator. Planning and carrying out investigations may include elements of all of the other practices.

SEP4 SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE 4

ANALYZING AND INTERPRETING DATA

Once collected, data must be presented in a form that can reveal any patterns and relationships and that allows results to be communicated to others. Because raw data as such have little meaning, a major practice of scientists is to organize and interpret data through tabulating, graphing, or statistical analysis. Such analysis can bring out the meaning of data—and their relevance—so that they may be used as evidence.

Engineers, too, make decisions based on evidence that a given design will work; they rarely rely on trial and error. Engineers often analyze a design by creating a model or prototype and collecting extensive data on how it performs, including under extreme conditions. Analysis of this kind of data not only informs design decisions and enables the prediction or assessment of performance but also helps define or clarify problems, determine economic feasibility, evaluate alternatives, and investigate failures. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 61-62)

As students mature, they are expected to expand their capabilities to use a range of tools for tabulation, graphical representation, visualization, and statistical analysis. Students are also expected to improve their abilities to interpret data by identifying significant features and patterns, use mathematics to represent relationships between variables, and take into account sources of error. When possible and feasible, students should use digital tools to analyze and interpret data. Whether analyzing data for the purpose of science or engineering, it is important students present data as evidence to support their conclusions.

SEP5 SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE 5

USING MATHEMATICS AND COMPUTATIONAL THINKING

Although there are differences in how mathematics and computational thinking are applied in science and in engineering, mathematics often brings these two fields together by enabling engineers to apply the mathematical form of scientific theories and by enabling scientists to use powerful information technologies designed by engineers. Both kinds of professionals can thereby accomplish investigations and analyses and build complex models, which might otherwise be out of the question. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 65)

Students are expected to use mathematics to represent physical variables and their relationships, and to make quantitative predictions. Other applications of mathematics in science and engineering include logic, geometry, and at the highest levels, calculus.

Computers and digital tools can enhance the power of mathematics by automating calculations, approximating solutions to problems that cannot be calculated precisely, and analyzing large data sets available to identify meaningful patterns. Students are expected to use laboratory tools connected to computers for observing, measuring, recording, and processing data.

Students are also expected to engage in computational thinking, which involves strategies for organizing and searching data, creating sequences of steps called algorithms, and using and developing new simulations of natural and designed systems.

Mathematics is a tool that is key to understanding science. As such, classroom instruction must include critical skills of mathematics. The NGSS displays many of those skills through the performance expectations, but classroom instruction should enhance all of science through the use of quality mathematical and computational thinking.

SEP6 SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE 6

CONSTRUCTING EXPLANATIONS AND DESIGN SOLUTIONS

The goal of science is the construction of theories that provide explanatory accounts of the world. A theory becomes accepted when it has multiple lines of empirical evidence and greater explanatory power of phenomena than previous theories.”(NRC Framework, 2012, p. 52)

Asking students to demonstrate their own understanding of the implications of a scientific idea by developing their own explanations of phenomena, whether based on observations they have made or models they have developed, engages them in an essential part of the process by which conceptual change can occur.

In engineering, the goal is a design rather than an explanation. The process of developing a design is iterative and systematic, as is the process of developing an explanation or a theory in science. Engineers’ activities, however, have elements that are distinct from those of scientists. These elements include specifying constraints and criteria for desired qualities of the solution, developing a design plan, producing and testing models or prototypes, selecting among alternative design features to optimize the achievement of design criteria, and refining design ideas based on the performance of a prototype or simulation. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 68-69)

The goal of science is to construct explanations for the causes of phenomena. Students are expected to construct their own explanations, as well as apply standard explanations they learn about from their teachers or reading.

An explanation includes a claim that relates how a variable or variables relate to another variable or a set of variables. A claim is often made in response to a question and in the process of answering the question, scientists often design investigations to generate data.

The goal of engineering is to solve problems. Designing solutions to problems is a systematic process that involves defining the problem, then generating, testing, and improving solutions. 

SEP7 SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE 7

ENGAGING IN ARGUMENT FROM EVIDENCE

The study of science and engineering should produce a sense of the process of argument necessary for advancing and defending a new idea or an explanation of a phenomenon and the norms for conducting such arguments. In that spirit, students should argue for the explanations they construct, defend their interpretations of the associated data, and advocate for the designs they propose. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 73)

Argumentation is a process for reaching agreements about explanations and design solutions. In science, reasoning and argument based on evidence are essential in identifying the best explanation for a natural phenomenon. In engineering, reasoning and argument are needed to identify the best solution to a design problem. Student engagement in scientific argumentation is critical if students are to understand the culture in which scientists live, and how to apply science and engineering for the benefit of society. As such, argument is a process based on evidence and reasoning that leads to explanations acceptable by the scientific community and design solutions acceptable by the engineering community.

Argument in science goes beyond reaching agreements in explanations and design solutions. Whether investigating a phenomenon, testing a design, or constructing a model to provide a mechanism for an explanation, students are expected to use argumentation to listen to, compare, and evaluate competing ideas and methods based on their merits. Scientists and engineers engage in argumentation when investigating a phenomenon, testing a design solution, resolving questions about measurements, building data models, and using evidence to evaluate claims.

SEP8 SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PRACTICE 8

OBTAINING, EVALUATING AND COMMUNICATING INFORMATION

Any education in science and engineering needs to develop students’ ability to read and produce domain-specific text. As such, every science or engineering lesson is in part a language lesson, particularly reading and producing the genres of texts that are intrinsic to science and engineering. (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 76)

Being able to read, interpret, and produce scientific and technical text are fundamental practices of science and engineering, as is the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively. Being a critical consumer of information about science and engineering requires the ability to read or view reports of scientific or technological advances or applications (whether found in the press, the Internet, or in a town meeting) and to recognize the salient ideas, identify sources of error and methodological flaws, distinguish observations from inferences, arguments from explanations, and claims from evidence. Scientists and engineers employ multiple sources to obtain information used to evaluate the merit and validity of claims, methods, and designs. Communicating information, evidence, and ideas can be done in multiple ways: using tables, diagrams, graphs, models, interactive displays, and equations as well as orally, in writing, and through extended discussions. 

CCC1 CROSSCUTTING CONCEPT 1 – PATTERNS

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

“Patterns exist everywhere - in regularly occurring shapes or structures and in repeating events and relationships. For example, patterns are discernible in the symmetry of flowers and snowflakes, the cycling of the seasons, and the repeated base pairs of DNA.” (p. 85)

While there are many patterns in nature, they are not the norm since there is a tendency for disorder to increase (e.g. it is far more likely for a broken glass to scatter than for scattered bits to assemble themselves into a whole glass). In some cases, order seems to emerge from chaos, as when a plant sprouts, or a tornado appears amidst scattered storm clouds. It is in such examples that patterns exist and the beauty of nature is found. “Noticing patterns is often a first step to organizing phenomena and asking scientific questions about why and how the patterns occur.” (p. 85)

“Once patterns and variations have been noted, they lead to questions; scientists seek explanations for observed patterns and for the similarity and diversity within them. Engineers often look for and analyze patterns, too. For example, they may diagnose patterns of failure of a designed system under test in order to improve the design, or they may analyze patterns of daily and seasonal use of power to design a system that can meet the fluctuating needs.” (page 85-86)

Patterns figure prominently in the science and engineering practice of “Analyzing and Interpreting Data.” Recognizing patterns is a large part of working with data. Students might look at geographical patterns on a map, plot data values on a chart or graph, or visually inspect the appearance of an organism or mineral. The crosscutting concept of patterns is also strongly associated with the practice of “Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking.” It is often the case that patterns are identified best using mathematical concepts. As Richard Feynman said, “To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature. If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.”

The human brain is remarkably adept at identifying patterns, and students progressively build upon this innate ability throughout their school experiences. The following table lists the guidelines used by the writing team for how this progression plays out across K-12, with examples of performance expectations drawn from the NGSS. 

CCC2 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.

Cause and effect is often the next step in science, after a discovery of patterns or events that occur together with regularity. A search for the underlying cause of a phenomenon has sparked some of the most compelling and productive scientific investigations. “Any tentative answer, or ‘hypothesis,’ that A causes B requires a model or mechanism for the chain of interactions that connect A and B. For example, the notion that diseases can be transmitted by a person’s touch was initially treated with skepticism by the medical profession for lack of a plausible mechanism. Today infectious diseases are well understood as being transmitted by the passing of microscopic organisms (bacteria or viruses) between an infected person and another. A major activity of science is to uncover such causal connections, often with the hope that understanding the mechanisms will enable predictions and, in the case of infectious diseases, the design of preventive measures, treatments, and cures.” (p. 87)

“In engineering, the goal is to design a system to cause a desired effect, so cause-and-effect relationships are as much a part of engineering as of science. Indeed, the process of design is a good place to help students begin to think in terms of cause and effect, because they must understand the underlying causal relationships in order to devise and explain a design that can achieve a specified objective.” (p.88)

When students perform the practice of “Planning and Carrying Out Investigations,” they often address cause and effect. At early ages, this involves “doing” something to the system of study and then watching to see what happens. At later ages, experiments are set up to test the sensitivity of the parameters involved, and this is accomplished by making a change (cause) to a single component of a system and examining, and often quantifying, the result (effect). Cause and effect is also closely associated with the practice of “Engaging in Argument from Evidence.”

In scientific practice, deducing the cause of an effect is often difficult, so multiple hypotheses may coexist. For example, though the occurrence (effect) of historical mass extinctions of organisms, such as the dinosaurs, is well established, the reason or reasons for the extinctions (cause) are still debated, and scientists develop and debate their arguments based on different forms of evidence. When students engage in scientific argumentation, it is often centered about identifying the causes of an effect.

CCC3 CROSSCUTTING CONCEPT 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.

Scale, Proportion and Quantity are important in both science and engineering. These are fundamental assessments of dimension that form the foundation of observations about nature. Before an analysis of function or process can be made (the how or why), it is necessary to identify the what. These concepts are the starting point for scientific understanding, whether it is of a total system or its individual components. Any student who has ever played the game “twenty questions” understands this inherently, asking questions such as, “Is it bigger than a bread box?” in order to first determine the object’s size.

An understanding of scale involves not only understanding systems and processes vary in size, time span, and energy, but also different mechanisms operate at different scales. In engineering, “no structure could be conceived, much less constructed, without the engineer’s precise sense of scale... At a basic level, in order to identify something as bigger or smaller than something else—and how much bigger or smaller—a student must appreciate the units used to measure it and develop a feel for quantity.” (p. 90)

“The ideas of ratio and proportionality as used in science can extend and challenge students’ mathematical understanding of these concepts. To appreciate the relative magnitude of some properties or processes, it may be necessary to grasp the relationships among different types of quantities—for example, speed as the ratio of distance traveled to time taken, density as a ratio of mass to volume. This use of ratio is quite different than a ratio of numbers describing fractions of a pie. Recognition of such relationships among different quantities is a key step in forming mathematical models that interpret scientific data.” (p. 90)

The crosscutting concept of Scale, Proportion, and Quantity figures prominently in the practices of “Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking” and in “Analyzing and Interpreting Data.” This concept addresses taking measurements of structures and phenomena, and these fundamental observations are usually obtained, analyzed, and interpreted quantitatively. This crosscutting concept also figures prominently in the practice of “Developing and Using Models.” Scale and proportion are often best understood using models. For example, the relative scales of objects in the solar system or of the components of an atom are difficult to comprehend mathematically (because the numbers involved are either so large or so small), but visual or conceptual models make them much more understandable (e.g., if the solar system were the size of a penny, the Milky Way galaxy would be the size of Texas). 

CCC4 CROSSCUTTING CONCEPT 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.

Systems and System Models are useful in science and engineering because the world is complex, so it is helpful to isolate a single system and construct a simplified model of it. “To do this, scientists and engineers imagine an artificial boundary between the system in question and everything else. They then examine the system in detail while treating the effects of things outside the boundary as either forces acting on the system or flows of matter and energy across it—for example, the gravitational force due to Earth on a book lying on a table or the carbon dioxide expelled by an organism. Consideration of flows into and out of the system is a crucial element of system design.

In the laboratory or even in field research, the extent to which a system under study can be physically isolated or external conditions controlled is an important element of the design of an investigation and interpretation of results...The properties and behavior of the whole system can be very different from those of any of its parts, and large systems may have emergent properties, such as the shape of a tree, that cannot be predicted in detail from knowledge about the components and their interactions.” (p. 92)

“Models can be valuable in predicting a system’s behaviors or in diagnosing problems or failures in its functioning, regardless of what type of system is being examined... In a simple mechanical system, interactions among the parts are describable in terms of forces among them that cause changes in motion or physical stresses. In more complex systems, it is not always possible or usefulto consider interactions at this detailed mechanical level, yet it is equally important to ask what interactions are occurring (e.g., predator-prey relationships in an ecosystem) and to recognize that they all involve transfers of energy, matter, and (in some cases) information among parts of the system... Any model of a system incorporates assumptions and approximations; the key is to be aware of what they are and how they affect the model’s reliability and precision. Predictions may be reliable but not precise or, worse, precise but not reliable; the degree of reliability and precision needed depends on the use to which the model will be put.” (p. 93) 

CCC5 CROSSCUTTING CONCEPT 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.

Energy and Matter are essential concepts in all disciplines of science and engineering, often in connection with systems. “The supply of energy and of each needed chemical element restricts a system’s operation—for example, without inputs of energy (sunlight) and matter (carbon dioxide and water), a plant cannot grow. Hence, it is very informative to track the transfers of matter and energy within, into, or out of any system under study.

“In many systems there also are cycles of various types. In some cases, the most readily observable cycling may be of matter—for example, water going back and forth between Earth’s atmosphere and its surface and subsurface reservoirs. Any such cycle of matter also involves associated energy transfers at each stage, so to fully understand the water cycle, one must model not only how water moves between parts of the system but also the energy transfer mechanisms that are critical for that motion.

“Consideration of energy and matter inputs, outputs, and flows or transfers within a system or process are equally important for engineering. A major goal in design is to maximize certain types of energy output while minimizing others, in order to minimize the energy inputs needed to achieve a desired task.” (p. 95)

CCC6 CROSSCUTTING CONCEPT 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.

Structure and Function are complementary properties. “The shape and stability of structures of natural and designed objects are related to their function(s). The functioning of natural and built systems alike depends on the shapes and relationships of certain key parts as well as on the properties of the materials from which they are made.

A sense of scale is necessary in order to know what properties and what aspects of shape or material are relevant at a particular magnitude or in investigating particular phenomena—that is, the selection of an appropriate scale depends on the question being asked. For example, the substructures of molecules are not particularly important in understanding the phenomenon of pressure, but they are relevant to understanding why the ratio between temperature and pressure at constant volume is different for different substances.

“Similarly, understanding how a bicycle works is best addressed by examining the structures and their functions at the scale of, say, the frame, wheels, and pedals. However, building a lighter bicycle may require knowledge of the properties (such as rigidity and hardness) of the materials needed for specific parts of the bicycle. In that way, the builder can seek less dense materials with appropriate properties; this pursuit may lead in turn to an examination of the atomic-scale structure of candidate materials. As a result, new parts with the desired properties, possibly made of new materials, can be designed and fabricated.” (p. 96-97)

CCC7 CROSSCUTTING CONCEPT 7 – STABILITY AND CHANGE

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

Stability and Change are the primary concerns of many, if not most scientific and engineering endeavors. “Stability denotes a condition in which some aspects of a system are unchanging, at least at the scale of observation. Stability means that a small disturbance will fade away—that is, the system will stay in, or return to, the stable condition. Such stability can take different forms, with the simplest being a static equilibrium, such as a ladder leaning on a wall. By contrast, a system with steady inflows and outflows (i.e., constant conditions) is said to be in dynamic equilibrium. For example, a dam may be at a constant level with steady quantities of water coming in and out. . . . A repeating pattern of cyclic change—such as the moon orbiting Earth—can also be seen as a stable situation, even though it is clearly not static.

“An understanding of dynamic equilibrium is crucial to understanding the major issues in any complex system—for example, population dynamics in an ecosystem or the relationship between the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide and Earth’s average temperature. Dynamic equilibrium is an equally important concept for understanding the physical forces in matter. Stable matter is a system of atoms in dynamic equilibrium.

“In designing systems for stable operation, the mechanisms of external controls and internal ‘feedback’ loops are important design elements; feedback is important to understanding natural systems as well. A feedback loop is any mechanism in which a condition triggers some action that causes a change in that same condition, such as the temperature of a room triggering the thermostatic control that turns the room’s heater on or off.

“A system can be stable on a small time scale, but on a larger time scale it may be seen to be changing. For example, when looking at a living organism over the course of an hour or a day, it may maintain stability; over longer periods, the organism grows, ages, and eventually dies. For the development of larger systems, such as the variety of living species inhabiting Earth or the formation of a galaxy, the relevant time scales may be very long indeed; such processes occur over millions or even billions of years.” (p. 99-100)