Science instruction in three dimensions

To understand science phenomenon and generate solutions to problems in science and engineering, students need to behave like scientists. Teachers can support this process through the way they organize lessons.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas released in 2011 is built on the growing body of research focused on how students learn science and how teachers can facilitate deeper student learning through blending practices, crosscutting concepts and core ideas.

Teachers need to develop lessons that include these three dimensions to engage student high-quality science education. The Framework builds the case for weaving disciplinary core ideas with science and engineering practices in concert with crosscutting concepts rather than treating each as a separate silo.

Joe Krajcik, a professor of science education, associate dean for research in the School of Education at the University of Michigan. He is also co-director of the Center for Highly Interactive Classrooms, Curriculum, and Computing in Education at the University of Michigan advises educators to think of lesson development as building a balanced meal. In an NSTA blog, he writes:

“I like to apply the analogy of preparing a really great meal to three-dimensional learning. I originally got this idea from Ted Willard from NSTA. I love to cook, so I’ve tried to expand on this analogy.

Think of knowing how to do various techniques in the kitchen like kneading bread, cutting tomatoes, beating an egg, frying or roasting, and so forth as the practices. You could know how to do all of these and still not be able to prepare a really good meal.

Now, think of picking out really good ingredients for the meal. You want to pick out a high-quality piece of fish or poultry or excellent pasta for the meal. These are your core ideas. A disciplinary core idea is essential to explaining a number of phenomena. Your main ingredient is essential to the meal. But just as the DCI works with practices to make sense of phenomena and design solutions, you need to know how to cook that main ingredient.

But something is still missing. The meal tastes bland. What is missing? To make a really good meal, we need to use spices and herbs [crosscutting concepts] to enhance the flavor of the main ingredients. Similarly, to really make sense of phenomena and to design solutions all three dimensions are necessary.

To make a really wonderful meal, good main ingredients are necessary, but you need to know how to use various techniques to prepare them, and you must have the spices and herbs to enhance the flavors. All three work and blend together to make a great meal. Similarly, to foster three-dimensional learning where all learners can make sense of phenomena and design solutions, all three dimensions need to work and blend together.”

Teachers can use the three dimensions of the Framework identified below to design blended lessons.

  1. Scientific and Engineering Practices
    • Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
    • Developing and using models
    • Planning and carrying out investigations
    • Analyzing and interpreting data
    • Using mathematics and computational thinking
    • Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
    • Engaging in argument from evidence
    • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
  2. Crosscutting Concepts
    • Patterns
    • Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
    • Scale, proportion, and quantity
    • Systems and system models
    • Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation
    • Structure and function
    • Stability and change
  3. Disciplinary Core Ideas
    • Physical Sciences
      • PS 1: Matter and its interactions
      • PS 2: Motion and stability: Forces and interactions
      • PS 3: Energy
      • PS 4: Waves and their applications in technologies for information transfer
    • Life Sciences
      • LS 1: From molecules to organisms: Structures and processes
      • LS 2: Ecosystems: Interactions, energy, and dynamics
      • LS 3: Heredity: Inheritance and variation of traits
      • LS 4: Biological evolution: Unity and diversity
    • Earth and Space Sciences
      • ESS 1: Earth’s place in the universe
      • ESS 2: Earth’s systems
      • ESS 3: Earth and human activity
    • Engineering, Technology, and the Applications of Science
      • ETS 1: Engineering design
      • ETS 2: Links among engineering, technology, science, and society

Source: Framework, NRC 2011, p. 3

Teachers can gain greater understanding of the Framework by reading the overview produced by NSTA. Chapter nine of the Framework provides a detail description of the integration of the three dimensions.

Not every lesson designed in keeping with the model of the Framework will be a perfect integration of the three dimensions, nor will every unit necessarily include all practices or all crosscutting concepts. Over longer periods of instruction, however, teachers can integrate most of the practices and crosscutting concepts. Collectively, by developing blended lessons we can move the needle on underperforming science education by providing experiences that help students to more effectively learn and use science.

For more information, contact Maine DOE Science and Technology Specialist Shari Templeton at

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