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Scientific and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts

Dee Dee Whitaker
Product Content Manager

July 2018

What do all sciences have in common?

All sciences have a set of practices and conceptual processes in common. How many science classes begin by teaching the scientific method? Our common practices and conceptual processes define our discipline.

In the 3-dimensional instructional model, the practices that are part of every scientist’s lessons are listed in dimension 1: scientific and engineering practices or SEPs. SEPs are the skills and practices that scientists, and by extension, students of science, use as they add knowledge to their chosen field. The scientific and engineering practices include:

1 Asking questions and defining problems
2 Developing and using models
3 Planning and carrying out investigations
4 Analyzing and interpreting data
5 Using mathematics and computational thinking
6 Constructing explanations and designing solutions
7 Engaging in argument from evidence
8 Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information


Ask students to place these practices within the scientific method. They’ll be amazed at how the SEPs are integrated within the scientific method. The practices are what scientists and science students do.

The Scientific Method and NGSS Dimension 1: Scientific Practices

What links the different science disciplines to each other? What links science to other disciplines?

Biologists, chemists, physicists, geologists, and astronomers engage in the same scientific practices even though they specialize in different science disciplines. They think about and process, or conceptualize, information in similar ways. Whether in science or another discipline, students also conceptualize to make sense of new information.

The ways we conceptualize information can be organized into 7 categories that crosscut disciplines. For example, biologists look for patterns in body symmetry and DNA to hypothesize evolutionary connections between species, and economists look at patterns of supply and demand of goods to predict price. English teachers teach one writing style for persuasive papers and another style for technical papers. Chemistry teachers relate molecular polarity to solubility. Both are emphasizing structure and function. The 3-dimensional instructional design model groups these conceptual thinking skills into dimension 2: crosscutting concepts:

1 Patterns
2 Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
3 Scale, proportion, and quantity
4 Systems and system models
5 Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation
6 Structure and function
7 Stability and change


Students should be fully aware of which crosscutting concepts they are using, which is easily accomplished by including the concept in an instruction or a question stem. For example:

  • Describe the parameters that lead to a stable population of elephants and what would happen if their food supply doubled. (stability-change)
  • If the launch angle of a cannon ball increases from 0° to 90°, what is the effect on horizontal distance? (cause and effect)
  • Generate a graph from population data to determine the pattern of population growth.


Scientific and engineering practices provide actions by which students gather data and information, while crosscutting concepts provide techniques for students to process and think about the data and information. When our students use the practices and concepts together with disciplinary core ideas, they act and think as scientists, behaviors that translate to many other aspects of their lives.

 

DeeDee Whitaker

Dee Dee Whitaker

Dee Dee has been a science educator for more than 30 years. She holds a BS and MAT from UNC-Chapel Hill, is certified in science supervision, and National Board certified in adolescent-young adult chemistry education. Her teaching passions are chemistry with authentic student lab experiences and Earth/environmental science. She’s held a Kenan Fellowship and a NC Climate Fellowship. She’s read AP® Environmental Science exams, provided curriculum and assessment development for the NC Department of Public Instruction, and held an appointment with the NC Environmental Education Advisory Council.