Elementary Science Education: The Next Generation

As we enter the summer season, we must begin to look ahead to the next academic year. As with every school year, 2013-2014 will present educators and administrators with new students, new challenges, and new opportunities. In particular, K-12 educators will have at their disposal guidelines for enhancing and deepening their science curricula -- the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS provide a framework for what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade level from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Many middle school and high school science educators may be used to developing curricula based on national or state standards, but for some elementary school educators, teaching standards-based science may be a new -- and potentially daunting -- endeavor. 
We're here to help! We'll take a brief tour of the NGSS, discuss the core ideas that are the foundation of elementary-level science and tell you how the Smithsonian Science Education Center can help you turn your elementary classroom into a Next Generation classroom.

Teachers doing an NGSS aligned activity

How are the NGSS organized?

The NGSS are based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education, developed by the National Academies. The Framework organized all of the information about what students should know and be able to do in science into three dimensions --crosscutting concepts, practices, and disciplinary core ideas -- and the NGSS make specific reference to all three. 

Crosscutting concepts have applications across all science disciplines and include, but are not limited to, cause and effect, scale, proportion and quantity, energy and matter in systems and structure and function. Practices involve, for example, asking questions and defining problems, developing and using models, and analyzing and interpreting data. Finally, the disciplinary core ideas addressed by the NGSS are:

  • Physical Sciences (PS)
  • Matter and its Interactions
  • Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
  • Energy
  • Waves and their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer
  • Life Sciences (LS)
  • From Molecules to Organisms: Structure and Processes
  • Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics
  • Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits
  • Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity
  • Earth and Space Sciences (ESS)
  • Earth's Place in the Universe
  • Earth's Systems
  • Earth and Human Activity
  • Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Sciences (ETS)
  • Engineering Design

What are the disciplinary core ideas that are addressed in elementary school?

This table shows the disciplinary core ideas that should be addressed at each elementary grade level (K-5). For example, in Kindergarten, teachers should expect to teach content aligned with PS2, PS3, LS1, ESS2 and ESS3. ETS1, Engineering Design, is not included in the table because it applies at all grade levels.

The NGSS provide grade-appropriate guidelines for curriculum development; therefore, PS1 comprises more advanced concepts and skills -- or performance expectations (PEs) -- for grade 5 than it does for grade 2, for example. If we look at the PEs for PS1: Matter and its Interactions for 2nd grade, we see that students who demonstrate understanding of the PS1 disciplinary core idea should be able to:

  • Plan and conduct an investigation to describe and classify different kinds of materials by their observable properties.
  • Analyze data obtained from testing different materials to determine which materials have the properties that are best suited for an intended purpose.
  • Make observations to construct an evidence-based account of how an object made of a small set of pieces can be disassembled and made into a new object.
  • Construct an argument with evidence that some changes caused by heating or cooling can be reversed and some cannot.

If we look at the PEs for PS1: Matter and its Interactions for 5th grade, we see that students who demonstrate understanding of the PS1 disciplinary core idea should be able to:

  • Develop a model to describe that matter is made of particles too small to be seen.
  • Measure and graph quantities to provide evidence that, regardless of the type of change that occurs when heating, cooling or mixing substances, the total weight of matter is conserved.
  • Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.
  • Conduct an investigation to determine whether the mixing of two or more substances results in new substances.

It's important to emphasize that the NGSS are not a curriculum, but a guideline for developing high impact curricula. One goal of the NGSS is to encourage educators to facilitate learning by developing deeper student understanding of concepts across life, physical and earth and space sciences.

How can the Smithsonian Science Education Center help me implement the NGSS in my classroom or school district?

The Smithsonian Science Education Center assists educators and school district administrators in a variety of ways through Leadership and Professional Development Services. These services include the Leadership Assistance in Science Education Reform (LASER) program and Science Education Academies for Teachers (SSEATS).

In addition, the SSEC is responsible for the development of the Science and Technology Concepts (STC™) curriculum which is distributed through Carolina Biological Supply Company. The STC™ curriculum that is currently available includes 20 outstanding Elementary Science units for grades 1 -- 5 that cover concepts across the Life, Earth and Physical Sciences. Soon, it will include six Kindergarten units, as well. Each unit includes a teacher's guide and materials kit. The guide contains a unit overview, planner, investigations, black line masters, student assessment guidelines, writing and reading resources, and a teacher-tools CD. Each kit has enough materials to teach the unit twice to classes of 30 students each and includes materials management and safety information.

The Smithsonian Science Education Center staff are already hard at work updating our Science and Technology Concepts curriculum to explicitly align with NGSS. Like the existing STC™ curriculum, the NGSS-aligned units will address Common Core standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics.

I am currently using the STC™ Curriculum -- does that mean I am not meeting the NGSS?

Rest assured, the current STC™ curricular units can be used to meet most performance expectations of the NGSS, especially when the STC™- recommended extension activities are included in your planning; however, the current version does not identify for you the PEs that are met by each unit. The new, My Generation, version of STC™ will be an option for those districts and educators who want to use a curriculum that is specifically designed to align with the NGSS and the Common Core Mathematics and English Language Arts standards and that explicitly highlights the ways in which those standards are met.

What do I do if I have more questions about the NGSS?

Frequently Asked Questions about the Next Generation Science Standards


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