The Powerful Potential of the Next Generation Science Standards

on August 8, 2019


We look at science as something very elite, which only a few people can learn. That’s just not true. You just have to start early and give kids a foundation. Kids live up, or down, to expectations.

Mae Jemison

These are poignant words by Mae Jemison, known widely as the first black female astronaut and more recently as a passionate advocate for quality science and STEAM education. She describes well the challenge and potential of science education and how we can reimagine it in the 21st century.

The issue with traditional science education

Traditionally, science has been perceived by most as an elite occupation. We hold any number of stereotypical views about who can do science—white people, men, atheists, geniuses, those who are are good at math, those who are wealthy, or those who go to the very best schools. Jemison herself had to contend with many of these stereotypes—she was a black woman studying engineering, and later medicine, in classes made up of predominantly white men. As a result of her own story and the needs and potential she has seen worldwide, today Jemison calls for a shift that allows all students to be successful in science because of, not in spite of, the educational system.

Jemison is not alone in advocating for a change in science education. There has been a growing movement to provide greater access to STEAM education and thereby promote diversity within STEM fields. There is also a growing understanding that regardless of their career choices, students need to develop scientific literacy in order to make informed personal choices and be involved, responsible citizens. The Smithsonian Science Education Center argues “four billion people on the planet use a mobile phone, while 3.5 billion people use a toothbrush. In the past two years, 90% of all of the world’s data has been generated. NASA plans to set foot on Mars in the next 20 years, and driverless cars are already being tested in Europe. The future is here, and it requires a citizenry fluent in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

The advent of NGSS

It was against this backdrop of urgency that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were developed. A group of eighteen people with science and education backgrounds, including two Nobel laureates, were convened by the National Academy of Sciences and began the task of writing a framework for what science education could look like in the United States. They sought to include research-based, successful pedagogy, to incorporate science content and skills relevant in the 21st century, and to build a comprehensive plan that provided all students with access to a complete science education. The result was “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” released in 2011. NGSS was developed based on the framework, and the standards were published in 2013 with each state given the option of adopting them. To date, 20 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) have adopted NGSS, and 20 other states are using similar standards that were developed based on the framework.

The core of NGSS is three-dimensional learning that empowers students and puts them in the role of investigators and designers. This was a move away from traditional science standards—lists of facts and concepts students should know by the end of a school year—which had generated some negative outcomes. With traditional standards, many students experienced science as a set of disparate facts and ideas that they memorized and regurgitated. These students perceived science as something static and sterile, with one right answer, something to be learned rather than done. As a result, students, especially those from underrepresented groups, had a difficult time picturing what scientific work looked like in the field and thus imagining themselves as scientists. The framework called for a shift away from this type of learning towards one that was student-centered where they consistently engaged in scientific inquiry, and this is reflected in NGSS.

empty classroom with desks

So what is NGSS?

NGSS consists of three dimensions that are woven together. The first dimension is Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). There are eight practices, including “asking questions and defining problems” and “developing and using models,” which are intended to give students experiences engaging in the same work as scientists and engineers.

The second dimension is Cross Cutting Concepts (CCCs). These are major themes that are seen in all of the science domains. Students learn to identify and describe the seven CCCs, including “patterns” and “cause and effect” as they study various topics throughout their science education and develop an understanding of the integrated nature of science.

The third dimension in NGSS is the domain-specific content taught, Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs). Between two and four core ideas are identified for each domain—physical science , life science, earth and space science, and engineering, technology and application of science. Each core idea has sub-ideas that are introduced and elaborated on in a spiral method through the grade levels.

At each grade level (and by subject area for high school), there are specific performance expectations which make up the standards. Rather than a list of what students should know, these performance expectations focus on what students can do based on their experience with all three NGSS dimensions and include language from all three dimensions woven together. In order for instruction and learning to be three-dimensional, authentic phenomena and problems are used as the basis of lessons. Students are asked to bring together the knowledge and skills they are developing to explain a phenomenon or develop a solution to a problem.

NGSS vs. traditional science education

In addition to providing a new vision for how students will learn science, NGSS involves three significant deviations from traditional science education. First, NGSS includes earth and space science as its own scientific domain. This is the result of the initial work done by the framework committee. A strong message they heard from science experts was that by the time students leave 12th grade they must know about human impact on the environment. As a result earth science was required as a separate domain which hasn’t been the case on a national level for more than 100 years. Understanding the complexity of ecosystems, learning and communicating about human impact, and developing creative solutions to climate issues all appear in the standards at multiple grade levels. This is especially striking given recent findings that many teachers say teaching about climate change is important but report that they don’t teach it and that educating students about our role in climate change and how we can reduce our impact is the most effective tool in changing parents’ mindsets. 

The second major change NGSS brings is the inclusion of engineering standards. NGSS calls for engineering design and scientific inquiry to be taught simultaneously. Traditionally, engineering has been relegated to “applied sciences,” but NGSS calls for it to be taught as an equally important component of science education. Engineering is defined as developing solutions to real world problems, and the authors of NGSS state, “providing students a foundation in engineering design allows them to better engage in and aspire to solve the major societal and environmental challenges they will face in the decades ahead.” (Appendix I)

The third significant change in NGSS is its focus on equity. A major tenant of implementation is “all standards, all students.” (Appendix D) There have been persistent achievement gaps in science among various subgroups including socioeconomically disadvantaged students, girls, English learners, students with disabilities, and others. Many of these subgroups have traditionally been pulled out of class during science instruction to receive extra math and ELA support, been placed in remedial science classes, or been denied access to higher level science classes for a variety of reasons. NGSS calls for all students to have access to quality science instruction that includes all standards. This is challenging and has been the source of much anxiety and a professional development focus as states implement NGSS. It is also perhaps the most hopeful component of NGSS. As Jemison pointed out, “kids live up, or down, to expectations.” If we start with the expectation that all students should have access to a complete science education, that all children can be curious and explore and invent, and that everyone in our schools could be scientifically literate and use these skills to change their own lives and our world, then there’s no telling where we might go.

Explore NGSS in your context

Whether you teach in a public school, a private school, or a home school, I invite you to research NGSS and explore how it might be implemented in your context. Is it scary to shift to this kind of three-dimensional teaching and learning? Most certainly, if my work over the past five years is any indication. But the level of engagement and excitement I’ve observed among students as they engage in this learning is compelling. Do the standards bring up some topics like climate change that we have tended to shy away from? Yes, but in a thoughtful and empowering way that sets students up to be the critical thinkers and problem solvers we desperately need. These standards aren’t perfect, and they aren’t a magical solution to all of the problems we face, but they do offer hope that we can develop a citizenry fluent in STEM who have had opportunities to be thoughtful learners and explorers, to see themselves as scientists and engineers, and to live up to high expectations. Consider joining in this adventure and see where it leads us as we explore the powerful potential of the NGSS and our students.

The views in this article are those of the author, written on her own time, and do not reflect the views of her organization.


Anna Van Dordrecht
About the Author

Anna Van Dordrecht

Anna Van Dordrecht is the Curriculum Coordinator for Science at the Sonoma County Office of Education. Anna is involved in the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards at both the state and local level. She also works locally and nationally on integrating disciplines in the context of STEAM and how to pair maker education and other 21st century learning tools with content to make their use in the classroom sustainable. Prior to working at the county level, Anna taught high school earth science and biology for ten years. She has a degree in biology from the University of California, San Diego and a masters in education from the University of California, Berkeley.