Concepts that cut across science disciplines

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…

child observes a butterfly on a flower.How does your science and engineering teaching involve concepts that cut across many science disciplines and are central to the K-12 Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)?

These seven crosscutting concepts are presented in the document that framed the NGSS, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas (NRC 2012) and were previously identified in some form in Science for All Americans (AAAS 1989), Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993), National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996), and NSTA’s Science Anchors Project (NSTA Press 2010).

The seven crosscutting concepts presented in Chapter 4 of the Framework are as follows:

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

2. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Children use large shapes to make a repeating pattern on the floor.These science and engineering concepts are part of early childhood learning. Early childhood educators teach their students to make patterns—ABAB, AABAAB, ABCABC—and to observe patterns—the sky is cloudy when it is raining, day follows night follows day, most leaves are green. We help our students investigate causes of events—pouring for a long time may overflow a container, the isopod/pillbug rolls up when touched, the playdough dries up when the lid is left open.

Children feel a playground structure in the sun and shade.Children hold and touch isopods (pillbugs).
Children make patterns with cubes of different colors.





Children are beginning to learn about measurement of time and objects through experiences in early childhood, and learn about systems as varied as magnetic train and track sets and pollinators’ relationship with flowering plants. Caring for living organisms such as bean plants and fish teaches children that they need food (energy) of some kind to survive. Another early experience with energy is feeling the warmth of sunlight on their skin and feeling cooler in the shade. Building blocks, a staple of kindergartens since they were first organized, provide children with many experiences with stability. Pairing blocks with a ramp opens the door to exploring how changes in ramp position affect the motion of objects moving down the ramp. Making a change in matter through cooking is another way children explore change in the early years.

Child works to balance blocks.

Child uses a non-standard Children water pea sprouts.






Our conversations and discussion with children can help them make connections as we ask them to tell us what they are thinking and how they came to that understanding.

The editors of the National Science Teachers Association’s elementary journal, Science and Children, put out a call for papers on the topic of crosscutting concepts for journal issues in the 2014-2015 school year.

How are children in your program expanding their understanding of these concepts that cut across the different areas of science? The deadlines to submit your manuscript are March 1-November 1, 2014. I’m looking forward to learning from you!

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