High-Impact Strategies for Implementing Next Generation Science Standards

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices Groups

This year I have the opportunity to work with a new team of educators to teach and assess the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in our high school’s general chemistry course. We are invested in engaging our students in Three-Dimensional Learning, which NGSS describes as follows:

This is what students’ experiences in classrooms implementing the NGSS should reflect: developing and using elements of the three dimensions, together, purposefully (i.e., to explain phenomena or design solutions to problems). Lessons and units aligned to the standards should be three-dimensional; that is, they should allow students to actively engage with the practices and apply the crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of core ideas across science disciplines.1

This first, in a series of articles, aims to introduce readers to four of the high-impact shifts in mindset and practices we believe are helping our students learn to be better scientists:

  1. Intentionally engage students in Science and Engineering Practices.

  2. Start with an anchoring phenomenon students want to understand.

  3. Create opportunities to assess students’ Science Practices.

  4. Use Crosscutting Concepts to connect learning across disciplines.


1.  Intentionally engage students in Science and Engineering Practices.

Perhaps the biggest difference in my practice this year compared to what I’ve done in past years is the emphasis we place on what NGSS identifies as “Science and Engineering Practices”. The National Research Council provides a rationale for explicitly teaching these practices:

Standards and performance expectations that are aligned to the framework must take into account that students cannot fully understand scientific and engineering ideas without engaging in the practices of inquiry and the discourses by which such ideas are developed and refined. At the same time, they cannot learn or show competence in practices except in the context of specific content.1

My colleagues and I develop our curricula around a belief that students who regularly engage in these Practices are better equipped to learn specialized disciplinary content with greater autonomy compared to students taught in a more traditional, content-centric model. For example, a student with well-developed NGSS Practices can develop targeted questions when presented with a phenomenon, plan and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data to develop models, and construct explanations around that phenomenon, with little if any need for teacher-directed instruction.

Our goal is to intentionally build opportunities into our curriculum for students to engage in Science Practices around central phenomena chosen to evoke curiosity in and provide context for our learners. We find it helpful to think about the eight NGSS Practices as components of three overarching groups identified by Instructional Leadership for Science Practices: Investigating, Sense-Making, and Critiquing Practices, illustrated in figure 1 below.2

SEP Groupings

Figure 1: Three over-arching groups of science practices

Subsequent articles in this series will focus specifically on how we are teaching and assessing the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices, and how we develop units of study using the Practices around a central phenomenon.


2. Start with an anchoring phenomenon students want to understand.

Many science teachers choose to teach science because we love science. Learning and practicing science may not challenge us the way it does many of our students. The biases of our own understanding may cause us to assume our students see the same relevance and interconnections we now take for granted. This is why we center each unit of study around an anchoring phenomenon. On his website The Wonder of Science, NGSS educational consultant and YouTuber Paul Andersen describes the role phenomena can play in a science classroom:

A phenomenon is simply an observable event. In the science classroom a carefully chosen phenomenon can drive student inquiry. Phenomena add relevance to the science classroom showing students science in their own world. A good phenomenon is observable, interesting, complex, and aligned to the appropriate standard.3

While a phenomenon may be complex in terms of the fundamental laws that explain it, the actual events we present our students are often quite simple. For example, we begin our investigations into matter properties and interactions with an evaporation “race”. Students design an experiment to test how quickly six different liquids evaporate from a lab bench (we use water, some alcohols, and hexane). Students are astonished at how rapidly the streak of hexane evaporates, while the water streak remains past the end of class (see figure 2). We seize a “Did you see that?!” moment and provide students structured time to wonder why it happened and to construct quick models that might explain what they observed.

Figure 2: Evaporation Race Streaks

When students realize their models are too limited to explain a phenomenon, we provide them time to ask questions, design investigations, analyze and interpret new evidence, refine their models, and construct new explanations surrounding the phenomenon. Students now use this seemingly simple phenomenon to help explain complex concepts including Coulombic interactions, differences in melting and boiling temperatures, bond characteristics, bond and molecular polarities, dissolving and dissociation, and why polar molecular and ionic substances are insoluble in nonpolar molecular substances.

Paul Andersen’s website is an excellent resource for all science teachers looking for age and content-appropriate phenomena. Subsequent articles in this series will elaborate on the phenomena we’re using in our general chemistry course and how we leverage them to scaffold complexity and help students connect with content.


3. Assess Disciplinary Core Ideas and Science and Engineering Practices.

Veteran science teachers are experienced designers of content-driven assessments, but we tend to have less experience assessing Science and Engineering Practices. Our challenge is to design assessments that require students to engage in those Practices to demonstrate how well they understand “Disciplinary Core Ideas”, which NGSS defines as, “The fundamental ideas that are necessary for understanding a given science discipline.”1

One way we do this in a traditional paper-and-pencil setting is to provide students opportunities to construct models, or to analyze and interpret provided data, and then to use those models and data to explain how they either support or refute a claim pertaining to the Core Idea. The following example provides students a graphical representation of data and prompts students to demonstrate their proficiency in four standards:

  • Properties and Interactions of Matter (Disciplinary Core Idea)

  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data (Sense-Making Practice)

  • Constructing and Using Models (Sense-Making Practice)

  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions (Sense-Making Practice)

(Our assessments are scaffolded in complexity and this example represents an entry-level prompt).

Ionization Energy vs. Electron Removed Plot

  1. Compare the graphical data for the two elements listed above. List at least two similarities in patterns that you observe.

  2. Contrast the graphical data for the two elements listed above. List at least one difference in patterns that you observe.

  3. In the space provided, construct a model for the elements to help support the description of the differences and similarities you’ve identified above.

  4. Which element, A or B, has a higher 1st ionization energy? Justify your answer using scientific reasoning.

  5. On the graph, circle the electrons you believe are located in the lowest (“innermost”) energy level for each element. Justify the difference in ionization energies for these inner electrons for element A and B by using scientific reasoning.

In addition to adapting our paper-and-pencil assessments to reflect the Science and Engineering Practices, we’re experimenting with problem-based assessments that give students more ownership of how they’re assessed. Early in the year we implement a “Material Property Investigation” in which students choose a material they find interesting and investigate how the molecular structure of the substance produces the material’s unique bulk-scale properties.4 Through this loosely-guided process, students are provided the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in:

  • Properties and Interactions of Matter (Disciplinary Core Idea)

  • Constructing and Using Models (Sense-Making Practice)

  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions (Sense-Making Practice)

  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information (Critiquing Practice)

Later articles will delve deeper into our attempts to meet the challenges posed by assessing student understandings and proficiencies against NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas and Science and Engineering Practices.


4.  Use Crosscutting Concepts to connect learning across disciplines.

Next Generation Science Standards identify a number of themes present in all science disciplines, which they call “Crosscutting Concepts”. The National Science Teacher Association describes these concepts:

Crosscutting concepts have application across all domains of science. As such, they are a way of linking the different domains of science. They include patterns; cause and effect; scale, proportion, and quantity; systems and system models; energy and matter; structure and function; and stability and change. The Framework emphasizes that these concepts need to be made explicit for students because they provide an organizational schema for interrelating knowledge from various science fields into a coherent and scientifically based view of the world.5

Our goal in chemistry is to consistently and explicitly draw our students’ attention to these Crosscutting Concepts as we are engaged in them. In the front of every science classroom, we have posters for each Concept and we try to consistently ask students to consider which are reflected in the current Disciplinary Core Idea we are uncovering (see figure 3). We may also ask students to consider previously-studied science disciplines and recall a Core Idea that connected to the same Crosscutting Concept. (We also do this for the Science and Engineering Practices).

Crosscutting Concepts Posters

Science and Engineering Practice Posters

Figure 3: Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices Posters 

Another strategy we are employing more consistently is to use smaller versions of the same posters in posting our students’ learning outcomes for each lesson (figure 4).

Learning Outcome with NGSS Posters

Figure 4: Student Learning Outcomes 

These practices are intentional attempts to make explicit the Crosscutting Concepts thematically interwoven through all science disciplines, which “... provide students with connections and intellectual tools that are related across the differing areas of disciplinary content and can enrich their application of practices and their understanding of core ideas.”1

Readers can download free copies of these posters, along with a multitude of other useful resources we use for teaching NGSS, from Paul Andersen’s The Wonder of Science - Resources.3


What’s Next?

Crosscutting Concepts are one of the three dimensions, along with Science and Engineering Practices, and Disciplinary Core Ideas that comprise NGSS Three-Dimensional Learning. Our goal as science educators is to provide our students with a true three-dimensional experience in learning and practicing science. Future articles in this series will dive deeper into each of the four strategies we identify as highly-impactful in helping our students learn to be better scientists, as well as provide practical examples of how we’re implementing them. This is our attempt to share what we’re learning and to continue to build a community of practice among science educators striving to successfully implement Next Generation Science Standards for our students.

Special thanks to Lauren Bowers, Jeff Vogt, and Rigel Crockett for the foundational work implementing NGSS in the course I now teach; to Paul Andersen and Christopher Zieminski for their continuing consultation and support; and to our current chemistry team at American School of Dubai: Lauren Bowers, Zohra Backtash, and Vivian Huang.



  1. National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13165.

  2. Science Practices Diagram. https://www.sciencepracticesleadership.com/diagram.html. (accessed Mar 3, 2019).

  3. Andersen, P., NGSS Phenomenon. https://thewonderofscience.com/phenomenal. Also Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts posters and  (accessed Mar 3, 2019).

  4. How it Looks in my Classroom: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information in HS-PS 2-6, The Experimenting Teacher http://theexperimentingteacher.blogspot.com/2017/10/how-it-looks-in-classroom-using-sep.html (accessed Mar 3, 2019)

  5. NSTA. Crosscutting Concepts. https://ngss.nsta.org/CrosscuttingConceptsFull.aspx. (accessed Mar 3, 2019).