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Understanding and Using the Crosscutting Concepts in Science Instruction

If you are teaching using the NGSS or Utah SEEd standards you have probably heard of the crosscutting concepts. There are three dimensions to science instruction Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas.

The Crosscutting Concepts for Science Instruction

The crosscutting concepts provide a lens through which students can think about the topic at hand. Crosscutting concepts have applications across all domains of science. As such, they are a way of linking the different areas 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.


A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (Framework) recommends science education in grades K–12 be built around three dimensions: science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts that unify the study of science and engineering through their common application across fields of study in science. The Framework identifies seven crosscutting concepts that bridge disciplinary ideas. Their purpose is to help students deepen their understanding of the disciplinary core ideas.
crosscutting concepts

The Seven Crosscutting Concepts for NGSS

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 determines 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.

Dr. Helen Quinn

“Science is made of facts as a house is made of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a pile of stones is a house.”-Henri Poincare

 Students need a vision of what they are trying to build. They need to be able to ask the big questions so that they can form meaningful structures. Each crosscutting concept is a lens that allows you to look at a problem and ask questions to know where you are going with those questions.

The crosscutting concept in the standard tells the teacher what type of questions to ask. 


K-ESS2-2 Construct an Argument supported by evidence for how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs. In this standard, the crosscutting concept is change, or stability and change. The teacher could as questions such as:

What type of changes does a beaver do to its environment? When the beaver cuts down a tree that is a change but when the beaver builds a dam it causes other changes.  What changes does it cause?

Utah SEEd has made it particularly easy for teachers by underlining the crosscutting concept in each standard.

Utah SEEd Standard 1.3.1 Plan and carry out an investigation to show the cause and effect relationship between sound and vibrating matter. Emphasize that vibrating matter can make sound and that sound can make matter vibrate. (PS4.A)

Here the teacher might ask questions about the cause and effect of vibration and sound?  What causes sound?  Can sound cause vibration or is vibration only the effect of sound?

The crosscutting concepts guide the student’s thinking and give them a lens through which to see a problem or issue. The CCC gives the teacher guidance by indicating what type of questions they should ask.

Crosscutting Concepts

crosscutting concepts

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