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What is Three Dimensional (3D) Learning?


The Next Generation Science Standards are a revolutionary new set of standards for U.S. science classrooms—encouraging teachers to get their students learning science by doing science. But when decades of science teaching have focused on textbook learning and teacher lectures, transforming your classroom into an NGSS classroom may be easier said than done!


You may already know that the foundation of the NGSS are the performance expectations, replacing the previous concept of “standards.” Students demonstrate knowledge through activities to achieve performance expectations (PEs). These activities allow you as the teacher to see that your students understand the fundamental concepts of a lesson, and understand them well enough to apply them to other situations and topics. They are not “daily standards” but expectations that may take multiple lessons for students to reach. There is a set of PEs for each grade level, K-12, and the PEs build on each other from year to year very intentionally.



So, how can you get your students to reach these increasingly complex PEs? This is where the concept of three-dimensional, or 3D, learning comes in. If you imagine that the PEs are the seat of a stool, then the three legs of the stool supporting it are: Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross-Cutting Concepts, and Science and Engineering Practices.



Disciplinary Core Ideas, or DCIs, are the scientific principles or concept matter—but they are not just a giant list of facts students are expected to know anymore. In the past, with so many topics to cover, students didn’t have time to develop depth of knowledge of any of them—leading to only one-dimensional science learning. In the NGSS, the four scientific disciplines (Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences, and Engineering and Technology) are now composed of only 2-4 real-life, big-idea DCIs.


For each grade level, each DCI is broken down further, building complexity by year. For example, in the Life Sciences, one of the four DCIs is Heredity: Inheritance and Variability of Traits. A first-grade NGSS performance expectation might focus on students being able to make observations to support the idea that young plants and animals are similar to their parents. A third-grade NGSS performance expectation might need students to interpret data to support that idea. Years later, a high school performance expectation might have students using models to explain why mutations on chromosomes can affect protein structure, and how that structure may change the function of the protein.




Cross-Cutting Concepts, or CCCs, are a set of seven universal themes in science, big picture concepts that can help students and teachers bridge concepts and build connections between diverse subjects. The seven CCCs are: patterns, cause and effect, scale, proportion & quantity, systems & systems models, energy and matter, structure and function, and stability and change.


Look back at our Heredity: Inheritance and Variance of Traits lesson examples above. Do you see which CCCs could be brought out here? How about patterns for the first and third grade lesson? For the high school lesson modeling mutations on a protein to explain how that might interfere with the protein’s normal activity, you might bring out patterns, and also cause and effect, and structure and function. So, you could take a moment at any grade level to highlight other recent lessons where patterns are evident—from seasonal animal behaviors across species, to ways an atom with an incomplete electron ring might interact with others—understanding patterns is an important part of understanding science. Some planets, like Neptune, were discovered by simply noting the patterns of movement of other celestial bodies!


Science and Engineering Practices, or SEPs, are just what they sound like: Doing science! So what does that mean? Maybe you’ve had labs as part of your class. Were those labs oriented more toward particular results—or toward process? The SEPs emphasize the importance of the scientific process—arguably even over the results. From asking questions and defining problems to engaging in arguments based on their findings, the SEPs have students putting on their own lab coats or waders and driving the process of discovery themselves.

In creating a unit or lesson designed for NGSS, the 3Ds become your toolbox to help your students reach the performance expectations and create an engaging, skill-building, and exciting scientific classroom. Go for it!


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