Colorado Standards for Science, Anchoring Phenomena, and Three Dimensional Learning

Raylene Olinger

Colorado is about to embark on the third iteration of science standards. Beginning in 1993 with the Colorado Model Content Standards, science teachers have been given state guidance about what students are to know and be able to do. The current Colorado Academic Standards have been in place since 2010. However, a significant change to the standards has been proposed to the State Board of Education, with approval slated for June. This newest revision incorporates important aspects of the Next Generation Science Standards into Colorado’s standards for science. Applicable Science and Engineering Practices and Cross Cutting Concepts are now found to accompany each grade level expectation. Furthermore, in each statement of what Colorado’s Prepared Graduates will know and be able to do is the following wording: “Students can use the full range of science and engineering practices to make sense of natural phenomena and solve problems that require understanding…”, with the end of each statement alluding to specific content understandings. This adds at least three new terms to the Colorado Standards that come directly from NGSS.  

The Next Generation Science Standards were released in 2013 with the intent to make science less about isolated facts and more about using science to make sense of and explain the world around us. It may require a change in the way that science is taught if teaching and learning have become more about learning content and less about inquiry, thinking, and problem-solving as I believe has happened in some classrooms. Anchoring the Science and Engineering Practices and Cross Cutting Concepts in various natural phenomena increases the likelihood that science instruction will involve students using inquiry to make sense of the world.  

Phenomena are defined as observable events that occur in the universe. When using these to anchor instruction, they become the context for learning and students are asked to explain them or to solve problems related to them. Phenomena become the reason for learning and the link to a real-world context. Again, students shift from learning about science to figuring out why something happens. Inquiry becomes a natural instructional choice as students construct their own meaning. Providing time to move through phases of inquiry becomes a crucial use of instructional time. While any observable event could be a good phenomenon in which to anchor instruction there are several things to consider. Among them, would be that the phenomena would have personal relevance for students. It does not have to be flashy but should allow students the opportunity to deeply explore.  If the phenomena can be explained through a google search, it is not worthy of using as an anchor. Phenomena could be used in all phases of inquiry to guide student learning and thinking.  Helpful information for learning more about anchoring phenomena can be found in the following resource: Using Phenomena in NGSS Designed Lessons and Units. There are many examples of the ways phenomena can be used to support the three dimensions of learning called for in the NGSS; for more ideas look for the links which can be found at the end of this post.

Science and Engineering Practices and Cross Cutting Concepts are two of the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards, with the third being Disciplinary Core Ideas. The Practices and Concepts are new to the Colorado Standards at least by name. They make up the Academic Context and Connections section which replaces the Inquiry Questions, Relevance and Application and the Nature of the Discipline. While the Practices and Concepts are similar to the previous version’s content, they now lend a coherent thread to the large number of resources available with the NGSS.  I have heard the Three Dimensions described this way: If the performance expectation is to bake a chocolate cake, the Disciplinary Core Ideas are the ingredients. The Science and Engineering Practices are the baking tools and the things that you do, while the Cross Cutting Concepts are the frosting. Mind you, the tools can be used with many types of baking experiences and the frosting be used on other types of desserts.  These two dimensions transcend the content, just as the tools and frosting could be used in other applications than a chocolate cake. The Science and Engineering Practices include:

  • Asking Questions and Defining Problems

  • Planning and  Carrying Out Investigations

  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data

  • Developing and Using Models

  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

In this list, we see the tools of scientists and engineers in inquiring to understand the world and in designing solutions for the problems facing humans related to these understandings. This list is a robust look at the nature of science and engineering. It moves us away from the linear view of the scientific method, to a dynamic multidisciplinary view of the way that science and engineering look in the field. Again, it pushes students from the position of learning about science to being active inquirers, analyzers, designers, and problem-solvers. It includes the thinking from other disciplines in arguing, communicating, and thinking computationally about ideas and solutions. Educational Consultant, Paul Andersen has created a great set of videos explaining each of the Science and Engineering Practices. Likewise, there are videos about the Cross Cutting Concepts that explain each concept in detail and why understanding these concepts would help students apply learning from one discipline to another within and beyond science and engineering. 

I have to admit that as I have worked to learn more about the Next Generation Science Standards, I have felt overwhelmed in thinking about three dimensions of learning and the ways that anchor phenomena could drive instruction. Philosophically, I have always been an advocate of an inquiry-based science classroom, but haven’t quite grasped what planning for these dimensions might look like from a practical standpoint. I do however think it is a worthy endeavor and believe that the structure of these standards will push educators to have all students more engaged in science learning and application.

Feel free to check out the resources I have highlighted, and also join me on August 3 as we explore together, Three Dimensional Learning: What is It? How is it different from what I am doing now?  Joanna Bruno, Colorado Department of Education Science Content Specialist will guide us in thinking about Three Dimensional Learning and provide important information on the changes to the Colorado Academic Standards for science.


The Wonder of Science - Phenomenon

Qualities of a Good Anchor Phenomenon for a Coherent Sequence of Science Lessons

Using NGSS Phenomena to Engage Students