Cutting Through the Confusion✂️: Unleashing the Power of Crosscutting Concepts in Science Classrooms

Cutting Through the Confusion✂️: Unleashing the Power of Crosscutting Concepts in Science Classrooms

I’m so glad you’re here! At this point, I hope you have been able to go through a handful of your favorite lessons and started to align them to NGSS standards! If not, no problem. I’ve laid out how to do this in the previous post, 5 Steps to Align Your Current Curriculum with NGSS. Plus, this is the perfect reading if you are still needing some clarification on what exactly are Crosscutting Concepts (CCC’s) or how this dimension can help your students connect their prior knowledge to new concepts.

First, a quick review! NGSS uses 3D learning to model how students can make connections to different areas of science, spark ideas and inferences into a given phenomena. One of those 3 dimensions being, Crosscutting Concepts (CCC’s). 

Here I will help take the confusion out of Crosscutting Concepts, explain how they can be used in your classroom and will give you 4 major takeaways into why this dimension is such a powerful element!

The significance of Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) in NGSS

The 1st Takeaway: Unleash the Power of CCCs: Discover the significance of Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and how they enhance student understanding across various scientific disciplines.

Let’s break down the power and significance of CCC’s. Simply put, CCC’s have the ability to allow students to connect what they’ve learned, studied and practiced across all domains of science. We’ve probably all heard a student say “When am I ever going to use this? 🙄Well…this is your time to shine and show them how! This dimension will quite literally give structure to demonstrate how different areas of science crossover! Depending on the lesson, the CCC can highlight any 1 of the 7 elements in Crosscutting Concepts: Patterns, similarity, and diversity; Cause and effect; Scale, proportion and quantity; Systems and system models; Energy and matter; Structure and function; Stability and change. 

Understanding the Role of CCCs in NGSS

Imagine Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) as the ultimate science connectors—it’s like the annual science fair event where all of the different projects are able to share the same space and the 7 concepts are the science fair categories that can highlight different topics with similar themes! While each project is completely different, the theme or category is where you will notice an overlap. 

Before going into how it fosters scientific understanding, let’s highlight the 7 CCC’s. If you need, more detail of the 7 concepts can be found in 3D Learning in the Science Classroom. 

CCC #1: Patterns

This is where the gems can be spotted! If you’re using an introductory lab, you want to focus on finding repeating shapes, behaviors, and trends.

CCC #2: Cause and Effect

Finally, students can use all of that prior knowledge to make connections and try to answer the “why’s” and “how’s” of a topic. 

CCC #3: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

An excellent concept to use in a group activity! This element helps you understand how variables change when you tweak their size or amount. Since this might be a little more difficult to uncover in a lesson, it’s great to use in partners or small groups because it allows for varying perspectives and predictions. 

CCC #4: Systems and System Models

Here, teamwork makes the dream work! These concepts are all about understanding how things work together. From identifying ecosystems in nature to input and output of chemical reactions. 

CCC #5: Energy and Matter

Energy and Matter are like the King and Queen of science! They're the dynamic duo of science, and flow in and out of every system…see, we just connected CCC 4 & 5! Consider an activity around connecting the Nitrogen Cycle to a particular ecosystem or how solar energy can run a light bulb. 

CCC #6: Structure and Function

There is a purpose for every design in science, whether it’s muscle tissue, the wing of a bird or the structure of a plant cell. The structure will always reflect the function. 

CCC #7: Stability and Change

Last but not least, Stability and Change. This concept shows the balance and transformations happening all around. In nature, consider identifying limiting factors, chemical reactions or temperature. 

These Crosscutting Concepts are the ultimate guides to unraveling the secret connections between the varying sciences. 

Infusing CCCs in Existing Topics and Units

The 2nd Takeaway: Explore practical strategies for seamlessly integrating CCCs into your current science curriculum. Learn how to identify opportunities to incorporate CCCs within lessons and units, fostering a deeper understanding of scientific phenomena.

Now that we’ve addressed the purpose of CCC’s it’s time to start identifying opportunities to incorporate CCCs in lesson planning. Before you start to groan, don’t worry! You won’t need to generate an entire new lesson. That is what makes NGSS so applicable; it emphasizes using what you already have and just sprinkling in 3D learning where you can!

Strategies for integrating CCCs seamlessly into existing topics

Here’s an easy way to infuse the CCC’s “Patterns” into a unit on Genetics 👇

  1. Science and Engineering Practice (SEP): Analyzing and interpreting data- Have your class analyze a set of data looking at specific genetic disorders in a certain country, over the last 20 years, etc. What trends can be identified in the data?
  2. Disciplinary Core Idea (DCI): Apply concepts of statistics and probability to explain the variation and distribution of expressed traits in a population.

A free activity that works seamlessly is the Simple Pea Plant Punnett Square practice or another ready-to-use lesson is the Mendel Punnett Square Powerpoint and Guided notes. Both incorporate the element of patterns while integrating real world scenarios! 

Maybe you want to incorporate the “Cause and Effect” CCC into a lesson on human disturbances to ecosystems? Here’s how 👇

  1. SEP: Developing and using models. This can range from a variety of tools such as diagrams, illustrations, anatomical models, mathematical representations, analogies or computer simulations.
  2. DCI: Create or revise a simulation to test a solution to mitigate adverse impacts of human activity on biodiversity. There are many virtual simulations that can be used in the classroom to predict and see the effect of altering a specific factor.

A great exploration activity that also ties in real-world application is the Ecological Disturbances to Ecosystems Succession Stations Biology Review! This station activity will not only help to keep students up and moving, but also engaged through scenario based topics. 

Connecting CCCs to Real-World Applications

The 3rd Takeaway: It’s been mentioned a few times the importance of connecting CCCs to Real-World Applications! By understanding the importance of connecting CCCs to real-world contexts, you will discover how to engage students by demonstrating the relevance of CCCs in solving authentic scientific problems and addressing real-world challenges.

By exploring the relevance of CCCs in real-life scenarios, this practice will effortlessly demonstrate how the varying disciplines integrate. These connections can also create more buy-in from students since they can see how and why the topic applies to their everyday life! Below are a couple ideas to incorporate into your biology or chemistry classes:

  • Real Life Stoichiometry Problems: Students explore the need for stoichiometry when designing air bags and for space travel.
  • Bioethics Debate: Students connect genetics concepts to explore a topic with real implications on students' every day life and debate both sides of the topic with a partner.

Foster Crosscutting Connections

The 4th Takeaway: Discover strategies for helping students make connections between CCCs, Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), and SEPs (3D Learning). Focus on exploring how these connections deepen students' understanding of scientific concepts and promote a holistic approach to science education.

Let’s explore 2 examples to help showcase how CCCs can be applied in various scientific disciplines 👇

Example 1:

First up, how to apply the "Systems and System Models" CCC in the ecology unit!

  1. SEP: Constructing explanations. If you remember from the 3rd Takeaway, emphasis is placed on real-world applications within your lesson. After guiding your students into making this connection, a great strategy and no-prep activity could be a simple Check for Understanding, Ticket out the Door or the free Student Self-Assessment “I Can” Exit Slip.
  2. DCI: Interactions within ecosystems is a biological unit that can be covered in the General Ecology PowerPoint and Guided Notes. This complete guide is packed with detailed images and visuals which has especially helped my visual learners to not just make the connections, but also aids in their ability to explain their level of understanding!
  3. Connecting to real-world applications: A go-to lesson to foster connection is any local ecological issue in your town, state, or region. Living in Pennsylvania, I can easily tie in class discussions or mini-research projects for students to explore urban sprawl, invasive species (such as the Japanese beetle or spotted lantern fly), or the overpopulation of deer, causes (lack of predators), and potential solutions. Do a quick search to find an applicable ecological problem in your home state!

Example 2: 

Now let’s see how to utilize the “Energy and Matter" CCC’s in a cell energy experiment!

  1. SEP: Planning and carrying out investigations. Experiments focusing on photosynthesis and cellular respiration would be a great fit. 
  2. DCI: Develop a model to illustrate the role of photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the cycling of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere. If you are looking for a Done-For-You lesson with easy to read models, take a peek at the Cellular Respiration & Photosynthesis PowerPoint and Guided Notes.
  3. Connection to real-world application: Now that you’ve investigated a question around cell energy, have practiced identifying a photosynthesis and cellular respiration model, it’s time to demonstrate how Energy and Matter goes beyond a textbook! So, how does it affect us? Well, it’s in our own backyard! By using a Biogeochemical Cycles Labeling Activity, your students will make the connection between Energy and Matter and how it can influence global climate change through the biogeochemical cycles. Finally answering the “how?” that we are always chasing in science!


  • Remember, NGSS is not an entire new set of standards that will force you to throw out your existing lessons. Instead, think of the CCC’s in NGSS as a strategy to help incorporate prior knowledge and apply this to understanding a new concept.  
  • Start small! Select a favorite lesson and see where you can add in elements of CCC’s. I’ve laid out how to do this in 5 Steps to Align Your Current Curriculum with NGSS.
  • Lastly, students will see the value in the lesson when you bring it back to addressing real-world issues. So the next time you get asked the daunting question of “When am I ever going to use this?”, you have the answers ready to go 😎.
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