Sunday / May 26

The “Missing” Core Idea in the NGSS

Dr. Martin Yellin

Contributed by Cary Sneider

A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC, 2012) proposed thirteen core ideas that all students are expected to learn, at increasing levels of sophistication and mastery as they ascend the grade levels from kindergarten through senior year of high school. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) were faithfully built on the foundation of the Framework. However, the NGSS included just twelve core ideas—not thirteen. The missing core idea is “Links among engineering, technology, science, and society.” In my view, this is one of the most important—perhaps the most important—idea that we want our students to understand as they take on adult responsibilities. Why then, was it left out?

Well, it wasn’t actually left out of the NGSS. It is included as a crosscutting concept rather than a core idea. It is also not a single idea, but rather two distinct answers to the question: “How are engineering, technology, science, and society interrelated?” The Framework provided two answers.

First answer: Science, engineering, and technology are interdependent.

Dr. Martin Yellin

The interdependence of science and engineering is illustrated by this image of Dr. Martin Yellin, an optical engineer who is shown working on the mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the greatest scientific instruments of all time. Image courtesy of NASA, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Collection (NIX MSFC-7995584).

The fields of science and engineering are mutually supportive, and scientists and engineers often work together in teams, especially in fields at the borders of science and engineering. Advances in science offer new capabilities, new materials, or new understanding of processes that can be applied through engineering to produce advances in technology. Advances in technology, in turn, provide scientists with new capabilities to probe the natural world at larger or smaller scales; to record, manage, and analyze data; and to model ever more complex systems with greater precision. In addition, engineers’ efforts to develop or improve technologies often raise new questions for scientists’ investigations. (NRC, 2012, p. 203)

In the NGSS this idea is communicated through examples illustrating how science and engineering are a “two-way street,” with technology squarely in the middle. For instance, scientists are unable to learn about the nature of sound, light, and radio waves without instruments (technologies) designed by engineers, while engineers are unable to construct communications devices such as telephones and televisions (also technologies) without a scientific understanding of wave phenomena.

Second answer: Science, engineering, and technology influence society and the environment.

David Keeling

The relationship between science, engineering, technology, and society is illustrated by this image of David Keeling, who is accepting the Medal of Science from President George Bush for his work documenting how the burning of fossil fuels has increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Image courtesy of NSF, public domain.


Together, advances in science, engineering, and technology can have—and indeed have had—profound effects on human society, in such areas as agriculture, transportation, health care, and communication, and on the natural environment. Each system can change significantly when new technologies are introduced, with both desired effects and unexpected outcomes. (NRC, 2012, p. 210).

The idea that scientific discoveries and technological decisions affect human society and the natural environment is rather well known. The other side of the coin is that people make decisions that ultimately guide the work of scientists and engineers. The Framework states the following:

Not only do science and engineering affect society, society’s decisions (whether made through market forces or political processes) influence the work of scientists and engineers. These decisions sometimes establish goals and priorities for improving or replacing technologies; at other times they set limits, such as in regulating the extraction of raw materials or in setting allowable levels of pollution from mining, farming, and industry. (NRC, 2012, p. 212)

How do these ideas play out in the curriculum?

The two “missing” core ideas can be found throughout the NGSS, but you won’t find them unless you’re looking for them.  The interdependence of science and engineering is evident wherever scientists use instruments of any sort, and where engineers apply scientific ideas to solve problems and meet people’s needs. The influence of engineering, technology, and science on society and the environment is implicit in every performance expectation concerning the impact of new discoveries and technologies, as well as in cases where societal concerns direct the work of scientists and engineers.

In a sense, the “missing” core ideas are hiding in plain sight. It’s our job as teachers to call them out whenever we can, and to ask leading questions so that our students can the intimate relationship between science, engineering, and society.

Cary Sneider

Dr. Cary Sneider is Associate Research Professor at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches courses in research methodology in a Master of Science Teaching degree program. He contributed to A Framework for K-12 Science Education, and served on the writing team for the Next Generation Science Standards. He is the author of The Go-To Guide for Engineering Curricula for Grades PreK-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Cary Sneider today!

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