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Cross-cutting Concepts

Page history last edited by kieran.ohare@... 7 years, 4 months ago

Cross-cutting Concepts

On this page you will find:


Cross-Cutting concepts are ideas in science that cut across all three of the science content areas (Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth Science). They are principles that occur in all of the sciences.


These Cross-Cutting Concepts can be very helpful to adult education teachers. We don't have enough time to help our students develop sufficient background knowledge in all areas of science. But we can focus our instruction on these concepts and use them to frame explorations in a variety of content areas. 


Below, are short descriptions of the concepts.  You can read about them in more depth here.


Bozeman Science has a series of videos that outline each of the Cross-Cutting concepts and provide simple examples explaining them.  There is a video for each concept.  For example, here is the video for Cause and Effect: 



In addition, the website Community Resources for Science has a series of Webinars for each of the crosscutting concepts.  They are PDF's and can be a are a bit lengthy, but they provide excellent analysis of the meaning of the concepts.


Concept 1: Patterns


Noticing patterns in the world is often the first step in Scientific Exploration.  Seeing that there is a pattern in a snowflake, for example, often provokes an initial question, which can lead to an investigation.


Recognizing patterns in the natural world can help students make predictions.  For example, students might be asked to notice the pattern in the tides.  From there, students might be asked to make predictions about tide levels at certain times.


Students will need to begin to classify patterns.  An example of classification is the taxonomy of living things.  Students might be asked to distinguish between and notice the way that they are ordered.  


Students will also need to evaluate patterns.  Paul Anderson explains toward the end of this video that the physical characteristics of a living thing are often misleading when it comes to properly understanding a pattern. 


Concept 2: Cause and Effect


Cause and effect is a means of explaining why something occurs and explaining causal relations.  There are obvious causal relations that our students will be able to understand.  For example, if someone were to touch an open flame, they would get a burn, and this is obvious because there is a clear chain of interaction between touching the flame and the burning effect.


However, some causal relations are less obvious.  For example, for many centuries people did not understand that the transmission of infectious diseases-like the chicken pox- can be transmitted by hand.  This is because there is no clear chain of interaction.


Exploring more complex causal relations will help our students understand that the famous tenet that "correlation does not imply causation."  This chart by teacher and satirist Bobby Henderson indicates a correlational relationship:



While it may seem a bit silly, the chart proves a point.  It's mistaken to assume that the cause of the decrease in the amount of pirates in the world is caused by the change in global temperature.  A correlation between the two does not imply that one is caused by the other.  Our students will to distinguish between these types of correlational relationships and actual causal relationships.


And finally, our students will need to understand and be familiar with cause and effect relationships that have multiple causes.  For example, Global Warming is an effect caused primarily by rising levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, but there are other causes in addition to this one.


Concept 3: Scale, Proportion and Quantity


Our students need to be familiar with notions of scale in science because phenomena occur in vastly different scales and are often not directly observable.  Scales are divided into categories of size, time, and energy.  For example, Global Warming is an incredibly complex phenomenon on a huge scale that changes extremely slowly and the energy involved in a changing climate is immense.  On the other hand, an electron is tiny in scale, it moves very quickly, and possesses very little energy.  Students will need to recognize that differences in scale of a phenomenon change the way we are able to observe it.


Proportional relationships are important for our students across all scientific disciplines.  One example of a proportion is the relationship between time and distance in understanding speed.  Students will need to understand and use proportions to understand many scientific processes.


A proper understanding and use of quantities is essential as well.  Students must be able to apply different units of measurement appropriately.  The ability to accurately estimate is also extremely important in Science.   Many Adult learners do not come into classrooms with these quantitative skills, and since they come up across all scientific disciplines all it's important to recognize how important that they get a firm grasp of using quantities.    


Concept 4: Systems and System Models


The world is extraordinarily complex, so scientists divide it up into systems and create simplified models of them.   Just about anything can be considered a system and studied.  The human body is a system, an atom is a system, a telephone is a system, etc.  Anything that can be separated from the larger world and studied on its own is a system.


Systems have a number of characteristics.  They have a boundary separating the system from the outside world.  They have components or parts within the system.  There are inputs into the system and outputs the flow out of the system.  


For example, the human digestive system has many individual components--the stomach, liver, and intestines, among others--that work together to process food inputs and produce outputs in the form of waste. 


Our students will need to understand that systems are a group of individual components that work together to do something that the individual components alone cannot.  They’ll need to describe the interactions of the components in a system, and create models to represent the interactions, all while recognizing that the systems under study may be part of larger systems or include sub-systems.


Concept 5: Energy and Matter


The Concept of Energy and Matter can best be described in terms of systems.  In a system, you will remember, there are inputs and outputs.   With both matter and energy the idea of conservation is important.  In the human digestive system, for example, the amount of matter that goes into a system (the input) is the same as what comes out (output).  Thus, matter is conserved in the sense that the amount of atoms, of which the matter is comprised, remains constant.


Students will also need to understand the idea of cycles in relation to energy and matter.  A good example of a cycle is the earth's water cycle.  Water in the earth's reservoirs evaporates and rises into the atmosphere.  It then falls back into the earth's reservoirs as rainwater.  In this cycle, there is also conservation, as the amount of water remains constant.  


It's often best to start by talking about matter, since it's easier for students to comprehend than energy.  Students will often confuse matter and energy.  A good example of a system that involves both energy and matter and that can be used as a way to demonstrate the difference between them is the human metabolic system.  In order for the body to function, matter is consumed in the form of food.  The energy required for survival is also consumed, as energy is present in the bonds between the atoms and molecules of the food matter.  So by eating food, a person is getting both the matter and energy that they need to survive. 


Students should be capable of modeling the systems involving energy and matter that have been described in this section for themselves.


Concept 6: Structure and Function


The concept of Structure and Function concerns looking at how the structure of something affects its function.  In Science, Structure and Function help us better understand phenomena, and in Engineering they help us understand the reason behind the design of something and how we might improve it.


When teaching Structure and Function, it's best to begin by having students investigate mechanical structures.  A corkscrew, for example has easily describable parts, but students (and many teachers!) won't necessarily understand why the worm is shaped the way it is shaped or how the wings function as levers.  Investigating how the form of a simple mechanical device affects its utility and then having students model by constructing their own devices is an effective way of introducing learners to the concept of Structure and Function.


With a basic understanding of the relationship between Structure and Function, students can then begin investigating more complex systems.  The human skeletal system, for example, is a familiar structure, but again students will often have trouble articulating how its structure is related to its function.   When dealing with Structure and Function, it's also necessary to consider scale.  The skeletal system can be viewed as a relationship between the many bones it is comprised of, but on a smaller scale, each bone is made up of molecules that have their own structures. 


This leads to students investigating molecular structure.  By understanding how the structure of molecules affects their function, students can better understand phenomena.  Water, for example, is made up of molecules that contain two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom, and these molecules are bonded together by Hydrogen bonds.  Curiously, water is quite unique in the sense that its solid form floats on its liquid form.  Only with an understanding of water's structure can students understand this phenomena. 


Bozeman Science provides a video with more examples of Structure and Function, as well as links to activities here.


Concept 7: Stability and Change 


The concept of Stability and Change relates to how systems remain the same or change over time.  Most systems involve some sort of change even if they appear to be stable.  Take for example the phases of the moon.  If one observes the moon over a a few weeks, it will appear that the size of the moon changes on a daily basis.  And while that may be true, one could also observe stability in the pattern that is observed over the course of months and years; the phases of the moon change in consistent and stable way.


When talking about Stability and Change, it is useful to talk about equilibrium.  There are two types of equilibrium; static equilibrium and dynamic equilibrium.  An example of static equilibrium is books sitting on a table.  While that system may change over the course of millions of years, it's a good example of stability in the sense that it remains essentially stable- the books don't change.  For an example of dynamic equilibrium, we might look at a dam.  A dam regulates the amount of water going in and out, but it is constantly faced with inflows and outflows (i.e. the amount of rainfall).  It's an example of stability in the sense that it maintains a steady water flow, but the inflows and outflows are constantly changing.


Thus, the relationship between Stability and Change is complex because while most systems appear to be constantly changing, they also can be considered stable.








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