I love themes. I love classroom décor themes, birthday themes, even literary themes! And I especially love organizing my lessons by themes. Themes tie everything together, creating a unified feeling. I have long argued that thematic, unified teaching is a strong approach to meaningful learning. Prior to the NGSS, I did my best to organize the science standards into themes, and I did ok with it, but the NGSS was made for theme-based curriculum planning, and I love it!

In today’s post, we will take a look at the various themes that run throughout the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards).  We will look at the NGSS in two sections, K-5 (elementary) and 6-8 (middle school). The NGSS at the elementary and middle school levels was truly designed to move students through various core ideas with increasing depth. The core ideas revolve around the three core science disciplines: Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth Science. The skills and knowledge acquired build on each other, year after year.

Let’s take a look at the chart below to begin seeing the themes and how they build through the years.

Themes organized around the NGSS for K-5.

You might notice one big difference with the NGSS in that grade levels now get a “taste” of each of the 3 disciplines each year. With previous science standards, grade levels generally concentrated on one discipline (for example, Earth Science). This is most prominent at the middle school level as seen in this chart below.

Themes organized around the NGSS for 6-8.

While it is still possible to take a discipline approach to the NGSS (NGSS organized by discipline for middle school can be found here), I would argue that this takes away from the benefits of thematic teaching. Let’s take a look at the middle school thematic approach a little more carefully. Notice that with this approach 6th grade takes on an overall theme of development. How does life develop? How is energy created? How do weather patterns develop? 6th grade students are given a foundation in each of the disciplines and the disciplines feed into each other. Understanding currents and energy leads to an understanding of convection and conduction which leads to an understanding of weather and climate.

In 7th grade, this thematic unification is even more prominent. Students begin by learning the very basics of atoms and chemistry. They then use this knowledge to build onto their 6th grade understanding of cells, looking more deeply into the cell processes of photosynthesis and cellular respiration. This continues into an understanding of the bio-chemical cycles on the earth or how different essential elements such as carbon and oxygen cycle through the Earth. Physical, Life, and Earth science blend together creating a year-long science study about change.

In 8th grade, students take their knowledge one step further, exploring what happens when they challenge their understanding of the science principles. They play around with the idea of force and motion then explore the differences between Earth-bound rules and space. They explore energy and move beyond the Earth and even the solar system to discover the mysteries of the universe. Finally, they look inward, asking questions about genetic mutations and modifications, resource scarcity, and the human impacts on our world.

Teaching thematically gives students the opportunity to see their world as it is. Not broken into pieces, segmented and disjointed, but unified, building upon other ideas and skills, and creating a bigger picture of how things work. Remember that the idea behind the NGSS is to teach students how to think like scientists, not to teach them the history of science.

In my current placement at a science-based elementary (K-6) school, we have been working on developing monthly STEM days. One of my goals this year is to highlight monthly science themes that are promoted school-wide. For example, September’s theme could be “Growing Happy Plants.” You can see on the K-5 chart above how each grade level could participate in this theme based on their set of NGSS and level of understanding. Where Kindergarten students may simply grow plants for observation and exploration, 3rd grade students might track the entire life cycle of a plant, and 5th grade students might look more carefully at what plants need beyond sun and water. The possibilities when themes are involved are endless… and exciting!

Looking for some awesome middle school science lessons based on the NGSS? Check out these fantastic resources here.