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The NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas: An Overview of the Fundamentals

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Nov 3, 2021

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is a multi-state initiative to create new education standards for students from K-12.  It establishes a progression of performance expectations spanning the elementary through high school years that promote growth in students' abilities to participate in science and engineering.

Rich in content and practice, an NGSS curriculum should delivers a coherent learning experience across disciplines for a grade specific and internationally benchmarked education in STEM subjects.  There are three foundations of the NGSS standards which are the NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, and Science and Engineering Practices, which together guide the development of K-12 science curriculum, instruction, and assessments that form the most critical areas of science education.

ngss core ideas

What are the NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas?

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas ( DCI ) are fundamental scientific ideas that form the content of an NGSS curriculum.  They cover four domains: physical science, life science, earth and space science, as well as engineering, technology, and applications of science.

NGSS core ideas represent the main domains of factual understanding that students should develop within each discipline.  A core idea must meet at least two of the four criteria:

  • Broad importance across multiple sciences or engineering subjects or an essential organizing concept of a single discipline.
  • A critical tool for investigating complex ideas and solving problems.
  • Scientific or technological knowledge relating to students' interests and life experiences or connects with their societal or personal concerns.
  • Teachable and learnable across multiple grades at increasing levels of depth and sophistication.

Why Are NGSS Core Ideas Important?

The structure of NGSS DCIs are different from previous standards. Each core idea represents a conceptual whole that guides student thinking.  It also links to other core ideas to help develop a deep and meaningful understanding of the world around us.

NGSS core ideas support a new vision in STEM education.  Instead of memorizing numerous disparate science concepts, DCIs help students develop a connected understanding of critical STEM ideas that they can use to understand real-world phenomena and design practical solutions to problems.

The DCIs work in conjunction with NGSS's science and engineering practices (SEPs) and crosscutting concepts (CCCs) to provide opportunities for students to apply these practices and concepts to the four domains.


What Do the NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas Cover?

Each idea is broken down into various topics (e.g., LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes), each of which contains several subtopics (e.g., LS1.A: Structure and Function).

Here's an overview of the four NGSS DCIs:

Life Science

  • LS1 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
    • Structure and Function
    • Growth and Development of Organisms
    • Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms
    • Information Processing
  • LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics
    • Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems
    • Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems
    • Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience
    • Social Interactions and Group Behavior
  • LS3 Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits
    • Inheritance of Traits
    • Variation of Traits
  • LS4 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity
    • Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity
    • Natural Selection
    • Adaptation
    • Biodiversity and Humans

Earth and Space Science

  • ESS1 Earth’s Place in the Universe
    • The Universe and Its Stars
    • Earth and the Solar System
    • The History of Planet Earth
  • ESS2 Earth’s Systems
    • Earth Materials and Systems
    • Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions
    • The Roles of Water in Earth’s Surface Processes
  • ESS 3 Earth and Human Activity
    • Natural Resources
    • Natural Hazards
    • Human Impacts on Earth Systems
    • Global Climate Change

Physical Science

  • PS1 Matter and Its Interactions
    • Structure and Properties of Matter
    • Chemical Reactions
    • Nuclear Processes
  • PS 2 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions
    • Forces and Motion
    • Types of Interactions
    • Stability and Instability in Physical Systems
  • PS3 Energy
    • Definitions of Energy
    • Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer
    • Relationship Between Energy and Forces
    • Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life
  • PS4 Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer
    • Wave Properties
    • Electromagnetic Radiation
    • Information Technologies and Instrumentation

Engineering, Technology, and the Application of Science

  • ETS 1 Engineering Design
    • Defining and Delimiting an Engineering Problem
    • Developing Possible Solutions
    • Optimizing the Design Solution


Bringing Next Generation Science Standards to Life

The implementation of NGSS core ideas requires educators to change the nature of instruction. Schools should provide the support teachers need to succeed.

Communicate a vision that aligns with the NGSS framework. Administrators, science specialists, and other resources (e.g., professional development) will need to support teachers in making incremental and continuing changes to improve their classroom practices

Teachers will need professional development to unpack how they’ll nurture a classroom culture that supports this new vision of science education. This means looking at how to make formative assessment strategies part of the way science is taught through performance tasks, open-ended questions, technical writing, student journals, scientific discourse, and more.

To successfully implement NGSS DCIs in the classroom environment, you need a three-dimensional learning approach that turns NGSS disciplinary core ideas into a hands-on discovery of a student’s place in the world.

Use or design a curriculum that offers a big-picture narrative of what science and engineering are. Then use storylines to tie the lessons together and bring the content to life by empowering students to investigate phenomena and engage in problem-solving.

The best NGSS-based STEM curriculum features research-based design, next-generation assessment, learning progressions, hands-on learning, technology integration, digital resources, state-specific versions, and more. It helps schools and educators deliver a robust learning experience to students of all ages.

Talk to a curriculum specialist to see how we can help you bring NGSS DCIs to life.

Next Generation Science PD Session Resources for Teachers

Topics: Next Generation Science Standard, Next Generation Science Standards

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