Deeper Learning Hands-on Screens-off: NGSS 3 Dimensions & Storylines

Students engaged in NGSS three-dimensional learning and storylines


The world needs more big thinkers – scientists and engineers with the critical thinking skills to tackle the big challenges facing our world. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)-based three-dimensional learning, or “NGSS 3 Dimensions’ are designed to build those critical thinking skills and connect learning science with building a better understanding of the world we live in. Storyline pedagogy sparks hands-on learning over a series of episodes where students create, evaluate, and analyze. These are higher-level thinking skills that scientists and engineers use every day.

NGSS storylines challenge students to learn through figuring out. While they master the core concepts, students are also developing the skills they need to solve problems and answer complex questions in the future. Science is not static. It is propelled by innovative scientists who are constantly discovering new information and re-evaluating what we already know. With the NGSS 3 Dimensions in the classroom, students learn science concepts, but they’re also challenged to use that knowledge to answer questions and solve problems that relate to them. In action, they learn how core concepts connect across science disciplines and to the real world. With NGSS phenomena anchoring the storylines, students have the opportunity to lead their own hands-on investigation about what matters to them.

What is Three-Dimensional Learning?

Implementing NGSS and three-dimensional learning requires a complete rethinking of how science instruction occurs in the classroom. With traditional instructional models, teachers are the gatekeepers of information. Students are asked to listen, memorize, and repeat information. In contrast, three-dimensional learning requires students to take the lead and to use their own knowledge to “figure out” – solving complex problems and answering big questions themselves.

Science through figuring out phenomena is at the core of “NGSS 3 Dimensions,” which requires students to use science and engineering practices to explain complex phenomena and solve real-world problems. Throughout this student-led discovery process, three-dimensional learning integrates disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts.

  • Eight science and engineering practices have been identified by the National Research Council, including developing and using models, analyzing and interpreting data, and engaging in arguments from evidence. These are critical thinking skills that benefit study within any field, as well as career success.
  • Crosscutting concepts in an NGSS-based curriculum are concepts that apply across all scientific disciplines. They include energy and matter, structure and function, and stability and change. Crosscutting concepts provide the organizational framework that connects knowledge across scientific disciplines. Students use this framework to build an understanding of the world around them based on scientific inquiry.
  • Disciplinary core ideas are facts and scientific knowledge that have a broad impact across disciplines. This information is key to understanding complex ideas and solving problems during student-led investigations. They are grouped into four content domains: physical sciences, life sciences, earth sciences, engineering, technology, and application of science.

How to Connect Three-Dimensional Learning with NGSS Storyline Pedagogy

In NGSS-based instructional models, mastery occurs when students gain transferable skills and knowledge to apply to new situations. Hands-on learning provides students with the opportunity to build critical thinking skills as they work together to solve problems and answer their own questions about scientific phenomena. When students make the link between the results from their own investigation in the classroom to real-world examples, they are making personal connections to the subject. That’s why a real-world phenomenon anchors all NGSS storylines.

With storyline pedagogy, unpacking complex phenomena like the impacts of rising sea levels takes more than a 45-minutes class. Students take the lead in an inquiry-based discovery process over multiple days. Each ‘episode’ of the storyline links together through the students’ own questions about the real-world example that kicked it off. What students learn as they work together to answer the questions they pose or solve a problem they choose pushes the storyline forward into the next episode.

Each episode of an NGSS storyline builds on the knowledge students gain through their own reasoning and investigation. Their own participation fuels the storyline, making it more personal, meaningful, and relevant. As the students tackle real-world problems and questions, they learn and utilize core concepts, build bridges across disciplines, access prior knowledge, and act like scientists and engineers in the classroom every day. In the future, the students will use the same critical thinking skills and scientific practices when faced with a new problem or situation.

Bringing NGSS Storylines and Three-Dimensional Learning to Life through Hands-On Learning

To launch an NGSS storyline that encourages three-dimensional learning, teachers should introduce a complex phenomenon related to the standards they want students to learn more about. Throughout the storyline, student questions power each episode. The discoveries they make about the phenomena are the product of their own thinking and investigation. A storyline isn’t a script we ask students to perform; instead, it’s a three-dimensional learning framework that allows students to make their own discoveries and connections independent of the teacher’s direct instruction.

For example, if students explore magnetism and electricity, they interact with the phenomena and discover how waves transmit information which opens an opportunity to discover the ways energy is used in the communications technology we use today. To launch an NGSS storyline in this unit, we could introduce a recent earthquake as a real-world example of waves and communication technology in action. The students might wonder how different kinds of waves interact with matter during an earthquake. They might choose to investigate how scientists predict earthquakes or how engineers use information collected during an earthquake to design new buildings.

Instead of looking for a specific answer to a question posed by the teacher, the students power the storyline forward through their own questions, personal experiences and connections, reflection, reasoning, and investigation using science and engineering processes. What they learn is used in the next episode as they work towards a new student-selected goal related to the anchor phenomena. In this example, identifying what data scientists collect during an earthquake and how it is used to predict future events could power the next episode on using engineering principles to design building improvements.

In the KnowAtom lesson routine, students are introduced to new phenomena using the Picture Thinking Routine. When they see an image and are asked to wonder about it first before reading about it or listening to the teacher describe it, they are challenged to question, predict, and interpret new information. Through this framework, students learn how information can be misinterpreted and how personal experience can affect how we interpret information. In three-dimensional learning, students’ own questions propel their learning process, including what they discuss during Socratic dialogue and choose to investigate. Throughout the storyline, students are connecting scientific inquiry with personal discovery.

5 Instructional Pivots Required by NGSS


“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”