Spring Issue of The Bridge on STEM Education: Progress and Prospects

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Looking Toward the Future of Science Education

It is an exciting time for K–12 science and engineering education in the United States; a new vision for teaching science and engineering promises to transform the experiences of students in all grades across the country. This vision, articulated in a new report from the National Research Council (NRC), calls for classrooms that bring science and engineering alive for students, emphasizing the satisfaction of pursuing compelling questions and the joy of discovery and invention. A Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC 2012) provides a blueprint for new state standards in science education. Based on this framework a consortium of educators and scientists from 26 states is developing Next Generation Science Standards, which will be available in April 2013 for states to use in guiding what students learn in science for the next decade or more.

In this article we provide an overview of the framework and briefly describe its development process. Our goal is to help readers become familiar with the framework, understand how it differs from existing standards, and appreciate its potential for transforming science and engineering education in K–12. We end by emphasizing that the framework alone will not lead to the changes envisioned. For those to occur, all stakeholders in science and engineering education must work in concert toward this new vision.


The framework was developed under the auspices of the NRC Board on Science Education (BOSE) in collaboration with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academies’ Teacher Advisory Council. BOSE focuses on science education for all ages, in school settings and across many venues outside of school such as museums, nature centers, zoos, after-school programs, and community organizations. The Board convenes experts who draw on their professional knowledge and examine research on learning and teaching to make recommendations about how to improve science education.

The impetus for the framework and the anticipated standards was the convergence of three main factors. First, there has been persistent and growing concern that current approaches to K–12 science education have not in general successfully prepared students to live in an increasingly technological world or compete for jobs in science, technology, and engineering. Second, in the nearly two decades since the previous science standards were released, much has been learned about how people learn science and about how to improve instruction. Finally, the momentum toward common standards in mathematics and English/language arts suggested that there was an opportunity for a similar set of standards in science.

Recognizing these convergent factors, the Carnegie Corporation of New York provided funding for a two-stage process of standards development. In the first stage the NRC developed the framework; in the second stage, now under way, a consortium of 26 states coordinated by Achieve, Inc. (a nonprofit education policy organization) is developing standards that provide more detailed specification of what students should know and be able to do at each grade. All of the work has involved a partnership of four key organizations—the NRC, Achieve, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA)—as well as input from the broader science and science education communities.

A New Vision for Science and Engineering in K–12

The framework is designed to help realize a vision for education in the sciences and engineering in which students, over multiple years, actively engage in science and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of the core ideas in these fields. (NRC 2012, pp. 8–9)

Although state standards for K–12 science education have existed since the mid-1990s, the new framework incorporates several innovations that represent significant advances in approaches to learning and teaching. First, science and engineering consist of both knowing and doing; simply memorizing discrete facts or the steps in a design process does not lead to deep understanding and development of flexible skills. Instead, the practices of science and engineering—what scientists and engineers actually do—must have a central place in science classrooms. Second, the framework focuses on a set of core ideas investigated in increasing depth over multiple years of schooling as well as crosscutting concepts that are important across science and engineering disciplines. The progression of learning and teaching can start in the earliest grades and is built in a coherent way over a student’s academic career. Finally, engineering is more fully integrated into the framework than in previous science standards, expanding students’ understanding of applications of science and how science and engineering are linked. These innovations are described in the sections below.

Unfortunately, at present many K–12 students do not have access to opportunities that allow them to experience science and engineering as envisioned in the framework (NRC 2007; Schmidt and McKnight 2012). This problem is particularly acute for students in schools that enroll higher concentrations of non-Asian minority students and for students in high-poverty schools (NRC 2006a; Weiss et al. 2003). The vision of the framework takes on this problem of access, emphasizing that all students can learn science and engineering and should have opportunities to engage in the full range of science and engineering practices.

The overarching goal of the framework is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science and engineering; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are informed consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; can continue to learn about science and engineering outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, especially in science, engineering, and technology.

Grounded in Evidence

The framework is based on a rich and growing body of research on teaching and learning as well as nearly two decades of efforts to define foundational knowledge and skills for K–12 science and engineering. The NRC committee members—learning scientists, educational researchers, or educational policymakers or practitioners—were charged with identifying the scientific and engineering ideas and practices that are most important for K–12 students to learn.

The committee’s deliberations were informed by the work of four design teams, each focused on major disciplines in science and engineering: physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and applications of science. The committee and design teams reviewed evidence including research on learning and teaching in science and engineering, national-level documents that provide guidance on what students should know in science and engineering, and evaluations of previous standards efforts. They also carefully considered NRC reports published over the last decade. Research on how children learn science and the implications for science instruction in grades K–8 was central to Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8 (NRC 2007). America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science (NRC 2006a) examined the role of laboratory experiences in high school science instruction, and Learning Science in Informal Environments (NRC 2009) focused on the role of science learning experiences outside school. Complementing these publications, Systems for State Science Assessment (NRC 2006b) studied large-scale assessments of science learning, and Engineering in K–12 Education (NAE and NRC 2009) explored the knowledge and skills needed to introduce K–12 students to engineering.

The framework also builds on the two previous standards documents for science—Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy (AAAS 1993) and National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996)—as well as Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology (ITEEA 2000). Finally, the committee examined more recent efforts: the Science Framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP 2009), Science College Board Standards for College Success (College Board 2009), NSTA’s Science Anchors project (NSTA 2009), and a variety of state and international science standards and curriculum specifications.

The Structure of the Framework

The committee concluded that K–12 science and engineering education should support the integration of knowledge and practice, focus on a limited number of disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts, and be designed so that students continually build on and revise their knowledge and abilities through the years. In support of these aims, the framework consists of a limited number of elements in three dimensions: (1) scientific and engineering practices, (2) crosscutting concepts, and (3) disciplinary core ideas in science and engineering (see Box 1). To support learning all three dimensions need to be integrated in standards, curricula, instruction, and assessment and should be developed across grades K–12.

Box 1

Dimension 1: Scientific and Engineering Practices

Dimension 1 focuses on important practices used by scientists and engineers, such as modeling, developing explanations or solutions, and engaging in argumentation. Engaging in the full range of scientific practices helps students understand how scientific knowledge develops and gives them an appreciation of the wide range of approaches to investigate, model, and explain the world. Similarly, engaging in the practices of engineering helps students understand the work of engineers and the links between engineering and science. It also provides opportunities for students to apply their scientific knowledge.

Research shows that students best understand scientific ideas and engineering design when they actively use their knowledge while engaging in the practices. A major goal of the framework is to shift the emphasis in science education from teaching detailed facts to immersing students in doing science and engineering and understanding the big picture ideas. This might look different in 2nd grade, 8th grade, and 10th grade, but at all levels students have the capacity to think scientifically and engage in the practices.

By engaging in and reflecting on the full range of science and engineering practices, students develop their understanding of not only the topic at hand but also both the nature of science and the rigorous process by which the scientific community comes to accept one explanation as better than another in describing a phenomenon. Likewise they learn how engineers apply similarly rigorous analysis in a systematic way in developing, testing, and revising designs for solutions to problems.

Dimension 2: Crosscutting Concepts

Dimension 2 defines seven key crosscutting concepts for science and engineering. These concepts provide students with ways to connect knowledge from the various disciplines into a coherent and scientific view of the world. They are not unique to the framework but echo many of the unifying concepts and processes in the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996), the common themes in the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993), and the unifying concepts in the Science College Board Standards for College Success (College Board 2009).

Students’ understanding of these crosscutting concepts should be reinforced by their repeated use in instruction across the disciplinary core ideas (see Dimension 3 below). For example, the concept of “cause and effect” could be discussed in the context of plant growth in a biology class and in the context of study of the motion of objects in a physics class. Throughout their science and engineering education, students should learn about the crosscutting concepts in ways that illustrate their applicability across all of the core ideas.

Dimension 3: Disciplinary Core Ideas

Dimension 3 describes disciplinary core ideas for the physical sciences, life sciences, and earth and space sciences because these disciplines are typically included in K–12 science education. Engineering, technology, and applications of science are featured alongside these disciplines for three critical reasons: to reflect the importance of understanding the human-built world, to stress the applications of science in the lives of students, and to integrate the teaching and learning of science, engineering, and technology and thus demonstrate their value for learning both science and engineering design.

In developing the core ideas the committee sought both to limit the number of discrete ideas included and to illustrate the rich, conceptual nature of explanations in science. The goal is to avoid superficial coverage of multiple disconnected topics (sometimes referred to as the “mile-wide and inch-deep” curriculum; Schmidt et al. 1997). The focus on a limited number of core ideas is designed to allow for deep exploration of important concepts as well as time for students to develop meaningful understanding, to actually practice science and engineering, and to reflect on their nature.

Supporting Learning over Time

Research on learning shows that to develop a thorough understanding of scientific explanations of the world, students need sustained opportunities to engage in the practices and work with the underlying ideas and to appreciate the interconnections among those ideas over a period of years rather than weeks or months (NRC 2007). This notion of a systematic sequence for learning over time is often called a learning progression (CPRE 2009; NRC 2007; Smith et al. 2006), and it describes both how students’ understanding of an idea matures over time and what instructional supports and experiences are needed for students to make progress. The design of the framework is intended to support this kind of coherence across grades. Thus, in addition to explaining the core and component ideas, the committee described which aspects of each core idea should be learned by the end of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12.

Importantly, these progressions begin in the earliest grades. Research on young children’s learning reveals that, from all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels, they have a surprising amount of knowledge of the world, their knowledge is well organized, and they reason about it in sophisticated ways (Carey 1985; Gelman and Baillargeon 1983; Gelman and Kalish 2005; Metz 1995). Thus, before they even enter school children have developed their own ideas about the physical, biological, and social worlds and how they work. By listening to and taking these ideas seriously, educators can build on what children already know and can do.

The implication of these findings for the framework is that building progressively more complex explanations of natural phenomena should be central throughout K–5, as opposed to focusing only on description in the early grades and leaving explanation to the later grades. Similarly, students can engage in scientific and engineering practices beginning in the earliest grades.

Integrating Engineering

As noted, one of the major innovations of the framework is the integration of engineering across all three dimensions. Engineering and technology were included in previous national standards, but at the state level either science standards do not include them or they are not implemented in the classroom. Although most states have adopted the Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEEA 2000), the teacher corps for delivering this content is an order of magnitude smaller than that for science. The integration of engineering in the framework is intended to address this deficit.

Emphasizing connections between science, engineering, and technology makes sense from the perspective of the disciplines as well as from a learning perspective. From a disciplinary perspective the fields are mutually supportive. New technologies expand the reach of science, allowing the study of realms previously inaccessible to investigation; scientists depend on the work of engineers to produce the instruments and computational tools they need to conduct research. Engineers in turn depend on the work of scientists to understand how different technologies work so they can be improved; scientific discoveries can be exploited to create new technologies. Scientists and engineers often work together in teams, especially in new fields, such as nanotechnology or synthetic biology, that blur the lines between science and engineering.

From a learning perspective there are multiple reasons for including engineering in the science framework. First, it is important for students to explore the practical use of science, given that a singular focus on the core ideas of the disciplines would tend to shortchange the importance of applications. Second, at least at the K–8 level, topics related to engineering and technology typically do not appear elsewhere in the curriculum and thus are neglected if not included in science instruction. Finally, engineering and technology provide a context in which students can test their own developing scientific knowledge and apply it to practical problems; doing so enhances their understanding of science—and, for many, their interest in science—as they recognize the interplay among science, engineering, and technology.

Engineering is reflected in the practices as well as through two disciplinary core ideas. The first concerns the knowledge needed to engage effectively in engineering design. Although there is not yet broad agreement on the full set of core ideas in engineering (NAE 2010) there is emerging consensus that design is a central practice of engineering; indeed, it is the focus of the vast majority of K–12 engineering curricula currently in use (NAE 2010).

The second idea calls for students to explore the links among engineering, technology, science, and society. Students should understand these connections, and at increasing levels of sophistication as they mature.

The goal of including ideas related to engineering, technology, and the applications of science in the framework for science education is not to replace current K–12 engineering and technology courses. Rather, it is to strengthen science education by helping students understand the similarities and differences between science and engineering and by making the connections between them explicit.

Next Steps

While the Framework report provides important guidance for improving K–12 science education, it is only the first step in what must be a sustained, multipronged effort over the next several years.

The Next Generation Science Standards

The development of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is already under way. Using the practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas that the NRC report lays out, 26 states, coordinated by Achieve, are developing standards for what students should learn at different grade levels. The writing team for the NGSS includes members, many of them K–12 educators, with wide-ranging expertise—in elementary, middle, and high school science, students with disabilities, English language acquisition, state-level standards and assessment, and workforce development. Additional review and guidance are provided by advisory committees composed of nationally recognized leaders in science and science education as well as business and industry.

Outreach and Broad Involvement of Stakeholders

As part of the development process, two drafts of the standards undergo multiple reviews from many stakeholders, allowing all who have a stake in science education an opportunity to inform the development of the standards. The first public draft was released for comment in May 2012 and the second in January 2013.

Previous efforts have shown that the standards alone will not produce the transformations in classrooms and schools that are necessary to achieve the vision of the framework. Numerous changes will be required at all levels of the K–12 education system, including changes to curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development for teachers. Such changes will necessarily involve multiple stakeholders working toward common goals with the same vision in mind. The Framework report includes a chapter outlining the work needed.

This work has already begun. The Board on Science Education has undertaken outreach to curriculum developers and assessment designers; educators who train teachers and create professional development materials for them; and state and district science supervisors, who make key decisions about curriculum, instruction, and professional development. Project partners NSTA, Achieve, and AAAS are also working to lay the groundwork for implementing the standards.

There are also important efforts under way at the state level to prepare for implementation. Achieve is helping states develop implementation plans and think through the kinds of support and resources that will be needed. Reaching beyond the collaborating states, the Council of State Science Supervisors has initiated the Building Capacity for State Science Education (BCSSE) project, engaging teams in 43 states in efforts to understand the framework, the NGSS, and the challenges inherent in implementation.

As states, districts, and individual schools undertake the work of adopting and implementing the NGSS they will need support from scientists and engineers, who will need to become familiar with the vision and language of the framework and, as they recognize the power of this vision for improving science education, align both their advocacy efforts in education and their direct work in schools with it. Their work could include both political support for state-level adoption of NGSS and support to local schools and districts that are seeking help in providing appropriate professional development for teachers.

Teacher Preparation

Implementation of the framework and NGSS will require rethinking science teacher preparation: those who plan to teach science and engineering practices will need opportunities to engage in them as they learn. For both new and experienced teachers, research or engineering internships during the summer can provide such an opportunity, which can be enhanced when scientist or engineer mentors relate the work to the practices described in the framework.


Science, engineering, and the technologies they influence permeate every aspect of modern life, and some knowledge of them is required to understand major public policy issues and to make informed everyday decisions. The framework and NGSS represent the best opportunity available to engage students in science and engineering in ways that will not only help them see how these fields are instrumental in addressing major challenges that confront society but also inspire some to pursue careers in science, engineering, or technology.


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About the Author: Heidi A. Schweingruber is Deputy Director of the National Research Council Board on Science Education. Helen Quinn is professor emerita, Stanford Linear Accelerator. Thomas E. Keller is Co-Director of the Reach Center of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance. Greg Pearson is a senior program officer with the National Academy of Engineering.