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What's so Special about Disciplinary Core Ideas? (Part 1)

By Guest Blogger

Posted on 2016-12-12


I still remember the day Helen Quinn asked if she could visit me at the University of Michigan where I was a professor to discuss the Framework for K–12 Science Education (Framework) and possible roles I might play in its development. I was honored that I was being considered to lead the team on coming up with the big ideas (now called disciplinary core ideas, or DCIs) for physical science. What a privilege and huge responsibility to be part of team to decide the key, big ideas that all students need to know and use to make sense of the world (explain and predict phenomena and find solutions to problems). Not only would our work provide the substance for the Framework, it also would provide the foundation for the development of new K-12 science standards—the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)—released in 2013. The physical science team was one of four; Life Science, Earth and Space Science, and Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science were the other three disciplinary areas. It was a daunting task, particularly because each discipline could pick no more than four big ideas! How could chemistry be boiled down to four big ideas, let alone chemistry and physics? Of course, the core ideas are broken down into component ideas, but it is the disciplinary core ideas that provide the structure and coherence. 

From the start of this effort the disciplinary core ideas were going to be different than the science ideas presented in previous standards documents. Don’t get me wrong, the Framework built on important documents such as the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996). These documents have an important place in the development of science education; they helped guide our nation in science education for two decades and still have a powerful influence on what happens in science classrooms. But the vision of Framework, based on what we know about how students learn, was to help learners develop conceptual knowledge of important ideas that could be used throughout life and get richer and deeper with time. The core ideas serve as a conceptual framework that can be further developed, allowing learners to understand critical ideas about the world in which they live. For example, PS 1 Matter and Its Interactions, supports all learners in understanding the structure, properties, and interactions of matter so they can explain important phenomena, such as how there is such diversity of different types of matter (substances) in the world despite there being relatively few types of building blocks (atoms). Of course, a full understanding of this question and explanation of these phenomena also overlap with PS 2: Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions and PS 3:  Energy.  Another example is the Life Science Core Idea LS 1, From Molecules to Organisms: Structure and Process, that provides students with the knowledge to explore questions related to how organisms live, grow, respond to their environment, and reproduce. A deep conceptual understanding of this core idea and its components, allows learners to understand where the energy and matter come from to help us grow. A full understanding of the phenomena, however, also requires understanding of PS 1: Matter and Its Interactions and PS 3: Energy.

This blog and those that follow will provide some reflections about the DCIs, but before I go further I have to acknowledge the important role of all three dimensions in making sense of phenomena. Yes, DCIs are critical, but to make sense of phenomena and find solutions to problems, all three dimensions play a critical role.  Science and engineering practices (SEPs), disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts (CCCs) work together to support students in making sense of phenomena or designing solutions. You cannot learn the ideas of science in isolation from the doing and you cannot learn the practices of science in isolation from the content of science. To develop deep, usable understanding of the DCIs, it is necessary for a learner to use SEPs and CCCs. The basic premise of the Framework is that one cannot learn one without learning the other. The three dimensions work together to help students make sense of phenomena or design solutions to problems, and as students make sense of phenomena they develop deeper, more usable understanding of the dimensions. It basically boils down to “doing science,” or “doing engineering.” Convincing evidence exists that understanding DCIs will only result when core ideas are integrated with SEPs and CCCs, and understanding SEPs will only result when integrated with DCIs and CCCs (NRC, 2007). 

In this blog series, I’m going to explore the DCIs in more depth, including the ideas that DCIs serve as conceptual tools, that they provide explanations for phenomena, and that they develop across time. The first of these follows below and the other two ideas will follow in my next two blogs.

Disciplinary Core Ideas Serve as Conceptual Tools

I’m frequently asked how DCIs differ from science concepts. Energy is energy? Evolution is evolution? Is there a difference in how the Framework presents them and how they were treated in the past? I’ve already mentioned how the DCIs form a conceptual framework; now let’s dig a bit deeper into that idea.

By their very structure, core ideas are different than how standards were previously structured. Each core idea is a conceptual whole that can guide student thinking, but they also link to other core ideas to form even deeper and more meaningful understandings that students can use to make sense of the world.

DCIs support a new vision for science education that moves classroom teaching away from focusing on numerous disconnected science concepts that students memorize, to learning environments where students develop connected understanding of a few powerful ideas that they can use along with SEPs and CCCs to make sense of real-world phenomena or design solutions to problems. The Framework focuses on a limited number of DCIs that students can use to describe and predict phenomena that they experience in their lives. In all, there are 13 DCIs:  4 from Physical Science, 4 from Life Science, 3 from Earth and Space Science, and 2 from Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science.  The list of DCI’s follows. Click here to explore subcomponents.

LS: Life Science

LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes

LS2: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

LS3: Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits

LS4: Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity

ESS: Earth and Space Science

ESS1: Earth’s Place in the Universe

ESS2: Earth’s Systems

ESS3: Earth and Human Activity


PS: Physical Science

PS1: Matter and Its Interactions

PS2: Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

PS3: Energy

PS4: Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer


ETS: Engineering, Technology and the Application of Science

ETS1: Engineering Design


I like to think of disciplinary core ideas as conceptual tools that learners can use to make sense of phenomena or solve problems. They are conceptual tools because learners can access them when needed to make sense of a situation. Moreover, they are conceptual tools because as a learner uses them to explore and explain phenomena and solve problems throughout their lives, they learn more about these core ideas and they become more deeply connected to other ideas. 


Click here to read What’s So Special about Disciplinary Core Ideas (Part 2)

Click here to read What’s So Special about Disciplinary Core Ideas (Part 3)


I would love to hear your ideas, questions, and feedback on this blog. Tweet me at @krajcikjoe or email  If you want to learn more about the disciplinary core ideas take a look at our new book just published by NSTA Press; Disciplinary Core Ideas:  Reshaping Teaching and Learning, edited by myself as well as Ravit Duncan, and Ann Rivet.

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Joe Krajcik

Joe Krajcik ( is a professor of science education at Michigan State University and director of the Institute for Collaborative Research for Education, Assessment, and Teaching Environments for Science, Technology and Engineering and Mathematics (CREATE for STEM). He served as Design Team Lead for both the Framework and the NGSS.

Editor’s note: This blog is the first in a series of three by Joe Krajcik that explore the NGSS disciplinary core ideas. 


American Association for the Advancement of Science. 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. New  York: Oxford University Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K – 12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC; National Academies Press.

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