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cross-curricular connections

Doing It All

Effective integration of science and social studies along with other subjects is attainable with careful planning.

Students calculate distances to be traveled.

Students calculate distances to be traveled.

In our classrooms today, many teachers are being forced to make a choice between teaching science or social studies. Often, teachers “solve” this problem by alternating teaching science units with social studies units, but what if the solution weren’t about separating these content areas but instead combining them?

The Survival, Trade, and Migration unit for third grade was developed to integrate not only the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and social studies standards developed from the C3 Framework but also standards from the Common Core ELA and math, universal constructs, and social-emotional learning competencies. Throughout the seven-week unit, students build understanding toward five third-grade NGSS standards, 15 Common Core ELA standards, seven Common Core math standards, and eight of our state standards in social studies, which were developed based on the C3 Framework.

The unit progresses students through three cycles, each of which follows the 5E learning cycle format. When using the teacher’s edition we share online (see Supplemental Resources), the 5E cycles are identified and explained with a time estimate for that phase. Although this unit was designed to integrate science and social studies, along with math and ELA, the unit still holds true to the three-dimensionality of the NGSS. Table 1 highlights the focus for each dimension throughout the cycles of the unit.

Creating the Integrated Unit

To create this unit, the developers first looked at the third-grade standards for science and social studies, bundling the ones that seemed connected. From that point, the storyline was developed and the lessons were built using the 5E instructional model. Throughout the development of the activities and tasks, we began to consider standards in ELA and math as well as universal constructs and social-emotional competencies to determine additional alignment to those areas. This was done with the assumption that the classroom culture, relationships, and norms are in place to foster an inquiry learning environment.

After the unit was developed, it was piloted by eight third-grade educators from different schools. Based on their feedback, revisions to the unit were made and the final draft was created. The only cost associated with the unit, beyond typical classroom materials, would be access to digital resources such as MackinVia. However, a teacher could easily replace any unavailable online text resources with physical text from their media centers.

Cycle 1 Overview

The unit begins with the guiding question “What would you need to take to survive?” In this cycle, students are placed into a small group (called a community throughout the unit) to embark on a trip to a remote location for two weeks. They must decide what to pack for this two-week trip knowing that they will not have any shelter, food, or supplies beyond what they bring on the trip. The setting for the location will be May of 1850 and the location will be randomly selected by a “spinner wheel” from one of the following: Alaska (Kodiak Island), Florida (Everglades National Park), Arizona (Grand Canyon National Park), Maine (Acadia National Park, and Oklahoma (Black Mesa State Park). Though students will know the potential locations, they do not learn their assigned location until after they generate their list of questions. The location options were selected so that students will be able to engage in learning about the weather and climate of various regions. After viewing videos to give students a glimpse into life in the 1850s, students generate a list of questions to help them make decisions for this trip. Students typically want to know what the weather will be like. Other questions might be about how much food or water a person needs over the course of two weeks or if there is a food source at the location they are assigned. After generating questions, students are posed with the task of selecting items to take from a provided packing list. Because students can only carry a specified weight limit, they must engage in mathematical reasoning and computation. After completing this work independently, students are placed in their communities to share their thinking and create their master packing list. Through this process, students begin to build their collaboration skills, which will be continually developed throughout the unit.

Students research the locations to learn more about the weather, climate, and resources that might be available to them while also building their understanding of how people use various resources to survive. One student shares, “My community knew we wanted to take a tent for shelter but it was too heavy for one person to carry. So we had to work together and divide the weight up between two people.”

Cycle 2 Overview

As the unit progresses into the second cycle, which has the guiding question of “How can I get resources I need but don’t have?” students discover that they will be stranded at their locations beyond the two weeks they had planned for, with no return date. This change in plans is due to a cholera outbreak, and students are provided with an option to dig deeper into learning about cholera. Knowing that they are now in their 1850s location for an indefinite amount of time, students are prompted to think about how they might be able to trade for resources that they need as well as what dynamics are in play for survival—building on their discovery that humans (and animals) form groups to better their chances of survival (3-LS2-1) and gaining an understanding that the habitat they are in allows for different organisms to survive better or worse based on traits they have (3-LS4-3).

As students take stock of the items they would have available to them in their locations, they engage in deeper conversation about the items they do not have but would need to ensure survival in their location. These discussions require that students build their skills in communication and collaboration while determining how to work together to make choices and understand the costs and benefits of those choices. While discussing supplies they have left, students talk about what might be surplus and be traded for additional goods with other humans in the area. For example, a community might have packed three sets of warm clothes but realize they could survive with only two sets, allowing them to possibly trade that third set for an item that would help them with hunting. Students also learn to compromise when they have different opinions about what items are most important. Groups developed different ways to solve this problem—sometimes by taking a “community vote” and other times by settling it through a game of chance like “rock-paper-scissors.”

At this point, students begin to ponder questions about long-term survival. They may take clues from local animals as they look for ways to find food, shelter, and water in their specific geographic location. They also consider what resources they have available to them to trade for the goods they might need—both natural resources and services (human capital)—through skills they may have. Students explore community roles such as doctor, farmer, carpenter, and other 1850s occupations and consider how those roles apply to the survival of their community. To learn more about community occupations, students play a game that introduces them to common occupations as well as physical resources of the 1850s. As students discover this new vocabulary (such as Conestoga wagon or cobbler), teachers add these to the word wall and support students in determining definitions through additional readings, online resources, video, or even guest speakers.

Cycle 3 Overview

As students move to answer the Cycle 3 guiding question of “How does migration help people and animals survive?” they are introduced to the idea of migration—people and animals moving from one place to another that might allow them a better chance of survival or access to additional resources. Through the use of primary sources, students investigate some reasons humans have migrated, including to follow a food source or to improve their lives, and then compare those to the reasons animals migrate and how migration can help animals survive.

During this cycle, students are able to select a new location for their community and are asked to share their reasoning for the location they chose. Through the use of maps and additional resources, students discover a variety of landforms that would serve as obstacles to their migration journey and discover additional features of their new regions. They are tasked with considering how the animals on their journey, such as the oxen or horses, might survive along the migration path. Students calculate the mileage of migration journeys and research paths that migrating humans and animals have used. While calculating, students also consider the challenges and obstacles that are faced on those journeys. To determine the length of time their migration journey will take, students ask questions such as “How much water does a horse need to drink? How far can an oxen travel in one day? How far can a person walk in one day?” Answers will help them as they not only calculate the distance of the journey but also consider the amount of time the trip will take. Once they determine the length of time, students are prompted to ask even more questions about the weather conditions that would be encountered during the trip as the seasons change.

Instructional Strategies

This unit allows students to make choices about the way they prefer to take in information, such as reading or video. Students also develop collaborative skills within their small-group community and begin to work together to capitalize on each student’s strengths while supporting one another in their weaknesses. A pilot teacher described students reading to one another, assisting with technology skills, selecting tasks based on their strengths, and using speech-to-text features on their devices.

Teachers were provided with community grouping strategies. It was suggested to create like-achievement groupings when possible. Allowing students of similar achievement levels to work together is an important strategy, particularly for gifted or advanced students. Working with students of a similar achievement level allows each group member to feel as an equal within the group. Groups still were able to capitalize on the individual strengths of one another without any group member feeling inferior. Halfway through the unit, the communities were remixed due to migration, and the collaborative skills they learned with like-achievement groupings were extended to working within these new, mixed achievement groups. Teachers were also given student discourse tools and taught how to create classroom norms for learning. This fostered the discourse sessions where students (and teachers) were provided with sentence stems. With the norms in place, peers held one another accountable and created an equitable learning environment for each voice.

Throughout the seven-week unit, in addition to building toward standards in science, social studies, ELA, and math, students are also building skills in the universal constructs of collaboration, complex communication, creativity, flexibility/adaptability, and productivity/accountability.

Student discourse is integral to moving students into being agents of their own learning. Throughout this unit, discourse is fostered by large-group discussion, small-group discussion, and individual thinking share-outs using Flipgrid, SeeSaw, or other technology applications for peer response. The unit also provides additional search options for students who need additional support in conducting their own research. Students are provided with voice and choice on how tasks are completed to demonstrate their proficiency of the learning intentions.

Because students are able to take a more personalized approach to their own learning, they are motivated to find the answers to the questions they created and they build an understanding of their personal responsibility to the success of their small-group community. “This was the best ever,” said one student. “We got to make our own decisions and choices. My group wanted to make a website for our survival plan, and our teacher let us do that.” Another student shared, “When we found out our group was stuck because of cholera, our teacher said it was up to us if we wanted to learn more about cholera. Even though I didn’t have to, I really wanted to know more and my parents and I looked it up at home that night.”

Every teacher that was a part of the pilot shared that they plan to teach the unit again. Administrators praised the student engagement they saw during walkthroughs throughout this unit. When asked about the unit, one teacher stated, “Kids enjoy this time in class, and it is a great opportunity for kids to learn how to work together in a small group. In addition to the content standards, there were a lot of life lessons learned from this curriculum.” Parents also shared praise for the integrated unit, with one sharing, “My son came home every day so excited. He would not stop talking about this unit and kept researching at home about different locations and survival all on his own. Even though he completed the unit months ago, he still talks about it today.”

Students discuss what resources and roles might be shared or bartered with other groups.

Students discuss what resources and roles might be shared or bartered with other groups.

Supplemental Resources

All digital materials needed for the unit, including slide decks for presenting, can be found at http://bit.ly/3rdSciSS.

Special thanks to our pilot teachers:

Sarah Thiesen, CAL Elementary, CAL CSD; Sandy Pleggenkuhle, Lincoln Elementary, Charles City CSD; Diedre Howe, Eldora-New Providence Elementary, South Hardin CSD; Scott Williamson, Eldora-New Providence Elementary, South Hardin CSD; Jordan Sheahan, Rock Run Elementary, Iowa Falls CSD; Juli Weidemann, Rock Run Elementary, Iowa Falls CSD; Stephanie Brown, St. Paul’s Elementary, St. Paul’s Lutheran School; Anna Hemann, RRMR Elementary, Rudd-Rockford-Marble Rock CSD; Thanks also to co-developer Keith Halverson, Central Rivers AEA Consultant for Social Studies.

Online Resources

C3 Framework: https://www.socialstudies.org/system/files/2022/c3-framework-for-social-studies-rev0617.2.pdf

Ducksters: https://www.ducksters.com/

MackinVia: https://www.mackinvia.com/

National Geographic Kids: https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/search


Amanda Sanderman (asanderman@centralriversaea.org) and Chelsie Byram (cbyram@centralriversaea.org) are consultants for science and gifted/talented at Central Rivers Area Education Agency in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

5E Crosscutting Concepts Earth & Space Science Interdisciplinary Elementary

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