Spotlight on DRK-12 Environmental/Earth Science Projects and the Next Generation Science Standards

In this spotlight, eight environmental and Earth Science DRK-12 projects illustrate how the three dimensions identified in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)—Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas—can be applied to education materials and lesson plans in an integrated way. To highlight a few examples of how the dimensions can be integrated, each project team has chosen one aspect of their work to present in this spotlight.


About the project: The Biocomplexity and the Habitable Planet -- An Innovative Capstone Course for High School project has developed, piloted and field-tested Biocomplexity and the habitable planet, a high school capstone course that engages students in understanding biocomplexity, an emerging umbrella science that helps us understand how humans are an integral part of nature, both shaping and shaped by the places they live. The science of biocomplexity integrates core concepts of ecology, biogeography, and the social sciences...Read More

Biocomplexity NGSS imageProject Highlight of NGSS Dimensions: By adopting a biocomplexity approach, each unit in the curriculum addresses NGSS disciplinary core ideas: Ecosystems dynamics, functioning, and resilience (LS2.C) and Human impact on Earth systems (ESS3.C). The scientific cases they build by the end of each unit function as performance assessments aligned with those described in the NGSS: Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity (LS2-7) and analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth’s surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth’s systems (ESS2-A)...Read More

Grade Level(s): High School 

Project Website:


About the project: Confronting the Challenges of Climate Literacy (Collaborative Research: Ledley) is an NSF-funded (DRK-12) project that includes curriculum development, teacher professional development, teacher leadership development, and research on student learning, all directed at high school teachers and students. The curriculum unit includes three distinct but related modules: Climate and the Cryosphere; Climate and the Biosphere; and Climate and the Carbon Cycle...Read More

Project Highlight of NGSS Dimensions: Students grapple with the concept of cause and effect in all three EarthLabs modules. Since they do not design complex climate models themselves, they need to formulate their ideas about causal relationships as they study information in the modules, engage in hands-on investigations, analyze data collected by themselves or others, look for patterns, discuss questions with classmates, and ultimately evaluate the evidence, asking themselves: Does this explanation make sense? Am I convinced that “A” directly causes “B”? What mechanism is at play, and how does this process unfold?...Read More

Grade Level(s): High School 

Project Website: (for teachers) and (for students)


About the project: The EcoMobile: Blended Real and Virtual Immersive Experiences for Learning Complex Causality and Ecosystems Science project combines two curriculum components: 1) a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) with a scaffolded inquiry experience and; 2) field trip experiences to real environments infused with virtual resources. These complementary experiences were designed to support authentic application of inquiry practices like observation and evidence collection...Read More 

Project Highlight of NGSS Dimensions: This project focuses on the Middle School Performance Expectations for understanding “Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems” including the disciplinary core idea that populations of organisms are dependent on their interactions with the biotic and abiotic components of their environments. A primary focus of the project is helping students to understand the complex causal dynamics inherent to ecosystems and to be able to use these dynamics to interpret and make predictions about the behavior of the ecosystem...Read More 

Grade Level(s): Middle School

Project Website:



About the project: Driven by the question, “Why does this place look the way it does?”, the Regional and Local (ReaL) Earth Inquiry Project engages students and their teachers in the close study of Earth systems at the local and regional scale. Program participants create Virtual Fieldwork Experiences (VFEs); representations of actual field sites, first collaboratively at the program’s opening workshop and then closer to home, working with their students...Read More

Project Highlight of NGSS Dimensions:This project is developing a set of approaches and tools that engage learners in the scientific practice of asking questions. Asking questions, beginning with the project’s driving question - Why does this place look the way it does? - leads to the investigation of a range of disciplinary core ideas, other scientific practices and crosscutting concepts. The project team, in collaboration with participants, have developed a series of supporting questions that may be asked of any field site, which not only facilitates the investigation of these questions and related core ideas, but also highlights a systemic approach to the investigation of environments...Read More

Grade Level(s): Elementary, Middle and High School 

Project Websites: and


About the project: High-Adventure Science: Earth’s Systems and Sustainability (HAS:ESS) is developing online curriculum modules focused on cutting-edge issues in Earth and Environmental Science. Modules focus on climate change, fresh water availability, energy resource availability, land use, and air pollution...Read More

Project Highlight of NGSS DimensionsHigh-Adventure Science Earth’s Systems and Sustainability focuses on Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Core Ideas: Natural Resources (ESS3.A) and Human Impacts on Earth systems (ESS3.C).  The curriculum on Earth’s energy future addresses energy issues with a focus on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas as a way to evaluate risks and benefits, and then has students compare this to other energy sources, including solar, nuclear and wind power. Students explore different sources and uses of energy, particularly how energy resources vary across the world, how energy use has changed over time and how improved technology has changed the way humans use energy...Read More

Grade Level(s): Middle and High School

Project Website:


About the project: Ocean Tracks: Investigating Marine Migrations in a Changing Ocean is developing a unique model of how to enable student engagement with authentic scientific data via an interactive Web-interface. Ocean Tracks is developing and classroom testing Web-based visualization and analysis tools derived from state-of-the-art knowledge about how to support student inquiry with data...Read More

Project Highlight of NGSS Dimensions:The Ocean Tracks interface provides tools to allow students to develop skills in the NGSS Practice Analyzing and Interpreting Data. Students pursue questions of current scientific importance using customized versions of the same types of data analysis tools used by scientists. By reducing the cognitive demands typically associated with finding, downloading, viewing data and otherwise learning to use the interface itself, students are able to immediately begin making meaning of the data, drawing inferences and connecting them with evidence. For example, in a simple dropdown menu that includes a range of available tracks, students can select  and view the track of an elephant seal...Read More

Grade Level(s): High School

Project Website::



About the project: The Reasoning Tools for Understanding Water Systems project is building on learning progression research to study the effects of Tools for Reasoning and Formative Assessments on development of middle school students' understanding of hydrologic systems. The project applies a design-based research approach using cycles of design/revision, teacher workshops, and small-scale classroom pilot tests. The central research question of the project is: How can learning progression-based Reasoning Tools and Formative Assessments support students in using models and representations to engage in principled reasoning about hydrologic systems? ...Read More

Project Highlight of NGSS Dimensions: One scientific practice that is central to the Reasoning Tools project is constructing explanations for science. A core idea in the Water Systems Learning Progression is that traditionally, school science has asked students to develop and repeat understanding of the water cycle that involves naming places water goes and processes involved in that movement (e.g., water falling from a cloud to the ground is called precipitation, water moving from Earth’s surface to the air is called evaporation). These are descriptions rather than explanations. Explanations involve explaining how and why things happen...Read More

Grade Level(s): Middle School

Project Website:


About the project: The Studying Topography, Orographic Rainfall, and Ecosystems (STORE) with Geospatial Information Technology project provides climatological and vegetation data about “study areas” in California and New York State plus geospatially distributed projected values of temperature, precipitation, and land cover in 2050 and 2099, derived from NCAR’s A2 climate change model. There are also data about summer and winter storm events in the study areas that students can analyze to differentiate weather and climate characteristics. Students use Google Earth and ARC GIS Explorer Desktop to study changes in recent 30-year average precipitation and air temperature data at weather stations along transects within the areas...Read More

Project Highlight of NGSS Dimensions: STORE has developed an interactive geospatial technology-based data viewing tool and curriculum that addresses the core idea of Weather and Climate. Students use real geospatial data sets to study 30-year climatology averages of temperature and precipitation. These  activities address the NGSS scientific practice of analyzing and interpreting data. In addition, the students look at the climate pattern over a diverse geographical “study” area, which addresses the crosscutting concept of patterns. They also compare the climate model data for projected temperature and precipitation averages in the years 2050 and 2099 to the climatology averages to see what the projected impacts are of climate change if current rates of carbon emissions continue unabated...Read More 

Grade Level(s): Middle and High School

Project Website: