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Planning for Engagement with Big Ideas in Science

Use the Evidence-Based Practices Order Form to purchase foldable versions of this tool for educators in your school or district.

The information presented in this evidence-based practice resource is adapted from Core Practice Set #1, Ambitious Science Teaching.

“The best piece of advice is to simply get started. You’ll learn best from doing the work and it gets easier each time you do it.” –Ambitious Science Teaching


Attending to Equity

  • Use phenomena that are relevant to students’ everyday lives.
  • Elicit and build on students’ prior knowledge.
  • Support students’ sense-making through notebooking, discussion, and metacognitive practices.
  • Make activities accessible to all students (plan for the variety of needs in your classroom).
  • Plan for inclusion of all genders and cultures in your classroom.
  • Use the principles of Universal Design for Learning in planning.

“One byproduct of this planning process is that everyone can see where they need to learn more about the science itself before teaching about complex and contextualized phenomena.” –Ambitious Science Teaching

Phenomenon, essential questions, causal explanation, learning sequence

Identify Big Ideas


Ensure that important science concepts become the focus of instruction.

Science Ideas

  • Identify big science ideas or concepts using the CA NGSS or instructional materials on post its.
  • Cluster science ideas by putting related post its together.
  • Consider the size of the science idea. Add in smaller ideas that clarify larger ideas.
  • Include all of the science ideas that are needed to explain the phenomena. This may mean coming back to these ideas after a phenomenon is chosen.



Select a Phenomenon and a Driving Question


Motivate students and give a sense of purpose to learning activities.


  • Choose an anchoring or an investigative phenomenon.
  • Ensure the phenomenon is useful to classroom instruction, interesting to students, and has a grade level appropriate explanation.

Driving Question

  • Consider what aspect of the phenomena students will study.
  • Use the crosscutting concepts to write questions about the phenomena.
  • Identify the question with the most potential to drive student learning (remember that these can be revised).

“The overall goal is to construct or modify a series of lessons that help students build knowledge in coherent and cumulative ways” –Ambitious Science Teaching


Sequence Learning Activities


Match learning experiences to key ideas in a sequence that supports cumulative learning.

Causal Explanation

Write an answer for the essential question.

  • Go just beyond the grade level (this is an ideal student response).
  • Tell the story of the phenomena without any gaps in thinking.
  • Check that the identified science ideas are used in the explanation.
  • Include unobservable and observable concepts.

Learning Sequence

Use the 5E Model to organize student learning experiences.

  • Introduce the phenomena in an Engage activity.
  • Select Explore & Explain learning experiences (readings, investigations, activities, conversations) using the causal explanation as an organizer.
  • Use the Science and Engineering Practices to choose useful learning experiences for students.
  • Plan for teacher questions that deepen student use of the Crosscutting Concepts.



Additional Resources