Understanding Cause and Effect Relationships in the NGSS

April 1, 2024 No Comments

In science, understanding cause and effect is crucial. It’s like connecting the dots, seeing how one thing leads to another. Cause and effect help us make sense of the world around us, from why plants grow towards the sun to why the sky is blue. This concept, emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), is fundamental for students to grasp. So, let’s delve into this concept and explore its significance in scientific inquiry.

If you want to learn how to use the Crosscutting Concepts in your classroom, check out this resource.

What is the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect

Cause and effect is a central theme across all scientific disciplines. It’s the idea that actions or events (causes) produce certain outcomes or results (effects). In simpler terms, it’s understanding the “why” behind phenomena. This concept helps scientists explain natural occurrences, predict outcomes, and even manipulate variables to achieve desired results. From the smallest atomic interactions to global environmental changes, cause and effect underpins our understanding of the universe.

ELA Connection

The crosscutting concept of cause and effect in science also aligns closely with the Common Core ELA (English Language Arts) standards. In both science and ELA, students analyze relationships between events or actions and their consequences. In science, this analysis often involves experimentation and observation to establish causal relationships.

Similarly, in ELA, students explore cause-and-effect relationships in reading. For example, they identify how characters’ actions lead to specific outcomes or how historical events shape societies. This overlap emphasizes the importance of critical thinking skills across disciplines, encouraging students to make connections between different subjects and apply analytical reasoning to diverse contexts. By integrating these skills, educators can enhance students’ understanding and proficiency in both science and ELA.

This particular Crosscutting Concept provides an excellent opportunity for cross curricular activities. And, this is a great way for elementary teachers to make time for science in their classes.

Student writing in composition book with a purple pen.

Progression of Cause and Effect Across Grade Levels

As with all crosscutting concepts, cause and effect is written as a progression across grade levels. So, as students grow in ability the concepts get more complex. Let’s take a look as how the standard progresses across grade levels.

Early Elementary- Kindergarten through Second Grade

In early elementary, students learn that events have causes. As a result, this leads to observable patterns. They begin to understand that simple tests can be used to gather evidence supporting or refuting their ideas about these causes. This understanding helps students develop scientific inquiry skills and encourages them to explore the relationships between different phenomena.

Upper Elementary – Third through Fifth Grade

In upper elementary grades, students learn that events have causes, which lead to observable patterns. As a result, they begin to understand that simple tests can be used to gather evidence supporting or refuting their ideas about these causes. This foundational understanding helps students develop scientific inquiry skills and encourages them to explore the relationships between different phenomena.

Middle School – Sixth through Eighth Grade

In middle school, students explore cause and effect relationships more deeply, understanding that relationships can be classified as causal or correlational. They learn that correlation does not always imply causation, emphasizing critical thinking and discernment.

Also, students discover how cause and effect relationships can predict phenomena in both natural and designed systems. They begin to recognize that phenomena may have multiple causes, and some cause and effect relationships may only be described using probability. As a result, this stage encourages students to investigate complex systems and develop a nuanced understanding of causality.

Examples of Correlation vs. Causation

I find that its easiest to understand the difference between correlation and causation through examples. To view examples, take a look at this blog post.

High School – Ninth through Twelfth Grade

In high school, students understand that empirical evidence is essential to distinguish between cause and correlation. So, this enables them to make precise claims about specific causes and effects. Also, students use emperical evidence to support their claims.

What is empirical evidence?

Empirical evidence is vital in scientific exploration. More specifically, it offers support for claims regarding cause and effect relationships. It’s obtained through systematic observation and experimentation. Then, it provides concrete data to validate hypotheses and theories. Essentially, empirical evidence guides researchers in understanding the natural world.

Examples of the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect

In the real world, cause and effect relationships are prevalent across various scientific domains. Its important to look at specific examples that we would see in the classroom. So, let’s take a look at various examples that students encounter in the classroom.

Cause and Effect in Physical Science

Physics: Newton’s third law of motion illustrates a cause-and-effect relationship: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This principle explains phenomena such as the propulsion of rockets and the recoil of firearms.

Chemistry: The reaction between an acid and a base demonstrates cause and effect. For example, mixing an acid with a base results in the formation of water and a salt, showcasing the cause-and-effect relationship inherent in chemical reactions.

Life Science Examples of Cause and Effect Relationships

Ecology: The introduction of non-native species into an ecosystem can disrupt the balance of the ecosystem. When this occurs, this lead to the decline of native species populations. So, this cause-and-effect relationship demonstrates the impact of human activities on natural environments.

Green plant in water
Elodea is an invasive species because it grows rapidly, outcompeting native plants for resources like sunlight and nutrients.

Biology: Vaccines introduce weakened or inactive pathogens into the body. As a result, this triggers an immune response that provides protection against future infections.

Cause and Effect Examples in Earth and Space Science

Erosion: The erosion of soil by water and wind is a cause-and-effect relationship. Sometimes, erosion is caused by human activity. For example, deforestation, overgrazing, and improper land management contribute to soil erosion, leading to loss of fertile land, sedimentation in water bodies, and degradation of ecosystems.

Plate Tectonics: the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates is a cause-and-effect phenomenon that leads to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the formation of mountains. For example, the collision of two plates can create seismic activity along fault lines, causing earthquakes.

These examples highlight the diverse applications of cause and effect relationships in science and underscore their importance in understanding natural phenomena and human interventions.

Connections to Other Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices

The NGSS is a 3-dimensional set of standards. This means that there is a connection to the Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Disciplinary Core Ideas. To learn more about 3D Learning in science, click here.

CCC Connections

Science and Engineering Practice Connections

Erin Sadler

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