NGSS: Correlation and Causal Relationship Examples

January 31, 2021 No Comments

Get correlation and causal relationship examples and see what these terms mean in the Next Generation Science classroom.

Correlation and Causal Relationship Examples

When you look at the NSTA Matrix of the Crosscutting Concepts, it states that relationships can be causal or correlational. But what does this mean? What does this look like in your classroom?

What does causal mean?

Causal is an adjective that states that somethings is related to or acting as a cause. In simple terms, it describes a cause and effect relationship.

In elementary school, students explore simple cause and effect relationships. For example, when exploring force and motion, students might observe that a soccer ball doesn't move on its own. The ball will not move until it is kicked or another force is applied.

However, as students move into middle and high school, the relationships that students are investigating get more complex. An observed effect may have more than one cause. Or, events can occur together, but not be a cause and effect relationship.

What does correlational mean?

Correlational is a term that describes events that occur together. Sometimes this means that there is a relationship between the events. However, often sometimes there is no correlation. Here are a few silly examples of correlations that are completely unrelated.

Causation doesn't necessarily imply causation, but it can.

I happened to notice that my students are most likely to turn in assignments if they are due on Friday. However, this does not mean that Fridays cause the high turn-in rates. Perhaps, students are most likely to turn in assignments that are due on Friday because I remind them to turn them in all week. The reminders are the likely cause of the high turn-in rates.

However, sometimes when events occur together, there is a cause and effect relationship. Check out the Earth Science example below.

Earth Science Correlation and Causal Relationship Example

In MS-ESS3-3, students study the effects of human activity on the environment. Often, climate change opponents argue that there is not a cause and effect relationship between human activity and climate change. Therefore, students must understand the relationship between correlational and causal relationships in order to understand that this is, in fact, a cause and effect relationship.

Factory with orange colored smoke coming out

Phenomena may have more than one cause.

Often, there is more than one cause that explains a phenomenon. While observing and learning about the phenomenon, students in middle and high school students should investigate multiple potential causes.

Middle School Life Science Example

In MS-PS1-4 students investigate animal behavior that leads to increased survival rates. For example, penguins huddle together during extreme cold in order to stay warm. They take turns, rotating to the outside of the pack which prevents any member of the group from sacrificing their life for the group. (Click here, or here to learn more about this behavior and more.) This behavior isn't the only behavior that increases the survival rate of penguins.

Penguins huddled together in the the cold

However, there are other behavior that increase survival. For example, penguins hunt for food in packs. Also, male penguins balance their eggs on their feet in order to keep them warm as they incubate. These, and many other behaviors and physical adaptations lead to increased survival in penguins.

More resources to help with Cause and Effect Relationships

Erin Sadler

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