Patterns in Science: A Quick Guide to the Crosscutting Concept

April 1, 2024 No Comments

Patterns in science are easy to spot. But, are you able to make connections to the CCC in the appropriate grade level? Even though Patterns is a commonly used Crosscutting Concept, its depth is commonly misunderstood. Read the blog post below to learn more about this commonly used Crosscutting Concept and get ideas for how to use it in your classroom.

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

Patterns in Science: A Crosscutting Concept

Let’s explore the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Crosscutting Concept of Patterns. Whether you’re a middle school science teacher seeking to enhance your curriculum or an elementary or high school educator looking to deepen your understanding, this concept is fundamental. Patterns permeate the natural world, providing clues to understanding and predicting phenomena across scientific disciplines. In this blog post, we’ll break down the significance of patterns in science education, offering practical insights and examples to enrich your teaching practice.

What is a pattern in science?

Most students recognize simple ABABAB patterns. However, patterns in science are infinitely complex. Simply put, patterns are things that repeat in a predictable way. However, the way that they repeat can be incredibly complex.

With a little explicit instruction, students can begin to recognize increasingly complex patterns. Soon, your students will be recognizing patterns that you never even considered.  

Teaching Strategies for Identifying Patterns

Card sorts are my absolute favorite way to help students to classify different things into groups. During a card sort activity, the teacher provides the student with a set of cards related to the concept that they are studying. The teacher asks students to sort the cards into groups based on similarities and differences.

However, the teacher does not provide much instruction about the types of groups that need to be made. This strategy helps the teacher assess prior knowledge and works well at the beginning of a lesson sequence.

The Grade Level Progression for Patterns in Science

Just like other crosscutting concepts, this one is written in a progression. As students move from one grade band to another, the expectations increase. So, this helps students to gradually increase their understanding of patterns. And, it helps students connect this CCC to other CCCs and SEPs.

Let’s take a look at how this concept progresses in each grade band.

Early Elementary: Kindergarten through Second Grade

In early elementary grades, students learn that patterns exist both in the natural world and in human-designed systems. They observe these patterns and use them to describe various phenomena. Additionally, patterns serve as evidence to support scientific explanations.

Upper Elementary: Third through Fifth Grade

In upper elementary grades, students delve deeper into patterns by exploring their similarities and differences. They learn to use patterns for sorting, classifying, communicating, and analyzing simple rates of change in both natural phenomena and human-designed products. Furthermore, they discover that patterns of change enable them to make predictions about future outcomes. As they continue their scientific inquiries, students recognize that patterns serve as crucial evidence to support their explanations of various phenomena.

Middle School: Sixth through Eighth Grade

In middle school, students will build on the foundations created in upper elementary and apply the concept of patterns in new ways. They explore the interconnectedness between macroscopic patterns and the underlying microscopic and atomic-level structures. Also, they learn that patterns in rates of change and numerical relationships offer valuable insights into both natural phenomena and human-designed systems. By recognizing patterns, students can identify cause-and-effect relationships, crucial for understanding the world around them. They utilize graphs, charts, and images as tools to identify patterns in data, facilitating their analysis and interpretation of complex information.

High School: Ninth through Twelfth Grade

At the middle school level, students grasp that various scales of observation unveil different patterns within systems, offering evidence for causality in explaining phenomena. They understand that classifications or explanations might falter when information from different scales is introduced, prompting the need for enhanced investigations and experiments.

Furthermore, they learn to analyze and interpret patterns of performance in designed systems, utilizing them to refine and enhance the functionality of these systems. Mathematical representations serve as essential tools for identifying certain patterns, while empirical evidence remains crucial in the process of pattern recognition.

Real-World Examples of Patterns in Science

It isn’t difficult to recognize patterns in the world around us. But sometimes, having explicit examples from different disciplines helps to makes connections to the Crosscutting Concept more clear. So, here are some examples of connections for you to explore in your classroom.

Gray background with a search bar at the top that says "Examples of patterns".  Below are 4 pictures - a volcano, a sound wave, a blue wave and the internal structure of a shell.

Patterns in Life Science

Biology: Let’s take a look at MS-LS4-3. In this performance expectation, students are asked to analyze pictorial data to compare patterns of similarities in the embryological development across species. This allows students to identify relationships between species that aren’t as obvious in full-grown organisms.

Images of embryos of various species in different stages which can be used to recognize patterns in science.

Students might be asked to observe patterns in this drawing by Ernst Haekel (1892).  When presented with this image, students might notice that the embryos are most similar in the earliest stages of development.  They might also notice that the mammals look very similar throughout their development.  Students should use these observations to ask questions.  For example, “Why do the tortoise and the chick look so similar?”

Physical Science Examples of Patterns in Science

Chemistry: The periodic table exhibits patterns in the properties of elements based on their atomic structure, such as atomic number, electron configuration, and chemical reactivity.

Physics: Waves exhibit various patterns, such as interference, diffraction, and standing waves, which help physicists understand the behavior of light, sound, and other wave phenomena.

Patterns in Earth and Space Science

Astronomy: Patterns such as the apparent motion of stars across the sky due to Earth’s rotation and the predictable orbits of planets around the Sun provide a basis for understanding celestial mechanics.

Plate Tectonics: The movement of Earth’s lithospheric plates follows recognizable patterns, leading to phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the formation of mountain ranges.

green volcano against a blue sky

Patterns in Science & the Connection to Other CCCCs & SEPs

I love using the Crosscutting Concept of Patterns in my classroom for many reasons.  The concept of patterns is already familiar to your students.  And, it connects to almost every other concept in some way. Also, this CCC overlaps with other science and engineering practices. Let’s take a closer look at the connections.

Connections to Other CCCs

Connections to Science and Engineering Practices

  • Asking Questions
  • Math and Computational Thinking
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  • Constructing Explanations
Erin Sadler

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