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The Complete Guide to Stability and Change in Science

March 30, 2024 No Comments

In the realm of science education, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer a roadmap for teaching diverse scientific concepts. Among these, the notion of “stability and change” is fundamental. Understanding this concept is crucial as it provides insights into how systems maintain balance and evolve over time. Let’s explore stability and change, from its basic definition to its significance in science education.

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

What is stability and change?

Let’s dive into what the Crosscutting Concept of Stability and Change really means.

Stability refers to a system’s ability to maintain a constant state over time, while change refers to the dynamic processes that alter this state. Essentially, stability represents balance, while change implies adaptation and evolution.

Stability & Equilibrium

Equilibrium is very important in understanding stability and change. It’s the state where different forces within a system balance each other. This creates a stable condition.  

Many systems exhibit something called dynamic equilibrium.  This means that there are ongoing changes within the system.  However, certain conditions remain relatively constant over time. For instance, the number of individuals in a population will be stable if the number of individuals entering and leaving the population is the same. Understanding dynamic equilibrium provides insight into the resilience and stability of complex systems

The Role of Feedback Mechanisms

Feedback mechanisms also play a vital role in maintaining stability within systems. Negative feedback loops work to stabilize a system by working against changes to the system.  For example, the heating and cooling system in your house uses a negative feedback loop.  When it gets too hot, the thermostat will negate this condition by turning on the air conditioner to bring the temperature back to a normal range.  And, when your house gets too cold, the thermostat will turn the heater.  

Alternatively, positive feedback loops amplify changes within a system.  This may lead to instability or significant shifts in the system.  In the example above, imagine that the thermostat was designed to turn the heater on when the temperature got above a certain level.  This would further increase the temperature and there wouldn’t be a mechanism to turn the heater off.  The house would get less comfortable over time.   

Progression of Stability and Change Across Grade Levels 

 Students see science topics, such as erosion in each grade level band.  However, we expect students to make deeper connections as they get older and their understanding of science becomes more clear.   

The Crosscutting Concepts support this type of growth by being written in a progression.   Ideally, students are also exposed to each Crosscutting Concept multiple times in each grade band. This helps students to see the depth of each concept.  

Here is an explanation of how this CCC changes in each grade level. 

Early Elementary: Kindergarten through Second Grade 

In early elementary grades, students engage with the concept of stability and change by observing things that occur in their everyday lives. At this grade band, students understand that some things in the world change, and some things remain the same.  This can be illustrated through simple examples like the pollination of plants.  

Also, students learn that change can occur at different rates.  Sometimes we see change happening quickly.  Other times, it happens so slowly that we hardly notice it happening.

Upper Elementary: Third through Fifth Grade 

In upper elementary grades, students delve deeper into the concept of stability and change. While these expectations are very similar to those in early elementary, they are slightly more complex.  

Change is a central theme, and students measure it in terms of differences observed over time. Again, they encounter the idea that change happens at varying rates, whether quickly or slowly. Furthermore, students recognize that some systems may appear stable in the short term, but over longer periods, something is changing. 

Middle School: Sixth through Eighth Grade 

In middle school, the Crosscutting Concepts begin to interconnect and overlap with the Science and Engineering Practices .   For example, students examine the concept of stability and change within systems more explicitly. They learn how the components of a system interact.  And, as a result, they recognize that even small changes in one part of a system can lead to significant consequences elsewhere.

Finally, students learn about dynamic equilibrium for the first time in this grade band.  They learn how feedback mechanisms promote stability.  And, they learn that even when a system is considered stable, it disruption to the system can still occur. 

High School: Ninth through Twelfth Grade 

In high school, students recognize that much of science revolves around constructing explanations for both the processes of change and the maintenance of stability within systems. Students learn to quantify and model changes in systems, whether occurring over very short or extended periods of time. They grasp the concept that some changes are irreversible. And they explore how feedback mechanisms, both negative and positive, can either stabilize or destabilize a system.

Moreover, students understand that systems can be intentionally designed to exhibit varying degrees of stability. They analyze how factors such as the arrangement of components and the incorporation of feedback mechanisms influence the overall stability of a system. Through experimentation and theoretical inquiry, high school students gain a deeper appreciation for the delicate balance between stability and change in the natural world and human-engineered systems.

Examples of Stability and Change in Nature 

As an educator, I find it’s useful to have some examples of stability and change in nature to help me further understand the concept.  However, it’s important that you refer to grade level standards to determine which examples are right for the students in your classroom.  Here are some examples from various disciplines to help you understand this Crosscutting Concept.

Rectangular image with light gray background.   There is a search bar on the top that says Examples of stability and change.  Below are four images: )a mountain range, cells under a microscope, a slinky and the milky way

Stability and Change in Physical Science 

  • Physics: The movement of a spring demonstrates stability and change. When a spring is at rest, it’s in a stable state. However, when a force is applied, it stretches or compresses, showcasing change.  Eventually, the spring returns to its resting state.
  • Chemistry: Atoms form molecules in order to exist in a more stable form.  Atom types that are already stable, the Noble gasses do not interact with other atom types.   

Examples in Earth and Space Sciences

  • Geology: During the rock cycle, rocks undergo transformations through processes like weathering, erosion, and sedimentation.  Yet,  the overall cycle maintains the stability of the Earth’s crust. 
  • Astronomy:  Planets orbit the Sun in stable elliptical paths.  Yet, over long periods, these orbits can change due to gravitational interactions, showcasing dynamic celestial motions.
Large cliff with striated rock layers overlooking a blue-green ocean.

Stability and Change in Life Science

  • Biology: Cells regularly divide in the human body.  However, past adolescence, growth doesn’t happen.  Instead, cells replicate to maintain tissue and organ function.  Still, genetic mutations and environmental factors introduce variability and change.
  • Ecology: Succession in an ecosystem shows stability and change over time. As ecological communities undergo disturbances like fires or floods, new species colonize and establish, leading to dynamic shifts in biodiversity while maintaining overall ecosystem stability.

Each individual Crosscutting Concept relates to the other CCCs. We expect students to make connections across the CCCs in middle school. Similarly, students learn how the Science and Engineering Practices are connected around the same time.

Here are some other posts that will help deepen your understanding of Stability and Change.

Other Crosscutting Concepts that Relate

Related Science and Engineering Practices

Erin Sadler

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