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Understanding Structure and Function in the Science Classroom

April 3, 2024 No Comments

As a former anatomy and physiology teacher, structure and function was one of the first crosscutting concepts that I started using in my classroom. But, when I began using it, I didn’t understand the complexity involved in this CCC. Take a look at the post below to learn about the vast applications for this concept.

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

Structure and Function in the Science Classroom

Structure and function are fundamental concepts in science that help us understand how the world works. In the context of the NGSS, the Crosscutting Concept of Structure and Function provides a lens through which students can explore the relationships between the form and purpose of various phenomena. This concept is essential for students to understand because it is found in many scientific disciplines, from biology to engineering. In this blog post, we’ll look at what structure and function mean in the NGSS framework. Then, we’ll explore their significance across grade levels. Finally, I’ll provide practical examples to aid in teaching these concepts effectively. This post is designed for all teachers, from the high school physics teacher to the second grade teacher.

Defining Structure and Function

Structure refers to the physical makeup or arrangement of parts within a system . Function relates to the purpose or role that those parts serve. In simpler terms, structure is what something is made of and how it is put together. And, function is what it does or how it operates. For example, in the human body, the heart’s structure includes chambers, valves, and blood vessels. The function of the heart is to pump blood throughout the body.

Understanding the relationship between structure and function is crucial in various scientific disciplines. It allows scientists to predict how changes in one aspect may impact the other. In biology, for instance, studying the structure and function of cells helps scientists understand how organisms grow. Similarly, in engineering, analyzing the structure and function of materials informs the design of efficient and durable structures and devices.

Progression of Structure and Function in the NGSS

The NGSS crosscutting concepts are overarching themes that connect various scientific disciplines. These themes occur across grade levels, from kindergarten through high school. These concepts provide a coherent framework for students to understand the interconnectedness of scientific ideas and phenomena. As students progress from kindergarten to high school, the complexity of these crosscutting concepts deepens. The progression aligns with their cognitive development and increasing scientific knowledge.

To get more general information about the Crosscutting Concepts, click here. Otherwise, let’s discuss Structure and Function across grade levels.

Early Elementary: Kindergarten through Second Grade

In kindergarten through second grade, students begin to explore structure and function through simple and concrete examples. They investigate how the shape and stability of structures in both natural and designed objects are related to their functions. For example, students examine the shape of different leaves and how it relates to their ability to collect sunlight. Also, they’ll explore how different materials affect the strength of the object that is being build. Through hands-on activities and observations, students develop an understanding of how the form of objects influences their purpose or function.

Upper Elementary: Third through Fifth Grade

In upper elementary grades, students explore the concept that different materials possess distinct substructures. They learn that these substructurescontribute to the properties and functions of objects. For example, students investigate how the substructures of materials like wood, plastic, and metal contribute to their strength, flexibility, or conductivity. This progression lays the groundwork for more advanced exploration of structure and function in middle and high school grades.

Middle School: Sixth through Eighth Grade

In middle school, students advance their understanding of structure and function by exploring complex and microscopic structures and systems. They learn to visualize, model, and describe how the function of these structures depends on their shapes, composition, and relationships among their parts. This involves analyzing both natural phenomena and human-designed systems to determine how they operate. Furthermore, students discover that it possible to more intentionally design structures by carefully considering the properties of different materials determines their functions and best use.

High School: Ninth through Twelfth Grade

In high school, students engage in detailed investigations or design processes involving new systems or structures. This entails examining the properties of various materials and analyzing the structures of different components. This helps students to understand how these components are connected to reveal the function of the system or solve a particular problem. Students learn to apply principles from physics, chemistry, and engineering to evaluate and improve existing systems or to design innovative solutions.

Moreover, students explore how the functions and properties of natural and human-designed objects and systems can be inferred. To do this, students take into account the overall structure, the arrangement of their components, and the molecular substructures of the materials involved. By looking at molecular and atomic scales, students gain insights into the underlying mechanisms that govern the behavior of materials and systems. This further enables students to make informed decisions in scientific inquiry and engineering design. This advanced understanding prepares students for further studies in STEM fields and equips them with the skills needed to address complex challenges in the real world.

Examples of Structure and Function

Structure and function are fundamental concepts that permeate various scientific disciplines, providing a framework for understanding the natural world and human-designed systems. Let’s explore some examples of structure and function across different branches of science.

image with gray background.  There is a search bar at the top that says "examples of structure and function".  There are four pictures underneath: plant stomata under a microscope, a water spider on water, rock layers, and long tubes of metal.

Examples of Structure and Function in Life Science

Biological organisms exhibit intricate structures that are closely tied to their function.

Plant Structure: The structure of a leaf includes veins and stomata. These structures facilitate photosynthesis by maximizing sunlight absorption and gas exchange.

To learn more about cell structure and functions that are important to teach, click here.

Plant Stoma under a microscope
The structure of plant stomata are designed to allow for gas exchange with the outside environment.

Human Anatomy: Organs such ad the heart, lungs and kidney’s have specialized structure tailored to their specific function. Understanding the relationships between structure and function is essential in fields like anatomy, physiology and genetics.

Physical Science Examples of Structure and Function

Chemistry: The structure of molecules determines their chemical properties and behavior. For example, the arrangement of atoms in a water molecules allows for the creation of surface tension.

Physics: the structure of materials influences their electrical properties. For example, the crystalline structure of metals determines their strength, conductivity and ductility.

Earth and Space Science Examples of Structure and Function

Geology: Features like rock formations, fault lines and sediment layers exhibit structures that provide insight into past geological processes and environmental conditions.

Astronomy: Consider the structure of a star, such as our Sun. Its function as a massive nuclear fusion reactor is directly related to its internal structure, which consists of layers such as the core, radiative zone, and convective zone. The fusion of hydrogen into helium in the Sun’s core generates energy, which fuels its luminosity and influences the solar system’s dynamics.

Connections to Other CCCs and SEPs

The NGSS adopt a three-dimensional approach, integrating disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts. Disciplinary core ideas provide foundational concepts within specific scientific disciplines, while science and engineering practices emphasize skills essential for scientific inquiry and engineering design. Crosscutting concepts, such as structure and function or cause and effect, connect different scientific domains and serve as tools for analyzing scientific phenomena.

Importantly, all crosscutting concepts (CCCs) are interwoven with science and engineering practices (SEPs) and with other CCCs. This three-dimensional framework fosters a deep and interconnected understanding of science and engineering concepts, preparing students to address complex challenges in the modern world. Below is a list of CCCs and SEPs that are most closely connected with structure and function.

Crosscutting Concepts Connected to Structure and Function

Science and Engineering Practices Closely Tied to Structure and Function

Erin Sadler

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