Focus Areas

Science: A Basic Skill in the 21st Century

Science is the S in STEAM — the acronym now often used when people want to talk about science, technology, engineering, art and math as a set of connected school subjects.


California schools are taking a new approach to science, thanks to the state’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The standards call on schools to introduce science to students beginning in kindergarten in order to fuel kids’ innate curiosity and ignite a lifelong interest in science and engineering. That’s especially important for students who don’t think of themselves as “science kids.”

When educators talk about NGSS they may mention “three dimensional learning.” Those three dimensions are shown on the illustration below.

  • Dimension 1: Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) – What scientists and engineers do. SEPs are skills and behaviors they use to answer a question or solve a problem.
  • Dimension 2: Disciplinary Core Ideas – What scientists and engineers know. These fundamental ideas are organized into four disciplines: life science; physical science; Earth and space science; and engineering, technology, and applications of science.
  • Dimension 3: Crosscutting Concepts – How scientists and engineers think. Understanding these common threads that tie together the four disciplines of science helps students deepen their understanding of core ideas and allows them to implement the practices more effectively.


Here is an example of what a child might experience in science as they go through school. Earth’s Systems is the NGSS “Disciplinary Core Idea” being taught.

  • Kindergarten: Students begin looking for patterns in weather through their own personal observations
  • 3rd grade: Students use actual data in tables and graphical displays to describe typical weather conditions expected during a particular season and climate change over time
  • Middle school: Students collect data to provide evidence for how the motions and complex interactions of air masses result in changes in weather conditions
  • High school: Students use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems result in changes in climate.

As young people get older, they learn progressively more about the topic of weather while they also develop their ability to use scientific practices such as data collection and analysis. Even in kindergarten, they begin gaining familiarity with crosscutting concepts — such as patterns and stability versus change — that are used in every science domain.

At every grade level, this new approach to teaching science is designed to be more engaging and interactive, aligning with how kids learn best. The new standards encourage students to ask lots of questions and emphasize hands-on investigation and discovery. The new standards will also allow teachers to be more innovative and creative in the ways they teach science.


State leaders and local schools each have a role to play in the shift to NGSS.

  • 2013: California adopted the new standards, describing what students need to know and be able to do.
  • 2016: The state approved a new Curriculum Framework which provides guidance for textbook publishers and local educators regarding how to teach the standards.
  • Nov. 2018: The State Board of Education adopted new instructional materials for grades K-8. High schools select materials independently, but need to certify their alignment with the state standards.
  • Spring 2019: Students in 5th grade, 8th grade and one high school grade (chosen locally) took the first full administration of the new California Science Test (CAST). School and district results for this and other state tests are available at (Due to Covid-19 school closures, the CAST tests were not administered in 2020.)


In our increasingly technological world, a strong science education is essential in order for our kids to be ready for college and for a 21st century career. To be successful, children need to be able to think critically about issues they encounter, analyze information they receive, and solve problems effectively.

Science class is one place they can build those abilities. What they learn in science will be central to how they understand and make sense of the world around them.

In a PTA-sponsored survey of parents throughout California, 9 out of 10 parents agreed that learning science is equally important as reading, writing and math. Parents know science matters but only about half said they were satisfied with the amount of science education their child was getting in school. Many people hope that the state’s on-going work to transform how schools teach science will help change that.




In the California State PTA Resource Library you’ll find more information about how the Next Generation Science Standards are being taught as well as great ideas for how families all over California can discover science together.