Designing 5E Instruction: Unpacking The Standard


Top Three Takeaways

  1. Identify the Performance Expectation you are focusing on, and its accompanying Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts. You can find this on the NGSS site.
  2. Use the Evidence Statements (available on the NGSS site or via Google Search) to clarify what students should be able to do. You can use these to build your assignment and your rubric.
  3. Develop the assessment before planning any further unit activities. This backwards design approach will focus your instruction so that you, your students, and the activities planned are all working toward the same learning goal.

I started my first public school job as an Earth Science teacher at an urban high school.  I was coming from a private school where I kind of “owned” the science domain as the veteran science teacher in the school. I taught fifth and sixth grade general science, planned the school’s science fair (turned STEM Expo under my direction!), and developed summer science camps for school students.  I was used to “doing my own thing,” to say the least.

photo of author

But, I will be honest, it was hard making ends meet on a private school salary (I made less per day than public school substitutes!), and after attending the interview, I had a HUGE “boss-crush” on the public school’s principal. I knew this was an administrator I wanted to work for.

So when they offered me the job, I jumped on it! I knew it would be a huge change — wealthy middle school students to urban high school students, general science to earth/space science, and private school to public school — but I was excited for a new challenge. It didn’t occur to me right off the bat that I might lose some autonomy when it came to lesson planning.

Like many teachers, I spent the few weeks before school started preparing my classroom and planning my first lessons. I examined the curriculum my school provided (a list of basic objectives and the NGSS standards the course should cover) and began to piece together units. I had it all mapped out in my head!

So when I first heard that I had to participate in team planning, I freaked out a little inside. Was all the work I had put into planning my course going to be wasted? Was I going to be stuck doing dumb activities from a dumb textbook from a dumb curriculum? (Can you sense the “pout” here?)

Well, as it turns out, I lucked out. There were two other teachers who had earth/space science courses.  One of them was, like me, a new teacher to the district. She, also like me, was a veteran teacher. And also like me, she was all about the NGSS, 5E learning, technology, so on and so forth. She was on board! The other teacher was an older gentleman who might not have been entirely on board EXCEPT for the fact that, if we wrote the lessons – he didn’t have to! So basically, in that first meeting, I pretty much volunteered to write all of our lessons. Because I’m insane. And also, because I love it.

Oh, do I love it! I love lessons and planning and standards! I could probably go on and on about it, but I’ll refrain. Let’s move on to the real purpose of this post, which is to provide some information on how I develop my lessons and units.  While there are absolutely many approaches, and there are absolutely many experts, I have found that this way is relatively quick, definitely efficient, and it’s something any teacher can do! You DON’T need to be a NGSS-expert to put together a unit plan aligned to the standards.  Yes, ideally, curriculum should be developed by a team of teachers who can examine the standards and combine their many years of experience to develop engaging, authentic topics and investigations, three-dimensional assessments, so on and so forth. But realistically, how many of you have the TIME to do that, let alone the resources?

Since many of us work for schools and districts with outdated curriculums, ancient textbooks, and high demands, developing amazing curricular materials when you need them can be a challenge. So consider that this is simply a starting point — something you can do as you work through the year (you know, how EVERY teacher spends the first few years). That said, you SHOULD go back each year and improve your investigations, strengthen your assessments, and incorporate additional opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. But in the meantime, you have to do what you need to in order to get by — while still providing high-quality, standards-aligned instruction, of course.

So let’s get to it.

Starting With A Standard

Each Next Generation Science Standard is built on a three dimensional structure — basically, there are three components to each standard: the science and engineering practices, the science concepts (aka disciplinary core ideas), and overarching themes (aka crosscutting concepts).  We’re going to look at MS-LS2-4 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, because I just got familiar with it this past week while working on an (extensive) update of one of my best-selling resources.

The standard itself is Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, but what does that mean? To get an idea of the content you’ll be covering, you would want to check out the Disciplinary Core Ideas section of the standard. Now, if you look below, there’s a whole big long list. You aren’t going to cover every single one of those points in the same unit — more likely, you are going to break those up into the Performance Expectations you see at the top of the page.

NGSS MS-LS2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

Performance Expectations

Performance Expectations are statements about what a student should be able to do. They are, essentially, your unit assessment.  For that reason, if you were to fully align to the NGSS, you would really have between three and five mini-units as a part of an ecosystems unit. (I say three to five because you can usually bundle a few performance standards together into a single assessment.)

So like I said, PEs are basically what you are going to build your unit assessment on. I always start here – I need to know what I’m going to be assessing before I can start building my unit. There’s tons of wonderful information out there, but I simply don’t have time to cover it all. And while I will likely touch on other PEs in my final assessment, the PE we are looking at right now is, “MS-LS2-4. Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.”

NGSS standard LS2.C

To get a better idea what that means, I’ll take a look at those boxes at the bottom again. The information that aligns with that standard under DCI includes: LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience “Ecosystems are dynamic in nature; their characteristics can vary over time. Disruptions to any physical or biological component of an ecosystem can lead to shifts in all its populations. (MS-LS2-4)” So that’s the general idea we want students to walk away with: ecosystems change, and any change in an ecosystem can lead to changes in its populations.

science and engineering practices NGSS MS-LS2-4 We also want students to have some skills — the skills included in the PE are pretty obvious, “construct an argument supported by evidence.” The Science and Engineering Practices (blue) box gives you a little more information on that – Engaging in Argument from Evidence:
Engaging in argument from evidence in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to constructing a convincing argument that supports or refutes claims for either explanations or solutions about the natural and designed world(s). “Construct an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon or a solution to a problem. (MS-LS2-4)”

Crosscutting Concepts

Lastly, the overarching themes (green box, crosscutting concepts) for this standard include Stability and Change, i.e. small changes can lead to large changes. That is basically a “lens” through which you can examine information and issues.  

So anyway, we want students to be able to argue that populations are affected by physical and biological components of ecosystems.  We want them to use evidence to do that. And we want them to understand that even small changes can result in large changes.  While it took a little bit of deciphering, the NGSS does a lot of the work of figuring out, “well what should I teach!?” for us!

NGSS standards - how to find evidence statementsAnd in case you didn’t already know, they give you even more information to help you construct an actual assessment! If you venture on over to the right side margin of the standards page, you’ll see “Related Evidence Statements.”  When you choose the set of statements for your PE (MS-LS2-4 for us), it opens up a PDF that shows you the standard information relevant to specifically our PE. So basically everything we found above, we could have just skipped the searching and clicked on Evidence Statements. Well, now you know.

But you’ll find the real reason we are here if you scroll down a little farther on this Evidence Statement page.  The creators of the NGSS basically tell you what students need to be able to do in order to meet this part of the standard — this makes both the construction of the assessment and the construction of your entire unit incredibly easy!

Using Evidence Statements

I always like to print out my Evidence Statements and start breaking it down before I construct the assessment itself. It helps me to put everything in the simplest terms possible, and it allows me to list out some of the important information students need to know.

For example, looking just at that first box, I jotted down — “changes to phys/bio components lead to changes in population.” And I also bulleted, “population, biotic and abiotic factors.” Those are two topics we will need to discuss during the unit to meet this standard.

annotations on NGSS MS-LS2-4

In the next box, it states that students must identify and describe changes in an ecosystem, and then it provides a bunch of examples. This part really helps to clarify the topics you will study — you can choose the “case study” you want to work with (or work with several) over the course of the unit.  MS-LS2-4 suggests “rainfall, predator removal, species introduction.” These suggestions offhand bring to mind possible case studies related to global warming, the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone, or any number of invasive species scenarios.  While I ended up providing examples of many of these changes in ecosystems in my mini-unit, I focused my end-of-unit activities on the introduction of cane toads in Australia — the introduction of an invasive species.

Side Note: As much as possible, you want to incorporate real data and scenarios into your NGSS standards.  While it might take some digging, you can find real data tables and graphs online that you can use in your assessments. Another great resource for data – and simplified data designed just for student use – is Data Nuggets. So before you select your case study, I highly suggest finding the data you will have students use as evidence.

After students explain the change that occurred (introduction of cane toads), they will need to be able to describe how populations in the ecosystem changed as a result. For my assessment, cane toad populations rose, native frog populations dropped. During a unit activity, students concluded this consequence themselves by examining graphs I found from a study conducted in Australia.

Lastly, they will need to provide evidence that there is a causal or correlational relationship between those two events — the arrival of cane toads and the decline in native frog populations.  These are concepts students would need to be introduced to during the unit – cause vs. correlation.

How can you tell the difference between causation versus correlation? It can be tricky. Some things you might want to point out for students:

  • Plausibility: Considering the cause, does the effect make sense? For example, we know cane toads eat native frogs. Therefore, it is logical that an increase in cane toad (predator) populations would cause a decrease in native frog (prey) populations.
  • Consistency: Could this relationship be replicated? Obviously, we aren’t testing it.  That said, we can look at other examples of the introduction of new species to an area. Do native species often decline as a result of the introduction of a new species?
  • Specificity: Could there be any other likely cause? This requires additional research.  Were there any other changes in the ecosystem at the same time that could have resulted in a decrease in the native frog population?

When evaluating cause and effect, students will not have all of the answers. That said, students can discuss these ideas, what they do know, and even what questions remain as a part of their assessment to demonstrate their understanding of this concept.

Breaking Down the Standard

Designing 5E InstructionI continue to break down the standard in this fashion.  Because this is a “construct an argument” PE, I developed a Claim-Evidence-Reasoning writing task to assess the PE.  While I chose writing, students could alternatively participate in a debate, a Socratic Seminar, or complete an oral presentation to present their argument. Either way, after students have engaged in some learning activities about the general concepts (physical and biological components aka biotic/abiotic factors, ecological structure, interactions in ecosystems, invasive species, specifically cane toads, etc), they will have the knowledge and resources they need to “construct an argument based on evidence.”  

No matter what means you will have students present their arguments, I have found that they typically need some guidance.  I always try to scaffold the task so it is very clear what I expect.  I use the C-E-R format to guide student writing, and I use a graphic organizer with specific questions to help them prepare.  This way, they have a better understanding of the information they should be including. And how do I create those questions? By looking at those Evidence Statements. It is all based on what the Evidence Statement asks for, and I likewise use the Evidence Statements to develop my rubric.


For MS-LS2-4, the questions I asked students to address in the Reasoning section include:

  • How can a change in a biotic factor – like the introduction of invasive cane toads – result in changes in other populations?
  • Explain how a single change in a biotic factor can cause a chain reaction of changes in an ecosystem

Then, the top level of my rubric asks for:

  • States that a change in one factor can affect the likelihood of survival of other species. Uses the example of the cane toad to illustrate this concept. Explains how the arrival of the cane toads led to hardship for native frogs, which led to decreases in their populations.
  • Provides detailed examples of other potential biotic and abiotic factors that can impact an ecosystem.
  • Describes how the immediate effect on native frogs could have long term consequences for the ecosystem. Provides detailed examples.

Voila! Standard unpacked, and assessment complete. 

Want to learn more?

How to Use Standards Based Grading with the NGSS (Apple Podcast)

How to Integrate The Crosscutting Concepts (Apple Podcast)

Next Generation Science Standards as Performance Expectations

Aligning Your Science Content to the Standards