three-dimensional learning

Integrating Three-Dimensional Learning into Your STEM Classroom

Apply the three-dimensional learning model described in the Next Generation Science Standards using practices, core ideas, and cross-cutting concepts.

As STEM educators, we strive for our students to be both scientifically literate and proficient. The definition of what it means to be proficient in science has evolved in response to the need to remain globally competitive. Most recently, the National Research Council (NRC) has made recommendations to achieve scientific proficiency in the form of three-dimensional learning. Science is not solely one dimension of knowledge—it also includes application and practice. You will find these recommendations reflected in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Even if your state does not utilize NGSS, the tenets of three-dimensional learning have a place in every STEM classroom. So what is the three-dimensional learning model, and how can you put it to use?

The Three Dimensions

The three-dimensional learning model is comprised of three parts: science and engineering practices, cross-cutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas. The vision of this model is for the three dimensions to be integrated in order to provide an engaging and comprehensive experience that will ensure deeper understanding. No one dimension should be taught in isolation. Rather, by taking part in science and engineering practices and applying cross-cutting concepts, students will leave with a greater understanding of the core ideas.

1. Science and Engineering Practices

Practices are the skills needed to conduct investigations, design models, and develop theories. In some states, this may be included in the inquiry standards. Similarly, these practices are best taught in a way that allows the student to engage in the actual practice through experiences. Often engineering is viewed in limited terms, but in actuality, it is likely that engineering practices are already taking place in your classroom. Engineering practices embody the practice of design to solve problems. Both science and engineering practices are listed below:

three-dimensional learning• Asking questions and defining problems
• Developing and using models
• Planning and carrying out investigations
• Analyzing and interpreting data
• Using mathematics and computational thinking
• Constructing explanations and designing solutions
• Engaging in argument from evidence
• Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

2. Cross-cutting Concepts

Concepts included in this dimension are unifying themes that cut across topics of science. These concepts are great to use as bridges between units you may teach throughout the year, or between topics taught in different grade levels. We need to make these connections explicit to help students form a comprehensive understanding of the world. The seven cross-cutting concepts in this section of three-dimensional learning include:

three-dimensional learning• Patterns
• Cause and effect
• Scale, proportion, and quantity
• Systems and system models
• Energy and matter
• Structure and function
• Stability and change

3. Disciplinary Core Ideas

The core ideas are those that are typically seen in our traditional content standards. Core ideas include essential knowledge that have both broad importance and connections to student experiences. These ideas are organized by domain, including: physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space sciences; and engineering, technology, and application of science.

Three-Dimensional Learning in Your Classroom

Ideally, three-dimensional learning takes place through investigations and design projects that relate to the core ideas. Traditional lectures and memorization do not achieve this goal. Our students are naturally curious about the world around them, and by integrating the three dimensions, they can put this curiosity into action. Here are some ways to bring three-dimensional learning into your lessons:

• Put practices to work with project-based learning. First present your students with a problem or challenge, and have students work in teams to find a solution. Design the project so that students discover or use core ideas in the process. Students can reflect on past experiences within the same cross-cutting concept to help them along the way.
• Make more time for practices by using a flipped classroom. By flipping the structure of the class, students view lectures while at home and complete investigations while in the classroom. This will open up a lot more time for three-dimensional learning to take place.
• Transform a genius hour into an exploration of a core idea. Genius hours are a great way for students to utilize science and engineering practices by designing and creating something they are passionate about. You can add focus to your genius hour by presenting students with a driving question that combines a cross-cutting concept and core idea. This will get students on the track to deeper understanding while working on something they are excited about.

Find more ideas directly related to each science and engineering practice here.

How to Assess Three-Dimensional Learning

Since three-dimensional learning may add a dimension or two to your current teaching practice, your means of assessment may need some new dimension as well. Assessments should be designed to address the integration of the three dimensions, including the often-excluded practices.


Rubrics are a great way to assess multiple dimensions together. Here you can address student understanding of each dimension, with varying levels of depth. When using a rubric, provide a copy for the students in advance so they know your expectations. This will serve as a guide and bring attention to each dimension used in an investigation.

three-dimensional learningPortfolios

For a larger unit, portfolios are a good choice for assessment. Here students collect evidence of each dimension to showcase their understanding. Cross-cutting concepts can be used as the theme for the portfolio as an additional challenge for students. Again, you can use a rubric to grade the portfolio, or use a checklist with a rating scale.

Final Thoughts

Three-dimensional learning is a great way to engage your students while they gain a deeper understanding of the content. Even if you don’t use NGSS, the core ideas are mostly likely already at the heart of your lessons. Take some time to consider what practices and cross-cutting concepts may be there as well. Modify existing activities to be more student driven to allow for an additional dimension. Draw explicit connections to themes that unify your units across the year. Three-dimensional learning will bring scientific literacy and proficiency to the forefront of your classroom.

Give STEMJobs A Like

The following two tabs change content below.

Alexandra D. Owens

Alexandra Owens is a STEM Education consultant based in Charleston, SC. She taught middle school science for many years and is now completing her doctorate in STEM Education at Texas Tech University.

Leave a Reply

UA-1638865-31 ?>