What’s The Big Idea With “Big Ideas”?

Have you ever been so interested in something that you can’t help but research it further?

Think about it. From a biochemical reaction mechanism to why the Hindenburg caught fire, interesting and engaging phenomena occur all around us. These phenomena are not isolated occurrences, despite the specific contexts in which they occur. The same basic principles govern the world around us in predictable, observable, and explainable ways; these phenomena are simply the vessel for engaging us and making us wonder how and why they happen.

Those basic principles, the overarching themes within our disciplines of interest, operate to categorize and explain our understandings of the discipline as a field of study. In science, we call these overarching themes big ideas, as they span a wide range of concepts within the scientific discipline. Big ideas are the themes that push beyond scientific content – they are abstract understandings of the field as a whole, themes that persist as immutable ideas within the field of science even as scientific content changes. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) frames its major tenets around the concept of “big ideas”, or the notion that the forms through which knowledge is produced are more important than the rote memorization of knowledge itself.

What’s the Big Idea with “Big Ideas”?

Why do we care about big ideas in science education?

Great question, imaginary other half of the conversation! It’s one thing to understand the definition of a big idea as an overarching theme. It’s an entirely different ball game to develop an argument for why these ideas matter, especially in my current role as a student teacher. The argument for these types of NGSS-inspired educational practices is at the center of educational and political debate. As my cohort and I will be entering into the teaching profession (hopefully) very soon, we must inform ourselves of these new standards as well as demonstrate and defend their importance.

The NGSS Standards revolve around three major ideas in science; they are: Crosscutting Concepts, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Science and Engineering Practices. While traditional means of education involve content-focused curricula, NGSS pushes for broader concepts with more explanatory power that are informed by the content knowledge. NGSS frames its tenets around the big ideas of science according to conceptual understandings of the discipline (concept-focused) as well as the practices and understandings of the nature of science (discipline-focused). Big ideas, then, are the fodder for standards rooted in understanding, the themes of and about science that students can transfer to novel contexts.

This split into concept-based and disciplinary-based standards parallels many research into the implementation of big ideas, which conveys the necessity for science educators to make both concepts and nature of science explicit to students. This can be seen in articles such as Principles and big ideas of science education. While no list of big ideas can be all-encompassing, the authors of this article identify fourteen major ideas in science which are broken up into similar categories to NGSS; they are:

Ideas of science:

  1. All material in the Universe is made of very small particles.
  2. Objects can affect other objects at a distance.
  3. Changing the movement of an object requires a net force to be acting on it. 
  4. The total amount of energy in the Universe is always the same but energy can be transformed when things change or are made to happen.
  5. The composition of the Earth and its atmosphere and the processes occurring within them shape the Earth’s surface and its climate.
  6. The solar system is a very small part of one of millions of galaxies in the Universe. 
  7. Organisms are organized on a cellular basis.
  8. Organisms require a supply of energy and materials for which they are often dependent on or in competition with other organisms. 
  9. Genetic information is passed down from one generation of organisms to another. 
  10. The diversity of organisms, living and extinct, is the result of evolution.

Ideas about science:

  1. Science assumes that for every effect there is one or more causes.
  2. Scientific explanations, theories and models are those that best fit the facts known at a particular time. 
  3. The knowledge produced by science is used in some technologies to create products to serve human ends.
  4. Applications of science often have ethical, social, economic, and political implications.

Notice how the big ideas are not memorizable facts or events, but rather ideas that need to be unpacked over a period of time. We use phenomena, guiding questions, and inquiry-based lessons to communicate those big ideas because big ideas require context, evidence, and explanations.

My Unit’s Big Idea

How can scientific models be used to depict observable and unobservable phenomena?

The content of my unit is centered on atomic theory, which discusses how the model of the atom has changed over time. This unit focuses on the following major topics:

  • Atomic Models and Theorists (Democritus, Dalton, Thomson, Rutherford, Chadwick, Modern Atomic Model)
  • Subatomic Particles (proton, neutron, electron)
  • Structure of the Atom (nucleus, electron cloud)
  • Atomic Number
  • Atomic Mass
  • Isotopes
  • Energy Levels
  • Drawing Bohr Diagrams

These factoids are all connected by a greater overarching theme – that scientific models are representations of theories and phenomena, both observable and unobservable, that can change according to the scientific understandings of the time. This big idea incorporates the nature of science as a tentative field subject to change as scientists encounter new evidence and derive new explanations. Utilizing this as my big idea pushes the content beyond a laundry list of facts to memorize; through the lens of how scientific models are crafted and communicated, students are prepared to create, communicate, and critique scientific representations.

I have been toying with the idea of using the following phenomena to communicate these big ideas. Feel free to comment with your own experiences of teaching a unit on atomic (or scientific) modeling, as well as any suggestions for phenomena beyond these!

  • Static Electricity – demonstrates that matter contains charged particles (protons, electrons) that interact to induce a charge in neutral objects. I plan to use this as the introductory phenomenon for my unit – students will diagram how static electricity can bend water simply given their prior knowledge of the subject. Once the unit ends, they will create final models of the phenomenon and reflect on how their models have changed based on their new understandings of the properties of water, atomic models, and static electricity.
  • Atomic Bomb – highlights that matter is made up of atoms that consist of a nucleus, as well as that scientific discovery has broader ethical and political implications. I am in the planning stages with a 7th grade history teacher to make this an interdisciplinary lesson – I will go into the science behind fission while she will cover the historical context for its use. (SO COOL, right?! I love interdisciplinary learning!)
  • Isotope Hydrology – evidences that isotopes of different elements can be used to track geologic processes, such as the melting of glaciers.
  • Radiocarbon Dating – evidences that isotopes of different elements can be used to “date” biological, carbon-containing compounds.

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