3-D Science Strategies That Motivate Learning at Every Level

Engaging, Equitable, Relevant

“Until kids are motivated and engaged and curious, it’s very difficult to teach them.”

That statement from Brett D. Moulding sums up the challenge teachers face as they return to classrooms following a year of uncertain, shifting learning environments. Moulding, a member of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K–12 Science Education Standards and a member of the writing team for Next Generation Science Standards* (NGSS), has decades of classroom experience making science relevant and engaging for every student.

“We’re moving back to a much richer model of science instruction now,” he says of the return to in-person education. “So it’s critical from Day 1 that students find science to be interesting and engaging by doing something in science, and within the context of investigations, some of the catch-up of what kids may have missed can occur. . . . Our job as teachers is not to teach science but to motivate students to learn science.”

“Our job as teachers is not to teach science but to motivate students to learn science.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Science showed a decline in grade 4 average science scores and stagnant scores for students in grades 8 and 12 (NAEP 2021). In the 2020–21 school year, during the height of the pandemic, students struggled to learn science and teachers were confronted with inequities in student experiences and technology (WestEd 2021).

“This is a perfect time to start the new year with NGSS methods, because those practices are going to pay off at the highest level,” Kristen Dotti says. Dotti is a geneticist and national educational consultant and trainer who guides teachers in using hands-on methods for implementing student-centered, NGSS practices. “NGSS are skills-driven. If a child doesn’t have the content, that child won’t be left behind. That allows access regardless of what happened last year or where inequities might fall in your school or district. It’s a more level playing field.”


Three-Dimensional Science Recap

Three-dimensional science concepts were laid out by the NRC in A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas as “a coherent and consistent approach throughout grades K–12” to realize “that students, over multiple years of school, actively engage in science and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of each field’s disciplinary core ideas” (NRC 2012, 2). The Framework is the basis for the NGSS and similar three-dimensional science standards that set performance expectations for what students should know to become scientifically literate. Rooted in inquiry and discovery and driven by phenomena, the NGSS is designed to connect scientific principles to the real world by leading students to build knowledge by behaving as scientists and engineers in hands-on, collaborative, and integrated environments (Achieve 2013).

Get Their Attention

From the first day of school and going forward, Moulding encourages teachers to get students excited about learning science and reengage them by doing an investigation.

“We don’t teach the science in advance of the investigation,” he says. “We teach it within the context of the investigation. Constructivist learning theory tells us that kids construct knowledge from the experiences they have. So start Day 1 with a rich experience in learning.”

A former high school chemistry teacher, Moulding’s goal was to make the first day of school as exciting as any other day in the school year. “We blew things up, we had color changes in chemical reactions, we had iodine clocks to get kids interested in what chemistry is about,” he explains. “We need to engage students in investigation to get them curious, interested, and motivated so their learning is within the context of the investigation.”

Day 1 Hands-On Investigations That Motivate

K-2Students design a tabletop hockey game to investigate the phenomenon of an air hockey puck’s quick movement into a goal.
3-5Students investigate different tools to measure weather and then, in groups, use thermometers to observe that temperature can change based on location.
6-8Students set up a model pond to begin an exploration of the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.
9-12Demonstrate the phenomenon of hydrophilic polymers that can absorb several hundred times their own weight in water.

Investigations are from Building Blocks of Science® 3D, Smithsonian Science for the Classroom™, Science and Technology Concepts™ Middle School, and Carolina Kits 3D® programs.

Make It Equitable

Three-dimensional science is an opportunity for students who may have had radically different educational experiences in the last school year to move forward together in learning.

“You’ll have kids who essentially didn’t attend school last year sitting right next to kids who had every possible way of staying on track,” Dotti explains. “How do you get students to move forward without extending the chasm? You drive learning with hands-on experiences, present-moment work that doesn’t refer back to content but builds a foundation of skills that move forward with the child.”

The NGSS articulate across grade levels, building in differentiation as students revisit a limited set of science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas, leading to authentic experiences of phenomena. One of the guiding principles of the Framework is to provide all students “with high-quality opportunities to engage in significant science and engineering learning” (NRC 2012, 29). Curricula and investigation kits that emphasize science and engineering practices invite all students to integrate their diverse backgrounds and explore phenomena from their unique levels of understanding.

“The same practices and crosscutting concepts are revisited every year,” Moulding reiterates. “These are the tools that students use to investigate phenomena. It’s not an add-on of one more thing to do but actually is a support system for kids as they leave each grade level. We go back and begin thinking at a very conceptual level and then move onto more sophisticated ideas, to revisit a fundamental understanding of where that core idea came from.”

Example of a Core Idea Across Grade Spans

Motion and Stability—Forces and Interactions

GradesPerformance ExpectationsInvestigation
K-2K-PS2-1: Plan and conduct an investigation to compare the effects of different strengths or different directions of pushes and pulls on the motion of an object.Students use building pieces to construct a swing set and explain how force makes it move.
3-53-PS2-1: Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.Students create a tug-of-war board to demonstrate how unbalanced forces move an object toward the stronger force and balanced forces cause the object to stay still.
6-8MS-PS2-1: Apply Newton’s Third Law to design a solution to a problem involving the motion of two colliding objects.Students build a car with a battery-powered fan attached to explore the effect of forces on the motion of the car with the fan off and on, then apply what they learn to move a ball into a specific target zone.
9-12HS-PS2-1: Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on a macroscopic object, its mass, and its acceleration.Students are introduced to the collection/analysis of data at the scene of an automobile crash in terms of Newton’s laws of motion. They analyze systems of objects and see how math models are used to analyze and predict the motion of moving objects that are pushed or pulled by a constant force or that collide.

Investigations are from Building Blocks of Science® 3D, Smithsonian Science for the Classroom™, Science and Technology Concepts™ Middle School, and Carolina Kits 3D® programs.

“How do you get students to move forward without extending the chasm? You drive learning with hands-on experiences, present-moment work . . . that builds a foundation of skills that move forward with the child.”

Kristen Dotti

Make It Relevant

To motivate students to want to learn, science should be relevant and meaningful.

“Make a real-life connection, a connection to something that is happening in their world, something that is relevant for culture and place,” Moulding says. “When I’m talking with teachers in Philadelphia about weathering and erosion, we’re talking about sidewalks and potholes. For students in upstate New York, we’re talking about Niagara Falls; in Utah, Arches National Park—something they hear about regularly or have seen. The same processes are occurring that cause the changes to happen, so we investigate analogous phenomena. Analogous phenomena are phenomena with the same causes but are set in local and relevant contexts.”

Dotti agrees. “There are things that are very captivating and very relevant, and a clever teacher can look and say, ‘How do I relate this to students who are in front of me right now?’ These students today are really interested in social justice issues, video gaming, gender identity—we have to pay more attention to what is important to our students and relate it to the curriculum.”

The Framework’s core ideas were designed to not only capture students’ prior knowledge but to also consider questions that engage young people—to frame a curriculum around these ideas to communicate relevance and salience (NRC 2012, 28). In California, for example, the NGSS-based science standards are couched in environmental principles and concepts. The physics of air pollution may be tied to social inequities, Dotti explains, so students become invested and understand why it matters that they learn the science.

“From the get-go, every day should be a day that is worthwhile for the child,” she says. “How do I make this meaningful for the child today? A lot will be based on hands-on engagement with the center of the experience tapping into more than one area of their lives.”

Apply Lessons Learned

As schools shifted to remote and hybrid models of learning during the pandemic, educators scrambled to rework lessons and familiarize themselves with technology as they developed new methods for teaching.

“Teachers have found really valuable techniques this past year and technology that they were excited to learn about,” Dotti says. “A lot of them already had it on their radar—more tech, more tech.”

Following are takeaways that can be applied to science learning moving forward.

  • Investigations can be done at students’ homes, eliminating classroom time constraints.
  • Parents make great partners as they support learning through transference and validation of knowledge.
  • Online platforms enhance learning through shared model formats that allow students to access one another’s work.
  • Technology improves assessment by allowing teachers to capture students’ progress as they digitally document learning.
  • Science supports other subjects as students read and write about phenomena and use tables, diagrams, graphs, and equations.
  • Limited content doesn’t inhibit learning but instead enables teachers to recover content within the context of investigations.

What teachers should look forward to in returning to in-person learning, Moulding says, is fully immersing students in three-dimensional science programs that support hands-on investigations.

“Months and months of not knowing what you’re going to be doing, whether you’re going to be online or hybrid or in person, that was challenging for teachers, and it’s not sustainable,” he says. “Returning to the model of instruction where you have kids in front of you—where they make relationships and they’re doing things because they love their teacher—that’s the model that will promote learning.”


Achieve. 2013. “Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States.” Accessed June 2021:

National Assessment of Educational Progress. 2021. “NAEP Report Card: 2019 NAEP Science Assessment.” Accessed June 2021:

National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington DC: The National Academies Press.

Achieve. n.d. “DCI Arrangements of the NGSS.” Accessed June 2021:

WestEd. 2021. “Impacts of COVID-19 on Science Instruction and Enactment of the Next Generation Science Standards.” Accessed June 2021:


Carolina Biological Supply Company is a leading supplier of science teaching materials. Headquartered in Burlington, North Carolina, it serves customers worldwide, including teachers, professors, homeschool educators, and professionals in health- and science-related fields. Carolina is the exclusive developer and distributor of the standards-based Building Blocks of Science® 3D curriculum and the BBS3D@Home digital component for grades K–5 as well as the Carolina Kits 3D® and Carolina Kits 3D® Flex programs for grades 9–12.


The Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) aims to transform and improve the teaching and learning of science for K–12 students by fully addressing science standards. It developed the grades K–5 Smithsonian Science for the Classroom™ (SSftC) phenomena- and problem-based modules and the grades 6–8 Science and Technology Concepts™ Middle School (STCMS) practice-based units to engage students in three-dimensional, hands-on learning that incorporates science and engineering practices.

Learn how a robust three-dimensional, phenomena-based science program motivates students and supports equitable and relevant learning for grades K-8 at and high school at

*Next Generation Science Standards® is a registered trademark of WestEd. Neither WestEd nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.

©Smithsonian Science Education Center. The Smithsonian Science Education Center is Transforming K–12 Education through Science™ in collaboration with communities across the globe.




Leave a Reply