more evidence to support or refute their ideas. By the upper elementary grades, students should have developed the habit of routinely asking about cause-and-effect relationships in the systems they are studying, particularly when something occurs that is, for them, unexpected. The questions “How did that happen?” or “Why did that happen?” should move toward “What mechanisms caused that to happen?” and “What conditions were critical for that to happen?”

In middle and high school, argumentation starting from students’ own explanations of cause and effect can help them appreciate standard scientific theories that explain the causal mechanisms in the systems under study. Strategies for this type of instruction include asking students to argue from evidence when attributing an observed phenomenon to a specific cause. For example, students exploring why the population of a given species is shrinking will look for evidence in the ecosystem of factors that lead to food shortages, overpredation, or other factors in the habitat related to survival; they will provide an argument for how these and other observed changes affect the species of interest.

Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

In thinking scientifically about systems and processes, it is essential to recognize that they vary in size (e.g., cells, whales, galaxies), in time span (e.g., nanoseconds, hours, millennia), in the amount of energy flowing through them (e.g., lightbulbs, power grids, the sun), and in the relationships between the scales of these different quantities. The understanding of relative magnitude is only a starting point. As noted in Benchmarks for Science Literacy, “The large idea is that the way in which things work may change with scale. Different aspects of nature change at different rates with changes in scale, and so the relationships among them change, too” [4]. Appropriate understanding of scale relationships is critical as well to engineering—no structure could be conceived, much less constructed, without the engineer’s precise sense of scale.

From a human perspective, one can separate three major scales at which to study science: (1) macroscopic scales that are directly observable—that is, what one can see, touch, feel, or manipulate; (2) scales that are too small or fast to observe directly; and (3) those that are too large or too slow. Objects at the atomic scale, for example, may be described with simple models, but the size of atoms and the number of atoms in a system involve magnitudes that are difficult to imagine. At the other extreme, science deals in scales that are equally difficult to imagine because they are so large—continents that move, for example, and galaxies in which the nearest star is 4 years away traveling at the speed of

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement