How to Teach the NGSS Crosscutting Concept of Structure and Function

The words structure and function, which identify one of the seven Crosscutting Concepts in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)*, may feel abstract and intimidating. But the reality is something quite different.

Consider your hand. Chances are you have five digits: four fingers and a thumb—each a different length, each with a hard covering or nail, and all connected at the base to your palm. They can move, bend, and straighten more or less independently. At a gross, physiological level, this describes the structure of your hand.

Now consider what you can do with your hand: Grasp a tree branch. Hold a marble. Scratch an itch. Point. Write. Play the piano. The list goes on and on. These actions describe some ways your hand functions. The structure of your hand is well suited to perform each different function.

The connection between structure and function exists in all parts of the natural world and the designed world. As teachers, our job is to help students perceive and appreciate the connection, whether they are exploring a Disciplinary Core Idea or a Science and Engineering Practice. The question is how to achieve that goal.

The answer may be surprisingly similar for learners of all ages. And it may reside, in part, in our own awareness and in the language we use as we interact with students.

Structure and Function Across Grade Levels

Consider a science curriculum for very young children. It would surely include learning outcomes connected to the parts of a plant—roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and so forth. It would also include outcomes connected to what a plant needs to survive and how each plant part helps the plant survive.

The parts of a plant are its structures. How a part helps a plant survive and grow is its function. We can model the connection between structure and function through the language we use and the influence we have on children’s discourse.

Modeling includes using the terms structure and function to share information with children. For instance, you can say, “The roots are a part, or structure, of a plant. A plant needs water to live and grow. The function of the roots is to take in water so the plant can live and grow.” As you use the terms structure and function, children will begin to use them as well. As a result, an understanding of their connection begins to grow

Sentence frames can influence students’ thinking and discourse. Whether the focus is the natural or designed world, sentence frames provide language structures students may use to express ideas about structure and function. Here are some examples:

            This [part] works because _____.

            This [part] needs to be able to  _____, so its shape should _____.

            [This plant] can survive a drought because _____.

            The _____ of this [structure] enables it to _____.

Older students also explore structure and function. They might design and build robotic hands, plan an earthquake-resistant building, or a model bridge. They may investigate cells, and learn about complex systems such as the skeletal, muscular, and respiratory systems. They may explore atomic structure, chemical processes, the properties of material, and genetics. In each case, structure and function are connected—whether it’s the structure of joints in the human body that enables arms or legs to move in a particular way, the structure of an oxygen atom that enables it to combine with hydrogen, or the structure of a trestle bridge that enables it to support extreme weight.

Our job is to perceive the connection between structure and function in each instance ourselves and then provide experiences and prompts for discourse that lead students to understand these phenomena in terms of structure and function.

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Marjorie Frank and Bernadine Okoro’s hosted a webinar, Crosscutting Concepts…Across the Ages, on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. Watch the recording here.

*Next Generation Science Standards and logo are registered trademarks of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards was involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.