Essential Principle 5: Correlation to Standards and Curriculum Connections

Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling is the fifth of seven Essential Principles of Climate Sciences. Most people don’t understand how climate scientists know what they know, partially because scientists aren’t always good at communicating their research to non-scientists and partially due to the way science is reported in the media. Moreover, when the majority of an audience does not understand the nature of science, what is being reported can lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

Curriculum Connections

Family Science Night. Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr.

The most direct method to overcome students’ misunderstanding of science is to immerse them directly in an interesting and testable scientific question (an additional resource explaining testable questions can be found here). The process of engaging in science can be accessible to all grade levels and can be brought into the classroom with a variety of approaches. Whether in teams or as individuals, learners can become immersed in the inquiry process of research, observations, data analysis, synthesis and presentation that lies at the heart of all robust science.

According to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), elementary school students learn science best when

  • they are involved in first-hand exploration and investigation and inquiry/process skills are nurtured.
  • instruction builds directly on the student’s conceptual framework.
  • content is organized on the basis of broad conceptual themes common to all science disciplines.
  • mathematics and communication skills are an integral part of science instruction (2002).

Unfortunately, traditional instruction that misrepresents science as a body of facts to be memorized and the process of science as an inflexible 5-step procedure (the scientific method) can stifle students’ spirit of inquiry. Students should come away from our classrooms with an appreciation of the natural world – fascinated by its intricacies and excited to learn more. They should view and value science as a multi-faceted, flexible process for better understanding that world. Such views encourage lifelong learning and foster critical thinking about everyday problems students face in their lives. You can cultivate these ways of thinking in your students through science instruction that accurately and enthusiastically communicates the true nature of science and that encourages students to question how we know what we know.

So what are the appropriate ideas to cover that will lead to understanding of the nature of science even at the earliest grades? Looking at learning objectives and excerpts from the National Science Education Standards (1996) associated with Principle 5 concepts will help you determine what experiences are appropriate for our youngest learners (see the National Science Education Standards section of this article).

Lessons and activities that provide hands-on experiences can help students develop an appreciation and understanding of science and can be found in all of the Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle Science Lessons articles. Content area reading, such as our Feature Stories and titles from our Virtual Bookshelves, can extend and supplement hands-on inquiry.


Misconceptions are referred to as preconceived notions, nonscientific beliefs, naive theories, mixed conceptions, or conceptual misunderstandings. Basically, in science these are cases in which something a person knows and believes does not match what is known to be scientifically correct.

Misconceptions may form as individuals attempt to make sense of the natural world, or as a result of the difference between scientific and everyday language. In other cases, misconceptions may actually form or be strengthened as a result of instruction. Once formed, these misconceptions can be tenacious – persisting even in the face of discrepant events or careful instruction. Research has documented that students may be able to provide the “correct” answer in science class yet still not abandon their previously formed idea.

While identifying student misconceptions is fairly straightforward, creating conceptual change is not. Researchers recommend using a hands-on approach and providing adequate time and repeated activities to create the conditions necessary for conceptual change. However, it is important to understand that children may be quite resistant to change even when these recommendations are carefully followed. In some situations, researchers found that students developed two parallel explanations for scientific events: one for science class and one for the “real world”!

Instead of becoming discouraged, teachers should be aware of the ideas that students bring with them to science and how these might influence instruction and learning. However, there are steps that elementary teachers can take to ensure that students begin to develop correct scientific concepts. Evaluating lesson plans, textbooks, and children’s literature for correct use of terminology and concepts is an important step in promoting scientific understanding.

The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, has come up with a terrific list of misinterpretations, misunderstandings, mix-ups, and more regarding science. By clicking on the links below, you’ll be taken to the Understanding Science web site which provides an explanation and links to additional resources.

Misinterpretations of the scientific process

Misunderstandings of the limits of science

Misleading stereotypes of scientists

Vocabulary mix-ups

Roadblocks to learning science

You can find more misconceptions related to the study of climate in all of the Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle Standards and Curriculum Connections articles.

Correlations to the National Science Education Standards

How scientists know about the Earth’s past and use models to predict future events aligns with the Science as Inquiry, Earth and Space Science, Science in Personal and Social Perspectives, and Unifying Concepts and Processes (Grades K-12) content standards of the National Science Education Standards for Grades K-4 and 5-8.

Grades K-12 Unifying Concepts and Processes

As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should develop understanding and abilities aligned with the following concepts and processes


The natural and designed world is complex; it is too large and complicated to investigate and comprehend all at once. Scientists and students learn to define small portions for the convenience of investigation. The units of investigation can be referred to as ”systems.” A system is an organized group of related objects or components that form a whole. Systems can consist, for example, of organisms, machines, fundamental particles, galaxies, ideas, numbers, transportation, and education. Systems have boundaries, components, resources flow (input and output), and feedback.

The goal of this standard is to think and analyze in terms of systems. Thinking and analyzing in terms of systems will help students keep track of mass, energy, objects, organisms, and events referred to in the other content standards. The idea of simple systems encompasses subsystems as well as identifying the structure and function of systems, feedback and equilibrium, and the distinction between open and closed systems.

Science assumes that the behavior of the universe is not capricious, that nature is the same everywhere, and that it is understandable and predictable. Students can develop an understanding of regularities in systems, and by extension, the universe; they then can develop understanding of basic laws, theories, and models that explain the world.


Evidence consists of observations and data on which to base scientific explanations. Using evidence to understand interactions allows individuals to predict changes in natural and designed systems.

Models are tentative schemes or structures that correspond to real objects, events, or classes of events, and that have explanatory power. Models help scientists and engineers understand how things work. Models take many forms, including physical objects, plans, mental constructs, mathematical equations, and computer simulations.

Scientific explanations incorporate existing scientific knowledge and new evidence from observations, experiments, or models into internally consistent, logical statements. Different terms, such as “hypothesis,” “model,” “law,” “principle,” ”theory,” and “paradigm” are used to describe various types of scientific explanations. As students develop and as they understand more science concepts and processes, their explanations should become more sophisticated. That is, their scientific explanations should more frequently include a rich scientific knowledge base, evidence of logic, higher levels of analysis, greater tolerance of criticism and uncertainty, and a clearer demonstration of the relationship between logic, evidence, and current knowledge.

Developing Student Understanding

This standard presents broad unifying concepts and processes that complement the analytic, more discipline-based perspectives presented in the other content standards. The conceptual and procedural schemes in this standard provide students with productive and insightful ways of thinking about and integrating a range of basic ideas that explain the natural and designed world.

Grades K-4 Science as Inquiry

As a result of their activities in grades K-4, all students should develop


  • Scientific investigations involve asking and answering a question and comparing the answer with what scientists already know about the world.
  • Scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer. Types of investigations include describing objects, events, and organisms; classifying them; and doing a fair test (experimenting).
  • Simple instruments, such as magnifiers, thermometers, and rulers, provide more information than scientists obtain using only their senses.
  • Scientists develop explanations using observations (evidence) and what they already know about the world (scientific knowledge). Good explanations are based on evidence from investigations.
  • Scientists make the results of their investigations public; they describe the investigations in ways that enable others to repeat the investigations.
  • Scientists review and ask questions about the results of other scientists’ work.

Developing Student Understanding

From the earliest grades, students should experience science in a form that engages them in the active construction of ideas and explanations and enhances their opportunities to develop the abilities of doing science. Teaching science as inquiry provides teachers with the opportunity to develop student abilities and to enrich student understanding of science. Students should do science in ways that are within their developmental capabilities. This standard sets forth some abilities of scientific inquiry appropriate for students in grades K-4.

In the early years of school, students can investigate earth materials, organisms, and properties of common objects. Although children develop concepts and vocabulary from such experiences, they also should develop inquiry skills. As students focus on the processes of doing investigations, they develop the ability to ask scientific questions, investigate aspects of the world around them, and use their observations to construct reasonable explanations for the questions posed. Guided by teachers, students continually develop their science knowledge. Students should also learn through the inquiry process how to communicate about their own and their peers’ investigations and explanations.

There is logic behind the abilities outlined in the inquiry standard, but a step-by-step sequence or scientific method is not implied. In practice, student questions might arise from previous investigations, planned classroom activities, or questions students ask each other. For instance, if children ask each other how animals are similar and different, an investigation might arise into characteristics of organisms they can observe.

Full inquiry involves asking a simple question, completing an investigation, answering the question, and presenting the results to others. In elementary grades, students begin to develop the physical and intellectual abilities of scientific inquiry. They can design investigations to try things to see what happens—they tend to focus on concrete results of tests and will entertain the idea of a “fair” test (a test in which only one variable at a time is changed). However, children in K-4 have difficulty with experimentation as a process of testing ideas and the logic of using evidence to formulate explanations.

Grades K-4 Earth and Space Science Content Standard D

As a result of their activities in grades K-4, all students should develop an understanding of


  • Fossils provide evidence about the plants and animals that lived long ago and the nature of the environment at that time.


  • Weather changes from day to day and over the seasons. Weather can be described by measurable quantities, such as temperature, wind direction and speed, and precipitation.

Developing Student Understanding
Young children are naturally interested in everything they see around them – soil, rocks, streams, rain, snow, clouds, rainbows, sun, moon, and stars. During the first years of school, they should be encouraged to observe closely the objects and materials in their environment, note their properties, distinguish one from another and develop their own explanations of how things become the way they are. As children become more familiar with their world, they can be guided to observe changes, including cyclic changes, such as night and day and the seasons; predictable trends, such as growth and decay, and less consistent changes, such as weather or the appearance of meteors.

Children should have opportunities to observe rapid changes, such as the movement of water in a stream, as well as gradual changes, such as the erosion of soil and the change of the seasons. Emphasis in grades K-4 should be on developing observation and description skills and the explanations based on observations. Younger children should be encouraged to talk about and draw what they see and think. Older students can keep journals, use instruments, and record their observations and measurements.

Grades K-4 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard F

As a result of activities in grades K-4, all students should develop understanding of


  • Environments are the space, conditions, and factors that affect an individual’s and a population’s ability to survive and their quality of life.
  • Changes in environments can be natural or influenced by humans. Some changes are good, some are bad, and some are neither good nor bad. Pollution is a change in the environment that can influence the health, survival, or activities of organisms, including humans.
  • Some environmental changes occur slowly, and others occur rapidly. Students should understand the different consequences of changing environments in small increments over long periods as compared with changing environments in large increments over short periods.

Developing Student Understanding
Students in elementary school should have a variety of experiences that provide initial understandings for various science-related personal and societal challenges. Central ideas related to health, populations, resources, and environments provide the foundations for students’ eventual understandings and actions as citizens. Although the emphasis in grades K-4 should be on initial understandings, students can engage in some personal actions in local challenges related to science and technology.

As students expand their conceptual horizons across grades K-12, they will eventually develop a view that is not centered exclusively on humans and begin to recognize that individual actions accumulate into societal actions. Eventually, students must recognize that society cannot afford to deal only with symptoms: The causes of the problems must be the focus of personal and societal actions.

Grades 5-8 Science as Inquir

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop


  • Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations. Some investigations involve observing and describing objects, organisms, or events; some involve collecting specimens; some involve experiments; some involve seeking more information; some involve discovery of new objects and phenomena; and some involve making models.
  • Current scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations. Different scientific domains employ different methods, core theories, and standards to advance scientific knowledge and understanding.
  • Mathematics is important in all aspects of scientific inquiry.
  • Technology used to gather data enhances accuracy and allows scientists to analyze and quantify results of investigations.
  • Scientific explanations emphasize evidence, have logically consistent arguments, and use scientific principles, models, and theories. The scientific community accepts and uses such explanations until displaced by better scientific ones. When such displacement occurs, science advances.
  • Science advances through legitimate skepticism. Asking questions and querying other scientists’ explanations is part of scientific inquiry. Scientists evaluate the explanations proposed by other scientists by examining evidence, comparing evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations.
  • Scientific investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or procedures for an investigation, or develop new technologies to improve the collection of data. All of these results can lead to new investigations.

Developing Student Understanding

Students in grades 5-8 can begin to recognize the relationship between explanation and evidence. They can understand that background knowledge and theories guide the design of investigations, the types of observations made, and the interpretations of data. In turn, the experiments and investigations students conduct become experiences that shape and modify their background knowledge. With an appropriate curriculum and adequate instruction, middle-school students can develop the skills of investigation and the understanding that scientific inquiry is guided by knowledge, observations, ideas, and questions. Middle-school students might have trouble identifying variables and controlling more than one variable in an experiment. Students also might have difficulties understanding the influence of different variables in an experiment – for example, variables that have no effect, marginal effect, or opposite effects on an outcome.

This standard should not be interpreted as advocating a “scientific method.” The conceptual and procedural abilities suggest a logical progression, but they do not imply a rigid approach to scientific inquiry. On the contrary, they imply co-development of the skills of students in acquiring science knowledge, in using high-level reasoning, in applying their existing understanding of scientific ideas, and in communicating scientific information. This standard cannot be met by having the students memorize the abilities and understandings. It can be met only when students frequently engage in active inquiries.

Grades 5-8 Earth and Space Science Content Standard D

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of


  • Global patterns of atmospheric movement influence local weather. Oceans have a major effect on climate, because water in the oceans holds a large amount of heat.


  • The earth processes we see today, including erosion, movement of lithospheric plates, and changes in atmospheric composition, are similar to those that occurred in the past. Earth history is also influenced by occasional catastrophes, such as the impact of an asteroid or comet.
  • Fossils provide important evidence of how life and environmental conditions have changed.

Developing Student Understanding

A major goal of science in the middle grades is for students to develop an understanding of earth and the solar system as a set of closely coupled systems. The idea of systems provides a framework in which students can investigate the four major interacting components of the earth system—geosphere (crust, mantle, and core), hydrosphere (water), atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (the realm of all living things). In this holistic approach to studying the planet, physical, chemical, and biological processes act within and among the four components on a wide range of time scales to change continuously earth’s crust, oceans, atmosphere, and living organisms. Students can investigate the water and rock cycles as introductory examples of geophysical and geochemical cycles. Their study of earth’s history provides some evidence about co-evolution of the planet’s main features—the distribution of land and sea, features of the crust, the composition of the atmosphere, global climate, and populations of living organisms in the biosphere.

Grades 5-8 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard F

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of


  • Risk analysis considers the type of hazard and estimates the number of people that might be exposed and the number likely to suffer consequences. The results are used to determine the options for reducing or eliminating risks.
  • Students should understand the risks associated with natural hazards (fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions), with chemical hazards (pollutants in air, water, soil, and food), with biological hazards (pollen, viruses, bacterial, and parasites), social hazards (occupational safety and transportation), and with personal hazards (smoking, dieting, and drinking).
  • Individuals can use a systematic approach to thinking critically about risks and benefits. Examples include applying probability estimates to risks and comparing them to estimated personal and social benefits.
  • Important personal and social decisions are made based on perceptions of benefits and risks.

Developing Student Understanding
By grades 5-8, students begin to develop a more conceptual understanding of ecological crises. For example, they begin to realize the cumulative ecological effects of pollution. By this age, students can study environmental issues of a large and abstract nature, for example, acid rain or global ozone depletion. However, teachers should challenge several important misconceptions, such as anything natural is not a pollutant, oceans are limitless resources, and humans are indestructible as a species.

Little research is available on students’ perceptions of risk and benefit in the context of science and technology. Students sometimes view social harm from technological failure as unacceptable. On the other hand, some believe if the risk is personal and voluntary, then it is part of life and should not be the concern of others (or society). Helping students develop an understanding of risks and benefits in the areas of health, natural hazards – and science and technology in general – presents a challenge to middle-school teachers.

Middle-school students are generally aware of science-technology-society issues from the media, but their awareness is fraught with misunderstandings. Teachers should begin developing student understanding with concrete and personal examples that avoid an exclusive focus on problems.

 Note: Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.


“Misconceptions in Science.” Understanding Science. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Retrieved September 21, 2011

NSTA. 2002. NSTA Position Statement: Elementary School Science. Retrieved September 22, 2011

Kimberly Lightle wrote this article. She received her PhD in science education at The Ohio State University and is principal investigator of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, and the Middle School Portal 2 projects. Email Kim at

Copyright September 2011 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1034922. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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