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CC3: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different measures of size, time, and energy to recognize how changes in scale, proportion, or quantity affect a system's structure or performance. (NRC Framework 2012, p. 84)

Introduction to CC3: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

from NGSS Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts

Scale, Proportion and Quantity are important in both science and engineering. These are fundamental assessments of dimension that form the foundation of observations about nature. Before an analysis of function or process can be made (the how or why), it is necessary to identify the what. These concepts are the starting point for scientific understanding, whether it is of a total system or its individual components. Any student who has ever played the game “twenty questions” understands this inherently, asking questions such as, “Is it bigger than a bread box?” in order to first determine the object’s size. 

An understanding of scale involves not only understanding systems and processes vary in size, time span, and energy, but also different mechanisms operate at different scales. In engineering, “no structure could be conceived, much less constructed, without the engineer’s precise sense of scale... At a basic level, in order to identify something as bigger or smaller than something else—and how much bigger or smaller—a student must appreciate the units used to measure it and develop a feel for quantity.” (p. 90)  

“The ideas of ratio and proportionality as used in science can extend and challenge students’ mathematical understanding of these concepts. To appreciate the relative magnitude of some properties or processes, it may be necessary to grasp the relationships among different types of quantities—for example, speed as the ratio of distance traveled to time taken, density as a ratio of mass to volume. This use of ratio is quite different than a ratio of numbers describing fractions of a pie. Recognition of such relationships among different quantities is a key step in forming mathematical models that interpret scientific data.” (p. 90) 

The crosscutting concept of Scale, Proportion, and Quantity figures prominently in the practices of “Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking” and in “Analyzing and Interpreting Data.” This concept addresses taking measurements of structures and phenomena, and these fundamental observations are usually obtained, analyzed, and interpreted quantitatively. This crosscutting concept also figures prominently in the practice of “Developing and Using Models.” Scale and proportion are often best understood using models. For example, the relative scales of objects in the solar system or of the components of an atom are difficult to comprehend mathematically (because the numbers involved are either so large or so small), but visual or conceptual models make them much more understandable (e.g., if the solar system were the size of a penny, the Milky Way galaxy would be the size of Texas).

K-12 Progressions

from NGSS Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12
Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

Students use relative scales (e.g., bigger and smaller; hotter and colder; faster and slower) to describe objects. They use standard units to measure length.

Students recognize natural objects and observable phenomena exist from the very small to the immensely large. They use standard units to measure and describe physical quantities such as weight, time, temperature, and volume.

Students observe time, space, and energy phenomena at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small. They understand phenomena observed at one scale may not be observable at another scale, and the function of natural and designed systems may change with scale. They use proportional relationships (e.g., speed as the ratio of distance traveled to time taken) to gather information about the magnitude of properties and processes. They represent scientific relationships through the use of algebraic expressions and equations.

Students understand the significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs. They recognize patterns observable at one scale may not be observable or exist at other scales, and some systems can only be studied indirectly as they are too small, too large, too fast, or too slow to observe directly. Students use orders of magnitude to understand how a model at one scale relates to a model at another scale. They use algebraic thinking to examine scientific data and predict the effect of a change in one variable on another (e.g., linear growth vs. exponential growth).

Progression of CC3: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

from A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (pages 90-91)

The concept of scale builds from the early grades as an essential element of understanding phenomena. Young children can begin understanding scale with objects, space, and time related to their world and with explicit scale models and maps. They may discuss relative scales — the biggest and smallest, hottest and coolest, fastest and slowest — without reference to particular units of measurement. Typically, units of measurement are first introduced in the context of length, in which students can recognize the need for a common unit of measure — even develop their own before being introduced to standard units — through appropriately constructed experiences. Engineering design activities involving scale diagrams and models can support students in developing facility with this important concept. 

Once students become familiar with measurements of length, they can expand their understanding of scale and of the need for units that express quantities of weight, time, temperature, and other variables. They can also develop an understanding of estimation across scales and contexts, which is important for making sense of data. As students become more sophisticated, the use of estimation can help them not only to develop a sense of the size and time scales relevant to various objects, systems, and processes but also to consider whether a numerical result sounds reasonable. Students acquire the ability as well to move back and forth between models at various scales, depending on the question being considered. They should develop a sense of the powers-of-10 scales and what phenomena correspond to what scale, from the size of the nucleus of an atom to the size of the galaxy and beyond. 

Well-designed instruction is needed if students are to assign meaning to the types of ratios and proportional relationships they encounter in science. Thus the ability to recognize mathematical relationships between quantities should begin developing in the early grades with students’ representations of counting (e.g., leaves on a branch), comparisons of amounts (e.g., of flowers on different plants), measurements (e.g., the height of a plant), and the ordering of quantities such as 
number, length, and weight. Students can then explore more sophisticated mathematical representations, such as the use of graphs to represent data collected. The interpretation of these graphs may be, for example, that a plant gets bigger as time passes or that the hours of daylight decrease and increase across the months. 

As students deepen their understanding of algebraic thinking, they should be able to apply it to examine their scientific data to predict the effect of a change in one variable on another, for example, or to appreciate the difference between linear growth and exponential growth. As their thinking advances, so too should their ability to recognize and apply more complex mathematical and statistical relationships in science. A sense of numerical quantity is an important part of the general “numeracy” (mathematics literacy) that is needed to interpret such relationships. 

Performance Expectations Associated with CC3: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12
N/A 3-LS4-1


Additional Resources

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (pages 89-91)

NGSS Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts

Bozemanscience Video

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