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Adopting Three-Dimensional Learning with OpenSciEd: A Conversation with Jim Ryan

Jim Ryan

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) provides a powerful framework for strengthening science literacy and helping students think and act as real-world scientists. However, as OpenSciEd Executive Director Jim Ryan says, the new standards ask teachers and students to conduct themselves differently in the science classroom, which can pose challenges. 

So, as educators look to adopt NGSS and incorporate three-dimensional learning into their instruction, what should they know? And how can they easily get started? During a recent conversation with Ryan, he shared more about the standards, his organization, and how educators can transform the way they engage students in science exploration.

Tell us what sparked the idea of creating OpenSciEd. What is its mission and vision? How did you get these ideas off the ground? 

OpenSciEd Logo

OpenSciEd began as a concept to address the needs of state science leaders who had adopted the NGSS and were looking for instructional materials aligned to the new standards. There was an assumption publishers would create materials aligned to these new standards given that roughly 75 percent of the students at the time would be using them. Yet, for a variety of reasons, including market consolidation and reduced spending on instructional materials, many publishers remained focused on English language arts and math rather than science.

This led to an effort to develop high-quality materials that would be freely available to anyone who wanted to use them. But before the materials were created, decisions were made on the scope and sequence that would be used and what grade levels to focus on, with middle grades ultimately being chosen as the starting point.

At that point, our funders and 10 partner states brought on a consortium of curriculum developers from across the country who had experience in developing materials aligned to the NGSS, and I started as the executive director. The developers committed to creating materials under the direction and vision of the states, which would field test the resources and provide feedback.

Students should be conducting themselves as scientists as they learn the content. And, students should be inspecting data, asking questions of data, looking at natural phenomena, noticing and wondering about the things they see, in the same way a scientist does.

Rather than waiting until we had a full program available, which will be in February 2022 for middle grades, we started releasing the materials as they were ready so teachers could start to see the differences between what the NGSS is asking for compared to the previous standards. The resources really help teachers start to see that the NGSS is a true sea change. Students should be conducting themselves as scientists as they learn the content. And, students should be inspecting data, asking questions of data, looking at natural phenomena, noticing and wondering about the things they see, in the same way a scientist does. With NGSS, students should also be answering their own questions through investigation and data collection, modeling their understanding, and continually revisiting and revising their models as they learn more.

As we’ve developed the OpenSciEd materials, we’ve always had this approach of creating an instructional model that changes the way the science classroom looks and the way students behave in it. And we’ve always had the intent to make the materials customizable so they work for all schools, teachers, and students. Educators need to have instructional materials that work for them and their teaching, so with these materials they have—and will continue to have—full license to do that. 

What do you see as the key benefits to students when educators use resources that utilize the three-dimensional approach? What about using technology like the tools used in the Vernier enhanced supplements?

The biggest change and benefit we are seeing is that students are really owning their learning more and bringing their own voice to it. Learning is no longer this passive process.

With our three-dimensional instructional model, each unit starts off with a phenomenon that students inspect and try to understand. We are really asking them to think about what they notice and wonder. And from that, students develop a driving question board that they work through as a class. These questions become the drivers that students inspect during the unit over a four- to six-week period to get to the target standards.

If educators are teaching three-dimensionally in this way, they are actually allowing for students’ voice in what they learn. Students are able to develop agency in their own learning, and actually pose questions and then develop their own understanding of those questions. 

Using this approach, we’ve learned that students have much higher engagement throughout the entirety of the multi-week unit because they want to understand the phenomena that they were initially posed with, and they want to understand their own questions related to it. Students really develop the skills to conduct themselves as scientists. 

Contact Forces
Our partnership with OpenSciEd provides free high-quality instructional materials that integrate data-collection technology, like Contact Forces: Vernier Supplement to OpenSciEd Unit 8.1.

This whole learning process can be further enhanced with technology. Collecting and analyzing data using data loggers and other data analysis tools, such as the ones from Vernier, allows students to have even greater ownership of their learning since it’s their own data that is convincing them of their answers and solidifying their understanding of the science. With the help of technology, students not only understand their question, they construct the answers to that question. 

What recommendations do you have for educators who are looking to get started with NGSS and utilize the three-dimensional approach? How can OpenSciEd help?

Three-dimensional learning as described in the NGSS is quite rigorous, and adapting existing materials that weren’t created for teaching NGSS and three-dimensional learning can be challenging.

Given that, my recommendation is to look for materials specifically created for the NGSS and three-dimensional learning. In addition to OpenSciEd, there are other high-quality resources available—such as those reviewed by WestEd’s NextGenScience and—that educators can get started with. Since three-dimensional learning really asks teachers and students to conduct themselves differently in a classroom, approachable NGSS-aligned materials such as these will help educators start to understand the very real differences between past practice and what three-dimensional learning looks like.

Participating in professional learning—whether it is synchronous, asynchronous, virtual, or in-person—is important in implementing three-dimensional learning and understanding that it is not a crosswalk of the old instructional approach to a new set of standards.

To learn more about our partnership with OpenSciEd and our free supplements enhanced with Vernier data-collection technology, visit

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