3 Argument-based Strategies for STEM-Infused Science Teaching (ASSIST)


The science classroom brings together a blend of students “doing”, teacher planning, and integration of national standards. Argument-based Strategies for STEM-Infused Science Teaching, or the ASSIST framework, is an approach to science teaching that utilizes these three aspects (figure 2). It was created to initiate effective science learning environments, connected to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), that emphasize and promote the following:

An IMMERSIVE, ARGUMENT-BASED perspective in which students consistently engage in argumentation as a key aspect of the practices of science and the development of key conceptual ideas of science.

The use of LANGUAGE and LITERACY skills as tools for the engagement in science practices and the development of conceptual ideas of science.

An INTEGRATED STEM PERSPECTIVE in which the integration of mathematical skills, technology use, and application through engineering is seen as necessary for true engagement in the science practices and development of conceptual understanding of science ideas.

Figure 2: Critical Aspects of Science Unit Planning

The ASSIST approach utilizes a unit planning method that combines individual lesson plans centered around a theme, and is linked to bundled NGSS. The unit plan is broken down into several main sections: General Unit Overview, Initial Engagement Experience (IEE), Argument-Based Investigation (ABI) plans, and Assessment.  The approaches emphasizes the use of multiple methods of communication (e.g. writing, drawing, modeling, verbal negotiation) and is based on the Science Writing Heuristic .


General Unit Overview

The main focus of the General Unit Overview includes bundling national standards and providing a quick reference and outline for each section of the unit (IEE, ABI, STEM, Assessment). It provides direction and focus, while also predicting what may occur within the unit. Within this section we will discuss how to bundle standards, develop teacher unit big ideas, integrate community connections, and explore the planning tool for this portion of the ASSIST approach.  Planning tools for the IEE, ABI Investigation plans, and Assessment plans will be discussed later.

Bundling Standards

It is unrealistic and impossible to cover each science standard one at a time. For this reason it is suggested that standards are bundled, or grouped, together to form a unit with 2-4 standards within one grade. Though there is technically no wrong way to bundle standards, the most common ways that standards are bundled include:

1. Within science domains based on DCI

2. Within science domains based on Topic

3. Across science domains

Bundling of standards help students observe and experience connections between science concepts as they learn. To strengthen this connection choosing a theme for a unit may be helpful. Themes can vary from broad concepts (e.g. structure and function, relationships, or perspective), to more specific concepts (e.g. mammals in Iowa, water quality, or magnetism).

                When bundling standards for your unit ask yourself these questions

  • Will I bundle within a science domain or across science domains?
  • What are 2-4 standards that fit well together?
  • What will be the theme for my unit?
  • Does my theme match with the standards that have been bundled?
  • Am I using standards for only one grade?
                                Example from Elementary Science Methods One Chemistry Unit
Explanation: These standards* were bundled utilizing the science domain (PS) and topic (Energy and Structure and Properties), however, the bundle was modified from the suggestions of the NGSS website. Modification from the suggested bundles should be done and is acceptable. Oftentimes these modifications occur based on student needs or teacher preference. However, this does NOT mean that the omitted standards will not be covered, rather they will be covered in a different unit.*Only the performance expectations are listed.

MS-PS3-4 Energy
Plan an investigation to determine the relationships among the energy transferred, the type of matter, the mass, and the change in the average kinetic energy of the particles as measured by the temperature of the sample.

MS-PS3-5 Energy
Construct, use, and present arguments to support the claim that when the kinetic energy of an object changes, energy is transferred to or from the object.

MS-PS3-3 Energy
Apply scientific principles to design, construct, and test a device that either minimizes or maximizes thermal energy transfer.*

MS-PS1-4 Matter and its Interactions
Develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature, and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.


Teacher Unit Big Ideas

Science education has shifted from rote memorization to conceptual understanding. This type of learning takes the focus off of specific facts and places it on learning through questioning and recognition of relationships emphasized through the CCCs. Unit big ideas allow for student-centered teaching while providing students a place to “hang” the knowledge they gain throughout the unit. These statements can be referred to throughout the unit of study and utilized as a way to organize activity in the unit.

Big ideas are statements that emphasize important relationships and can be used to connect all the experiences in a unit of study at all times. These statements are written in “student-friendly” language that are aligned with science concepts. It is important to remember the big ideas need to be appropriate for the age group and fit the background and needs of students to allow for student-centered learning to occur. The big ideas are adapted for each new group of students but the overarching science concepts should be present (Boxer, 2020; iTeachU University of Alaska Fairbanks (Uaf-Ecampus-Design@alaska.edu), n.d; Rameriz, 2016; Teaching Channel, 2020).

By the end of the course the students’ knowledge should be based on the development of the big ideas (figure 3). This is done through multiple interrelated statements regarding science concepts. The concepts should allow students to partake in engaging learning through the doing of science. Big ideas are one of the aspects of the framework that assist the students in being scientists. This is accompanied by the other aspects of the framework including NGSS bundling of standards, unit planning components, and big questions. The students’ learning does not stop at your course’s big ideas, the content of the big ideas are continued in the students’ science education (Boxer, 2020; iTeachU University of Alaska Fairbanks (Uaf-Ecampus-Design@alaska.edu), n.d; Rameriz, 2016; Teaching Channel, 2020).

                            When developing Unit Big Ideas ask yourself these questions

  • What am I supposed to teach to the students?
  • What do I want the focus of the unit to be on?
  • Will these ideas be present throughout the learning?
  • Are your statements general about the unit learning?
  • Are the statements written in student language?
  • Do the statements connect to your Initial Engagement Activity?
  • Are the statements three dimensional incorporating the DCI, CCC, and SEP?

                                  Examples of Big Ideas from Elementary Science Methods One Course 

  • There are core ideas in science everyone should understand.
  • Science is not just a body of knowledge but also the way we figured out that body of knowledge.
  • There is a way to engage students in science classrooms that helps them understand the core ideas AND the way those core ideas were developed.

Figure 3: Big Idea Construction

(Uaf-Ecampus-Design@alaska.edu, 2002)

Big ideas are the foundation of the course. Over the students time in the course, the knowledge of the students will be built to grasp the needed background concepts and terms to comprehend the course’s big ideas. As a teacher, it is important to ensure students also utilize science education practices while implementing this model (iTeachU University of Alaska Fairbanks, n.d).

Teacher Unit Big Questions

The NGSS emphasize students practicing science and what scientists do in order to gather a conceptual understanding of science concepts. One of the key attributes of scientists is to ask and answer questions. For this reason, unit Big Questions are developed and predicted by the instructor during the planning of the Unit Overview. More about Unit Big Questions will be covered in the Initial Engagement Experience section.

Community Connections

Unit planning should involve purposeful connections to community resources and partners. Teachers should consider potential sources of expert information or potential authentic audiences for student communication. These types of connections allow for students to make purposeful connections to the science concepts they are learning about while also providing students the opportunity to be introduced to potential careers. Teachers should catalog and evaluate different resources they consult throughout the unit.

         Examples of Community Connections

  • Museums
  • College professors
  • NaturalistsGardeners
  • Local hardware stores
  • Local artists
  • Water treatment plant
  • Chefs/cooks/bakers
  • Local businesses
  • Older students
  • Local Co-Op
  • Auto Mechanic



Initial Engagement Experience 

The Initial Engagement Experience (IEE) is the first activity that students engage with at the beginning of the unit. This experience utilizes science phenomena to capture student attention, gather student prior knowledge, and to encourage student questioning. Through this portion of the lesson student questions are collected and student big ideas are generated that align with teacher big ideas. As students engage with the phenomena the teacher can determine prior knowledge through verbal and written ideas as students discuss the “why” and “how” of what they are observing.

The Initial Engagement Experience should be planned in a way that allows for at minimum the following aspects:

  • Big Ideas for the unit emerge
  • Student Questions to drive the unit are developed
  • Student prior knowledge is made explicit and collected in some sort of student artifact

An interesting, curiosity provoking phenomenon or situation in nature is introduced through a shared experience that sets the context for unit activities.

Science Phenomena

Phenomena are natural observable events within nature and the universe that we can use science knowledge and practices to explain or predict. The utilization of phenomena transitions the learning focus from learning about a topic to figuring out an explanation of the concepts involved. Since scientists ask and answer questions, this provides the basis of a unit.

When determining a phenomena to use within a classroom try using these helpful sites:

Phenomena Resources 

Then ask yourself these questions

  • Does the phenomena fit with my bundled standards?
    • Though you may find a video or image that looks neat, if it does not have a connection to the bundled standards it will not provide the necessary support for students to hang their learning.
  • If students meet the standards, will they be able to explain the phenomena that was chosen?
    • To determine if the phenomena connects to the bundled standards students should be able to meet all DCI within the standard if they were to explain the phenomena.
  • After observing the phenomena do I have questions?
    • Asking and answering questions is a large part of science. When observing the phenomena you should have questions yourself. If you do not, then the phenomena may not be intriguing enough to support a unit.
  • Will this be interesting to the age group I am teaching?
    • Though you may have questions, your students may not. Perhaps a phenomena is too abstract or simple for students to connect to. Consider if the age group you are working with will ask questions based on the phenomena chosen.
  • Are there multiple explanations to the phenomena?
    • Science is constantly changing as new evidence is found to support, or refute, ideas. To help support this concept, the phenomena should not have one simple answer. Rather, it should have multiple facets and ways to explain what is happening connected to the big ideas and bundled standards.

       Example of Phenomena


Bundled Standards



MS-PS3-4 Energy

MS-PS3-5 Energy

MS-PS3-3 Energy

MS-PS1-4 Matter and its Interactions

Doesn’t meet student expectation of warmer feeling objects melt faster

Allows for connection to each standard through energy interaction

If students can explain what is happening to the ice cube and metal (such as drawing and labeling a model), they will meet the standards.

Gathering Student Questions

Through the IEE students are provided the opportunity to ask questions in relation to the phenomena they were shown or engaged with. Student questions can be organized into the SEP (blue), DCI (orange), and CCC (green) (figure 4). These questions can then be broken down into two categories, investigation and research. Research questions are those that can be answered by a search engine. These questions do not provide opportunities for students to gather data to make claims based on evidence as they lack variables to manipulate. For example, “what is the material made out of,” is a research question. In contrast, investigation questions are questions that students utilize science processes to answer. For example, “does the temperature of the metal affect the rate of ice melting” is an investigation question as it provides opportunities to manipulate a variable (metal and temperature), and provides students the ability to gather data and make claims based on evidence they gathered using science practices. The investigation questions developed from the IEE lead to the development of Unit Big Questions. By organizing student questions from the IEE the teacher can determine where within the unit students can answer them.


Figure 4: Identifying Investigation Questions

Unit Big Questions

Big questions are integrated into the course in relation to the big ideas. These questions are brought about from the initial engagement experience from interacting with the phenomena that integrates the big ideas. The questions should lead to complex answers by the end that engage and challenge the students’ knowledge of the science concepts that are the big ideas. The students answer the questions how scientists would by testing ideas and carrying out investigations while collecting data and taking observational notes. By the students being a scientist through investigating more questions may arise. Upon investigating students state claims with evidence like a scientist. This is followed by communicating and/or comparing information with many including the teacher, classmates, experts, and outside reliable information (ASSIST with STEM, 2018).

As the teacher implements opportunities for the students to complete and have access to the described framework students experience learning like a scientist. Besides creating these opportunities teachers have the role of observing the students being a scientist. Observing the students gives you evidence and insight into the students’ thought and learning process of comprehending and exhibiting the science content for the course which is learned through the big ideas and big questions (ASSIST with STEM, 2018).

When developing Big Questions ask yourself these questions

  • What do I want the focus of the unit to be on?
  • What questions will need to be answered to figure out the overall lesson intent?
  • What questions will the students ask?
  • Are my questions written as general questions about learning?
  • Will these questions be present throughout the learning?
  • Do all of my big questions cover my bundled standards?

  Examples of Big Questions from Elementary Science Methods One Course

  • What are critical conceptual ideas elementary teachers should understand in Biology & Chemistry?
  • What are critical characteristics of an Effective Science Learning Environment?
  • How can we plan in a way that will help develop Effective Science Learning Environments?

Student Big Idea Formation

Though the teacher has already formulated big ideas for the unit, during the IEE the teacher opens up conversation with students to brainstorm big ideas within their own language for the unit. This allows for students to obtain ownership of their learning. When doing this the teacher provides specific time for students to reflect on their questions from the IEE and to think about the science concepts they already know. By allowing students to reflect and connect their prior knowledge the teacher then helps to guide student language to the teacher developed big ideas.

Student Big Idea Formation Example

The teacher’s big ideas use language that is more specific to the standards that are to be connected. These big ideas, though in student language, do not take into account student prior knowledge. In contrast, the student’s big ideas link to the teacher’s big ideas conceptually, but take into account student prior knowledge.


Argument-Based Investigation: Getting Students to BE Scientists

What is Science? What do Scientists do?

Science is both a body of knowledge and a process. Science is ultimately a search for answers to questions about how nature works and the explanations that develop from that search. In the process of developing these explanations of nature, scientists rely on empirical data (information that comes from using the senses or from enhancement of the senses). This data is collected in investigations and then analyzed in order to develop evidence to support claims that attempt to answer the questions about nature. These claims are put together into explanations. Scientists refer to these explanations as “theories”. When explanations include relationships that hold throughout nature, these relationships are called “laws”. Theories and laws are related but not the same thing. The Kinetic Molecular Theory is an explanation of how gases behave in nature that helps explain why relationships, such as the Gas Laws (Boyles Law, Charles Law, etc.) exist. The Kinetic Molecular Theory will never become the Kinetic Molecular Law no matter how effective it is, and the Gas Laws did not use to be the Gas Theories before they were “proven”. These explanations and laws are always up for debate as new information becomes available, so our scientific explanations change over time as we develop new ways to investigate and we collect new data. These evolving explanations are also influenced by historical, cultural, and societal impacts and although scientists attempt to be as objective as possible, because they are humans, there is always some subjectivity as scientists develop explanations and communicate (and argue about) those explanations. If that is how science “works”, then students in science classes should experience and model this process as they work to understand the existing explanations of nature.

Science can be done anywhere by anyone. What scientists do can be done in our classrooms by our students. In our classroom we want the students to do what scientists do; ask and answer questions by running investigations, gather evidence and data, make claims backed with the evidence and data, and after all of this communicate and share their findings with others. The communication of ideas can and should be done in multiple ways. There are evidence based practices for how to engage the students in doing science in the classrooms. See the SEP practices in the NGSS section for more information. It is important to remember students have their own backgrounds, knowledge, misconceptions, experience, and feelings about science. As teachers we have our own as well but teachers’ opinions should never interfere (Teaching Channel Video, 2020).

Planning An Argument Based Investigation

Student questions formulated in the Initial Engagement Experience should drive the argument-based sequences in which students develop investigations designed to answer their questions that lead to student analysis of data collected to form claims supported with evidence. These claims and evidence should be used to build an emerging explanation of the phenomenon in nature under study, with the broader purpose of helping students understand targeted concepts, develop science practice skills, and realize overarching themes in science. Formative assessment (e.g. exit tickets, class discussion, concept maps, etc.) opportunities should be built into these experiences to monitor emerging student understanding.


Engineering Activity

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) is an integral part of the application of science concepts and practices to real world scenarios. Within STEM lessons or activities students are presented a problem and work to solve that problem utilizing the Engineering design framework (figure 5). Through the use of STEM students act as engineers and implement what scientists do as they define problems and work to solve those problems through creating prototypes and testing those prototypes.


Figure 5: Engineering Design Process

STEM integration should be viewed less as a “checklist” in which a teacher must try to figure out a way to integrate math, engineering, and technology into the unit at some point, but rather as a tool for helping improve science understanding. The purposeful integration of technology, math, and engineering should emerge in every unit as a way to help students better understand the targeted science concepts. For example, engineering should be viewed as a way to apply developed science understanding and further refine unsettled understanding as that understanding is applied to solving a problem or developing a product. Teachers should consider logical places throughout the unit in which STEM integration will likely improve learning and anticipate ways to embed the other STEM disciplines in the unit plan. The following Tips and Resources for STEM Integration can help teachers consider the best way to utilize STEM integration as a learning tool.

Key Components of an Engineering Experience

Problem: Identification of a problem related to the big ideas

Plan*: Students plan a solution to the problem

Create*: Using their solution to the problem, students create a prototype

Test*: Students test the prototype using science practices to gather data based on evidence

Refine*: Using the evidence gathered, students refine their prototypes

Share*: Students share their prototypes and solutions with the class, professionals within the field, or those that may be affected

*denotes potential areas of repetition

Questions to Ask When Developing a STEM Lesson

  • Does the problem identified have a real world connection?
  • Will students be able to apply concepts from the big ideas to help them solve the problem?
  • What types of technology will students be using?
    • Remember technology expands to more than computers, robotics, and SMART Boards. Technology also includes simple things such as timers, thermometers, graduated cylinders, scales. It’s important to know that technology fluctuates with the age level you are working with.
  • Who could be a potential partner for students to share their solutions with?
  • What are potential solutions students could come up with?


Summative Assessment

The conclusion of the unit should involve an activity designed to allow students to communicate their settled understanding relative to unit goals. Importantly, summative assessments should be three-dimensional, allowing students to demonstrate understanding of concepts, practices, and crosscutting concepts. In addition, the summative assessment should capture student understanding of the Big Ideas, as well as their ability to explain the phenomenon of interest driving the unit by using their understanding of concepts connected to the Big Ideas. The summative assessment should mesh with the formative assessment that has taken place throughout the unit. The summative assessment should not be finalized until late in the unit, however, consideration should begin as unit planning is initiated.

Developing 3D assessment

Summative assessments should not only provide an opportunity for teachers to analyze student conceptual understanding, but also determine if science practices have been developed and if crosscutting concepts have been recognized. This is why it is highly suggested to move assessment away from pencil-paper tests and to utilize Argument-based Investigations of STEM activities as summative assessments (e.g. through posters, presentations, model development, etc.). Another way to determine if an assessment is 3D is by utilizing the PE of the NGSS. These statements are designed to include all 3 dimensions of the NGSS and provide a description of what students should be able to DO if they meet the standard. The Assessment Resource guide can provide information to help build effective assessments aligned to the NGSS and an argument-based learning perspective.

When developing summative assessments consider these questions

  • Does the assessment connect to the Unit Big Ideas?
  • Are there opportunities for students to explain or demonstrate the DCIs, CCCs, and SEPs connected to the bundled standards?
  • Are students able to explain their understanding through multiple means? (e.g. writing, verbal, model development, etc.)
  • What, specifically, would students say or do that would indicate conceptual understanding of the big ideas?



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