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Science & Technology Curriculum Framework
Owning The Questions

Strand 2: Domains Of Science

Life Sciences

The life sciences study living organisms and life processes from the cellular level to the biosphere. Students investigate individual organisms and they ask questions about relationships, including how organisms interact among themselves, how they relate to their environments, and how life forms behave over time. In the life sciences, students also learn how the human body works and how humans interact with the environment. The life sciences also address the unity and continuity of life, as well as change and diversity.

The Life Sciences Learning Standards for grade span PreK through four fall under four headings: Characteristics of organisms, Adaptation of organisms, Heredity, and organisms and environments. As Piaget noted, young children tend to describe as "alive" anything that moves. Over time, students come to refine this intuitive understanding to include such behaviors as eating, breathing, and reproducing. They also start to think about how organisms maintain life and how they interact with the living and non-living world around them. Through experience and observation, they begin to see how familiar organisms show diversity and variability. As they build these kinds of understandings through direct experience with the living world, young children are introduced to the power of empirical evidence. Learning takes time and many revisits, because young children's observations are often influenced by prior beliefs and experiences.

The Life Science Learning Standards for grades five through eight fall under the following headings: Characteristics of organisms; Diversity and adaptation of organisms; Heredity, reproduction and development; and Ecosystems and organisms. Students in this grade span study a broader range of organisms and engage in experimentation and field study. Now able to manipulate a light microscope, they can observe cells and begin to understand the biochemical foundations of life. Human biology, reproduction, and organ function greatly interest students at this age and are accessible topics during these years. Observable traits may be a focus for heredity study at first, though the genetic basis of heredity will not be well understood until late in the grade span. Adaptation is also understood in very concrete terms at this time.

As they learn to analyze patterns with increasing complexity, students will start looking at variation and diversity in more sophisticated ways. Their classification systems become more complex and begin to conform to those used in the scientific community. At this level, students begin to study ecosystems and to appreciate the interdependence of all organisms; this understanding lays the foundation for the study of evolution.

Learning Standards in grades nine and ten fall under four categories: Characteristics of organisms, Evolution of life, Principles of heredity, and Matter and energy in ecosystems. In these two challenging years of study, students engage with four of the big ideas of the life sciences: the physical and chemical nature of life processes; the molecular basis of heredity; evolution; and the flow of matter and energy in biological systems. Besides underpinning the life sciences, these big ideas are fundamental to understanding many of the social and environmental issues of our time. If students are to adopt informed positions on these issues and behave as responsible citizens, as the Massachusetts Common Core of Learning urges, they must first understand the underlying science.

Life science study during grades eleven and twelve falls under the same headings as for grades nine and ten. Life sciences study in these last two years builds upon, expands, and applies knowledge developed during earlier years. At this level, students develop understanding and expertise by relating classroom learning in the life sciences to community and/or worksite experience or by studying key topics in the life sciences in depth.

Students in the upper grades should have the opportunity to choose from a variety of life sciences programs, and each course of study should be designed around a strong intellectual core. Students may then choose courses best suited to their own interests and career goals. Options for study might include: Advanced Placement Biology; Advanced Topics in Human Anatomy and Physiology; Applying Principles of Technology/ Biology Seminar; Bioengineering Seminar; Environmental Engineering and Technology; Internships in Biotechnology; Internships in Health Science; Internship in Hospital.

The following learning standards often use processes of inquiry to illustrate the ways in which content understandings in the Domains might be explored. However, the applications chosen as illustrations do not imply that these are the only or best way that content understandings can be addressed. Many standards are followed by an example of student learning.

Grades PreK-4 Learning Standards and Examples of Student Learning

Characteristics of Organisms

  • Explore and describe that plants and animals are living things and have characteristics that differentiate them from non-living things.
  • Demonstrate an understanding that plants and animals go through predictable life cycles. These cycles differ from species to species, but all include growth, development, reproduction, and death.
  • Observe and describe that plants and animals have different structures which serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction. These contribute to the well-being of the whole organism, and to the success of its offspring.
  • Demonstrate awareness that there are millions of kinds of living things on earth, and that the number of species is not known. Classify living things on the basis of similarity in appearance and behavior.

Diversity and Adaptation of Organisms

  • Give examples of how different plants and animals have features that help them thrive in different kinds of places. Recognize that these features may be external, or internal (such as warm- or cold-bloodedness), or behavioral.
  • Identify some kinds of organisms that once lived on earth and that have completely disappeared. Describe ways in which some organisms that lived long ago are similar to existing organisms, but some are quite different.
  • Observe and illustrate ways that individuals of the same kind differ in some of their characteristics, and that sometimes the differences give individuals an advantage in surviving and reproducing.
  • Compare fossils to one another and to living organisms according to their similarities and differences.


  • Provide examples of variations as well as similarities among individuals of the same species. Recognize that although it is hard for us to see this, it is true of all kinds of organisms.
  • Observe and describe that some of the variations within a species are acquired during the individual's lifetime (such as an athlete's muscles, or the ability to play the piano); some were inherited from the individual's parents (such as eye color); some start with inherited tendencies, which develop in individual ways owing to the conditions of the individual's life (such as height and foot-size).
  • Identify ways that offspring resemble their parents, but are not identical to them. Realize that in every group of organisms, there is variation in every characteristic.

Organisms and Environments

  • Provide evidence that all organisms use some basic chemical building blocks, including water and oxygen. Observe that each kind of organism has special living requirements, and each has its own way to get the energy and nutrients it needs. Observe that green plants can make their own food from sunlight; animals consume plants or other organisms for their food.
  • Explore and illustrate an understanding that decomposers, which are single-celled organisms and fungi, break down dead plants and animals for food.
  • Provide examples of living organisms meeting their needs by interacting with living and non-living parts of the environment in which they live. Observe that species are dependent on each other to maintain life. Examine ways in which the different features of each species enable it to live and reproduce in a particular environment (habitat).
  • Observe and demonstrate ways that all organisms effect change in the environment where they live. Recognize that some of these changes are detrimental to themselves and other organisms, whereas others are beneficial. Observe ways that changes in environmental factors, such as humidity, temperature, and light, also affect the organisms in an environment.

Learning Looks Like This . . .

Are You Me?

In order to help her students understand the fascinating process of growth and change, Ms. Allard from Fall River designed a science project for her third graders that focused on the developmental stages of animals. Beginning with the children's own world, she encouraged them to bring in pictures of themselves both as infants and now. Identifying similarities and discussing differences in their two pictures formed the basis for her students thinking about change. She was amazed at the ways in which children were able to recognize each other from their baby pictures, because they noticed details, like the shape of the head, the thrust of a jaw and other physical characteristic details which were not the same ones contained in her own observational repertoire. Becoming astute observers, and developing facility in documenting their observations, were critical skills for their study of change. When she brought a clump of frog eggs in to class in the spring, students flexed their observational skills to document changes from egg to tadpole to frog.

Grades 5-8 Learning Standards and Examples of Student Learning

Characteristics of Organisms

  • Identify the cell as the basic unit of life and the smallest unit that can reproduce itself. Give examples of single and multi-cellular organisms.
  • Explore and describe an understanding that plants, animals, fungi, and various types of microorganisms are major categories of living organisms. Each category includes many different species. Note that these categories are subject to change. Life does not always fit into neat categories (e.g., are viruses alive?)
  • Observe and explain that in single cells there are common features that all cells have as well as differences that determine their function. Compare the features of plant and animal cells noting similarities and differences.
  • Investigate and illustrate evidence that cell replication results not only in the multiplication of individual cells, but also in the growth and repair of multi-cellular organisms.
  • Present data to illustrate that all organisms, whether single or multi-cellular, exhibit the same life processes, including growth, reproduction and the exchange of materials and energy with their environments.
  • Describe ways that cells can differ in multi-cellular organisms, assuming different appearances and carrying out specialized functions.
  • Investigate and explain that complex multi-cellular organisms are interacting systems of cells, tissues, and organs that fulfill life processes through mechanical, electrical, and chemical means, including procuring or manufacturing food, and breathing and respiration.

Diversity and Adaptation of Organisms

  • Explain situations in which short-term changes in available food, moisture, or temperature of an ecosystem may result in a change in the number of organisms in a population or in the average size of individual organisms or in the behavior of individuals in a population. Explore through models and evidence ways in which long term changes may result in the elimination of a population or the introduction of new populations.
  • Explore and illustrate that in both the short and long term (millions of years), changes in the environment have resulted in qualitative and quantitative changes in the species of plants and animals that inhabit the Earth.

Heredity, Reproduction and Development

  • Explain the importance of reproduction to the survival of the species. Students compare and contrast sexual and asexual (e.g., yeast) reproduction.
  • Investigate and describe processes by which organisms that have two parents receive a full set of genetic instructions by way of the parents' reproduction cells specifying individual traits from each parent. Offspring exhibit traits from each parent.
  • Illustrate an understanding that sorting and recombining of the genetic material of parents during reproduction produce the potential for variation among offspring.
  • Examine evidence and describe that there are minor differences among individuals from the same population or among individuals of the same species. Explore ways in which some differences are acquired by the individual and affect only that individual, while other differences can be passed on to the individual's offspring.

Ecosystems and Organisms

  • Present evidence that species depend on one another. Describe ways in which interactions of organisms with each other and non-living parts of their environments result in the flow of energy and matter throughout the system.
  • Explore and illustrate how energy is supplied to an ecosystem primarily in the form of sunlight. Examine evidence that plants convert light energy into stored energy which the plant, in turn, uses to carry out its life processes. Describe how this serves as the beginning of the food chain for all animals.
  • Observe and illustrate the variety of ways in which plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms interact. Represent how matter is cycled and recycled through these interactions, and energy flows through ecosystems.
  • Classify organisms according to the function they serve in a food chain (any single organism can serve each of these functions): production of food, consumption of food, or decomposition of organic matter.

Learning Looks Like This . . .

The Return of the Osprey

Children in Ms. Le Boeuf's fifth grade class are involved in investigating why the osprey are returning to the Buzzards Bay area after declining in population for over thirty years.

Field study, including observing birds in the urban area around their school and on the beach, led them to inquire about the changes in the bird population during the last several decades. Study of the relationship between environmental factors such as air, water, and chemical pollution and the concentration of osprey in their area helped them to realize that certain aspects of the environment can be hazardous to certain species under certain conditions (the sort of conditional thinking so important to doing real science!) Their interest widened to include questions concerning how recent environmental laws protect this species. At the end of their project, students designed ideal environments to attract osprey to return to this area.

Grades 9-10 Learning Standards and Examples of Student Learning

Characteristics of Organisms

  • Examine evidence and demonstate that many molecular aspects of life processes of multi-cellular organisms occur in cells.
  • Investigate and describe understanding that cells have particular structures that underlie their functions. Students compare the structure and function of various cells.
  • Compare and contrast the cell boundaries that control what can enter and leave the cell. Realize that in all but quite primitive cells, a complex network of proteins provides organization and shape. Students might observe bacterial, animal, and plant cells.
  • Give evidence that all organic molecules are constructed of four fundamental elements, i.e., carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

Evolution of Life

  • Describe the theory of biological evolution which states that the earth's present-day species are descended from earlier species. Students might experiment with or outline the evolution of a particular organism.
  • Describe ways in which genetic variation is preserved or eliminated from a population through natural selection. Students might cite examples in which chance alone can result in the persistence of some heritable characteristics that have no survival or reproductive advantage or disadvantage for the organism. Students might examine ways that when an environment changes, the survival value of some inherited characteristics may change.
  • Examine and summarize evidence that evolution builds on what already exists, so the more variety there is, the more there can be in the future. But know that evolution does not necessitate long-term progress in some set direction.

Principles of Heredity

  • Give evidence that cells are the repositories of biological information.
  • Explore and illustrate that chromosomes are the components of cells which convey hereditary information from one cell to its daughter cells and from a parent to its offspring.
  • Illustrate an understanding that chromosomes are composed of subunits called genes; each gene encodes the information directing the synthesis of a cell product, usually a protein, and can often be identified with a trait observed in the organism. Create annotated drawings, models or other representations.
  • Describe the structure and function of DNA.
  • Give evidence that in reproductive processes involving two parents (sexual reproduction), with two specialized reproductive cells (gametes), one from each parent, (zygote) directs the formation of a new organism that has attributes of both parents.
  • Discriminate between characteristics that result from the operation of a single gene and some that result from the action of several genes.

Matter and Energy in Ecosystems

  • Examine and describe ways in which the conservation of energy law is a powerful tool for the analysis of energy flow in ecosystems.
  • Demonstrate an understanding that energy is supplied to ecosystems by sunlight and dissipates as heat. Know that the principal pathway of this dissipation is cellular respiration.
  • Illustrate an understanding that plants convert light energy into chemical energy.
  • Explore and illustrate why carbon compounds produced by plants (carbohydrates and oils) are the primary source of energy for all animal life. Describe the role of plants as a principal source of nutrients (including amino acids) to consumers and decomposers.

Learning Looks Like This . . .

Leaf Pigmentation Study in Arlington

In Arlington, Mr. Bockler, a tenth grade biology teacher begins with what appears to be a simple question: "Why do leaves change color in the fall?" This proves to be a complex investigation in which students grapple with many of the important concepts from other domains of science as well. His goal is to challenge his students to engage in a scientific way of knowing. While initial hypotheses hinge on changes in light, temperature, and the earth's tilt and revolution around the sun, a laboratory exercise concerning leaf pigmentation proves to be the springboard for exploration of many related scientific issues.

The first challenge is to explore alternative explanations for leaf color change.In order to choose the best fit explanation for leaf changes from green to fall colors, students must test specific hypotheses and apply techniques of paper chromatography.

In addition, they consider "What are the functions of the various pigments in leaves?" "Why are they mostly green in the summer and change in the fall?" and "How and why might this differ in tropical regions?"

They discuss issues of measurement: "Why are Rf ratios more valuable in comparing results of different groups than in comparing the simple travel distances for each pigment?" "How might other scientists use the chromatography technique in other studies in Biology, for example in food and nutrition studies, in protein chemistry or with DNA studies?"

Their teacher leads them to questions of evolution and adaptation, "How are broad-leaved trees and evergreens adapted to seasonal changes?"

The Biology study is actually a Science study, since physical science content and aspects of earth science are of critical importance to leaf study.

Grades 11-12 Learning Standards and Examples of Student Learning

Characteristics of Organisms

  • Demonstrate an understanding that cell membranes often are the sites of chemical syntheses and energy conversions essential to life.
  • Demonstrate the relationship between the expression of a gene and a specific enzyme, and the relationship between an enzyme and a chemical reaction.
  • Describe the idea that in complex, multi-cellular organisms, cells have specialized functions, communicate with each other, and are mutually dependent. Give examples of the mutual dependency of cells within an organism.
  • Explain why biological systems are also physical and chemical systems. Examine evidence that living things operate according to the "laws" of physical science, such as the conservation of matter and energy, and the laws of thermodynamics.

Evolution of Life

  • Present evidence that natural selection provides the following mechanism for evolution: Some variation in heritable characteristics exists within every species, some of these characteristics give individuals an advantage over others in surviving and reproducing, and the advantaged offspring, in turn, are more likely than others to survive and reproduce. The proportion of individuals that have advantageous characteristics will increase, if selection pressures do not change.
  • Explore and describe molecular evidence that substantiates the anatomical evidence for evolution and provides additional detail about the sequence in which various lines of descent branched off from one another.
  • Examine and give evidence that life on earth is thought to have begun as one-celled organisms at least 3.6 billion years ago. Create timelines, graphs, illustrations or other representations to illustrate evolution of life from a single-celled microorganism.

Principles of Heredity

  • Illustrate an understanding that many (50,000-100,000) bits of information, or genes, are encoded in human DNA. Describe ways in which the expression of a given trait will depend, to some degree, on the genetic background made up of all other traits.
  • Examine and give evidence that in some cases, it is possible for an identical (clone) organism to grow from a single cell or a cluster of cells from the parent organism (asexual reproduction). In the case of asexual reproduction, the offspring is exactly like the parent.
  • Demonstrate an understanding that the DNA code based on triplets of four nitrogenous bases is virtually the same for all life forms.
  • Represent an understanding that DNA is a chemical substance that can be separated from cells and altered mechanically and chemically in test tubes. Examine evidence that when altered DNA (from the same species) or DNA from another species is introduced into a cell, a new trait may be introduced into the cell's genetic material.
  • Describe ways in which fragments of DNA can be analyzed to identify the individual from which the sample of DNA came, diagnose human genetic abnormalities, and study populations.
  • Examine and describe evidence that mutations in DNA occur naturally at low rates and take several different forms. Recognize that under certain environmental conditions the probability of mutation increases. Students might track mutated genes in somatic and germ cells of parents and offspring.

Matter and Energy in Ecosystems

  • Present evidence that energy flows through an ecosystem from prey to predator in the form of high energy chemical substances.
  • Explore and show evidence that energy conversions that take place when animals metabolize carbohydrates and fats from plant or other animal sources are inefficient.
  • Present evidence that matter is recycled in ecological systems. Create models that represent the recycling of matter, e.g., water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle.
  • Identify the mechanisms by which animals and decomposers absorb some of the energy available in their food, but respire the largest proportion. Thus energy gets passed in a diminishing way from sun through plants and consumers; at every step much is lost in respiration. Use these understandings to describe how matter cycles, but energy flows downhill and is lost to the system.

Learning Looks Like This . . .

Fitness Trainers to Medical Doctors

John has been very interested in the study of biology ever since he took his semester - long course in the life sciences during his sophomore year, but he did not do very well in this course. Convinced that science was not in his future, he met with his guidance counselor to plan what to take. His guidance counselor recommended two courses for his junior year: an Anatomy and Physiology course and a course in Health Careers in which students learn about the work and preparation of health professionals, from fitness trainers to medical doctors. Health career exploration included rotation and job shadowing in local hospitals and health care facilities, and after school job placements. John came to realize that he was good at, and enjoyed, this involvement with life science. During his senior year, he undertook a yearlong internship working in a geriatric health care facility.

Last Updated: January 1, 1996
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