2. Cause and Effect

Below is the progression of the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect, followed by Performance Expectations that make use of this Crosscutting Concept.

2. Cause and Effect

Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. Deciphering causal relationships, and the mechanisms by which they are mediated, is a major activity of science and engineering.

Primary School (K-2)

  • Simple tests can be designed to gather evidence to support or refute student ideas about causes.
  • Events have causes that generate observable patterns.

Elementary School (3-5)

  • Cause and effect relationships are routinely identified, tested, and used to explain change.
  • Events that occur together with regularity might or might not be a cause and effect relationship.

Middle School (6-8)

  • Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.
  • Phenomena may have more than one cause, and some cause and effect relationships in systems can only be described using probability.
  • Relationships can be classified as causal or correlational, and correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

High School (9-12)

  • Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects.
  • Systems can be designed to cause a desired effect.
  • Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system.
  • Changes in systems may have various causes that may not have equal effects.

This is a table of the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect. If coming from a Standard the specific bullet point used is highlighted and additional performance Expectations that make use of the Crosscutting Concept can be found below the table. To see all Crosscutting Concepts, click on the title "Crosscutting Concepts."

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect is often the next step in science, after a discovery of patterns or events that occur together with regularity. A search for the underlying cause of a phenomenon has sparked some of the most compelling and productive scientific investigations. “Any tentative answer, or ‘hypothesis,’ that A causes B requires a model or mechanism for the chain of interactions that connect A and B. For example, the notion that diseases can be transmitted by a person’s touch was initially treated with skepticism by the medical profession for lack of a plausible mechanism. Today infectious diseases are well understood as being transmitted by the passing of microscopic organisms (bacteria or viruses) between an infected person and another. A major activity of science is to uncover such causal connections, often with the hope that understanding the mechanisms will enable predictions and, in the case of infectious diseases, the design of preventive measures, treatments, and cures.” (p. 87)

“In engineering, the goal is to design a system to cause a desired effect, so cause-and-effect relationships are as much a part of engineering as of science. Indeed, the process of design is a good place to help students begin to think in terms of cause and effect, because they must understand the underlying causal relationships in order to devise and explain a design that can achieve a specified objective.” (p.88)

When students perform the practice of “Planning and Carrying Out Investigations,” they often address cause and effect. At early ages, this involves “doing” something to the system of study and then watching to see what happens. At later ages, experiments are set up to test the sensitivity of the parameters involved, and this is accomplished by making a change (cause) to a single component of a system and examining, and often quantifying, the result (effect). Cause and effect is also closely associated with the practice of “Engaging in Argument from Evidence.” In scientific practice, deducing the cause of an effect is often difficult, so multiple hypotheses may coexist. For example, though the occurrence (effect) of historical mass extinctions of organisms, such as the dinosaurs, is well established, the reason or reasons for the extinctions (cause) are still debated, and scientists develop and debate their arguments based on different forms of evidence. When students engage in scientific argumentation, it is often centered about identifying the causes of an effect.