The Role of Big Ideas in STEAM

by Jailson Lima

Chemistry Department, Vanier College, Montreal, QC, Canada

Learning experiences that engage students academically and emotionally are transformative processes that require a high degree of coherence and alignment among four basic dimensions: students’ pre-knowledge and interests, instruction, curriculum, and assessment.

In the last few decades, the digital age has transformed how and when students access information.  Some teachers have reacted by embracing active-learning pedagogies, and many classrooms have evolved from the traditional rows of desks facing chalkboards to mobile tables surrounded by whiteboards and smartboards. Despite the remarkable changes in instruction, integrating the curriculum through an interdisciplinary view of science is still a big challenge. It remains the norm in college science programs to have departments dedicated to mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology where teachers still teach mostly in their outdated silos.

The literature on interdisciplinarity is vast, and studies have identified multiple hurdles to achieving an integrated science curriculum. This monumental task feels daunting, but teachers can promote an incipient interdisciplinary view in their lesson plans by introducing the concept of big ideas. Big ideas are the core concepts of a subject or domain. They are the most important takeaways from a course, and they need to be uncovered to help students construct their knowledge more effectively. 

My own education overemphasized too many details so that I struggled to see the forest for the trees. Retaining those small, shattered pieces of knowledge was a huge challenge for me. It was also difficult to transfer that knowledge to other disciplines and to real-life situations.  

My first contact with big ideas came through the book Galileo’s Finger – The Ten Great Ideas of Science by Peter Atkins. It was revealing for me that those apparent independent pieces of knowledge were part of bed-rock foundational concepts in science. Big ideas helped me organize the vast web of sub-topics that are commonly taught in science course and start integrating them. I immediately recognized the importance of big ideas as a scaffold to organize the curriculum. The use of big ideas can help students retain knowledge and construct meaning for themselves, allowing them to perceive not only the trees but also how the forest emerges from them.

Lists of big ideas in various disciplines are available in the literature. They might differ slightly in the number of items but there is a noticeable alignment and coherence among them. The following lists are provided to give an idea of their general format and scope. 

Big ideas in Chemistry*
1Matter is made of atoms
2Elements display periodicity
3Chemical bonds form when electrons pair
4Molecular shape is a crucial feature in chemistry
5There are residual forces between molecules
6Energy is conserved
7Entropy tends to increase
8There are barriers to reaction
9There are only four types of reaction
*Original article: Peter Atkins, Skeletal Chemistry

Big ideas in Physics*
1Motion can be measured and described using a variety of methods
2Forces and energy are essential to understanding motion
3Collisions can be described using forces, energy, and momentum
4Energy and its conservation are essential in describing and analyzing motion
5The properties of sound and light demonstrate wave behavior
6Electricity is caused by the movement and energy transfer of electrons
7Electric fields and magnetic fields are related and can be used for mechanical energy output (motor) or electrical energy generation (generator)
8The nature of atoms cannot be directly observed but can be described through models
9Quantum Mechanics: Light can show particle-like and wave-like behavior, and particles can show wavelike behavior.  The behavior of light as a particle and the behavior of particles as waves can be described mathematically
10  Special Relativity: the ideas of spacetime, length contraction, time dilation, and energy-mass equivalence
* Gathered from discussions with colleagues.

Big Ideas in Biology*
1The cell is the fundamental unit of life – all living things are composed of one or more cells, and all cells arise from pre-existing cells through cell division
2The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life
• Change in the genetic makeup of a population over time is evolution
• Organisms are linked by lines of descent from common ancestry
• Life continues to evolve within a changing environment
• The origin of living systems is explained by natural processes
3Biological systems maintain dynamic homeostasis
• Growth, reproduction, and maintenance of the organization of living systems require free energy and matter
• Growth, reproduction, and dynamic homeostasis require that cells create and maintain internal environments that are different from their external environments
• Organisms use feedback mechanisms to regulate growth and reproduction, and to maintain dynamic homeostasis
4Living systems store, retrieve, transmit and respond to information essential to life processes
• Heritable information provides for continuity of life
• The processing of genetic information is imperfect and is a source of genetic variation
5Biological systems interact, and these systems and their interactions possess complex properties
• The subcomponents of biological molecules and their sequence determine the properties of that molecule
• The structure and function of subcellular components, and their interactions, provide essential cellular processes
• Interactions between external stimuli and regulated gene expression result in specialization of cells, tissues, and organs
• Organisms exhibit complex properties due to interactions between their constituent parts
• Communities are composed of populations of organisms that interact in complex ways
• Interactions among living systems and with their environment result in the movement of matter and energy
* Gathered from discussions with colleagues.

How to create a lesson plan from big ideas

As mentioned previously, effective lessons should have a high degree of coherence and alignment among four dimensions: students’ pre-knowledge and interests, instruction, curriculum, and assessment.

  • Identify the big idea behind the concepts and skills you want to teach.  How would you summarize this concept in one sentence?
  • STEAM pedagogies promote integration. How can you help students stablish connections among disciplines? Where and how do these big ideas overlap?
  • What should students do to learn these concepts or skills?  Consider students’ pre-knowledge and interests to create an activity where they talk and reflect about the experience.
  • Think about ways you can check if students have learned these concepts or skills.  What kinds of assessments (summative or formative) would be appropriate?

Image: Science by Ayvi Islam (



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