George Lucas Educational Foundation
Integrated Studies

Designing Interdisciplinary Units in Elementary School

This eight-step framework can help teachers create units that integrate science and social studies with math and English language arts.

May 17, 2023
Jon Krause / The iSpot

Are you struggling to do it all in your classroom? Finding time to fit in everything from math to English language arts to science to social studies can seem overwhelming and, in some cases, impossible. Some teachers might be tempted to cut content like social studies or science to make additional time for math and ELA. But what if the solution weren’t less of science and social studies but more?

Science and social studies allow for authentic integration of not only ELA and math, but also universal constructs, executive functioning, 21st-century skills, and social and emotional learning. By integrating within science and social studies, you can do it all! Don’t believe us? Using this model, we designed two fully integrated elementary units, one for kindergarten and one for third grade.

8 Stages of Designing Integrated Units

Stage one: Review standards. In order to create an integrated unit, teachers should first collect all of the standards in science, social studies, math, language arts, 21st-century skills, and any additional standards the state may use. Look for connections between the science and social studies content areas. If a state has not yet adopted social studies standards, the C3 Framework is a great place to start.

In the unit we developed for kindergarten, we integrated social studies standards around the areas of

  • taking action to address local problems, 
  • democratic procedures to make decisions, 
  • considering roles and members of communities, 
  • comparing and contrasting rules from different places, and 
  • making appropriate spending choices.  

To complement the social studies standards, we bundled performance expectations from Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that ask students to 

  • make observations to determine the effect of sunlight on Earth’s surface (K-PS3-1); 
  • use tools and materials to design and build a structure that will reduce the warming effects of sunlight on an area (K-PS 3-2); 
  • ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation that people want to change (K-2 ETS1-1); 
  • and analyze data from testing two objects to solve the same problem, to compare the strengths and weaknesses of how each performs (K-2ETS1-2).

Stage two: Phenomenon pushes standards. As you review the standards, look for a phenomenon or a compelling question that can drive your unit. As you develop the activities and investigations within a unit, you can look for mathematics and language arts standards and any content practices within those areas that can be embedded.

In our model unit, we ask students to create a dog park in a fictional community. Students utilize a map to identify a location and then begin to investigate to determine what materials might be the safest for both the humans and the dogs that would visit the dog park. To better understand the effect that surfaces can have on paws, students investigate paws of dogs as well as the impact of sunlight on a variety of surfaces to determine which might be safest.

Stage three: Developing learning targets. These learning targets include the goals of the standards written in student-friendly language. Choose a manageable number for the teacher to assess. Learning targets will guide the formative assessments used throughout the unit and the summative assessments at the end of the unit to measure student growth. These initial learning targets will likely be adjusted as the unit gets fully developed.

Our learning targets for the kindergarten unit were as follows: 

  • I will plan a dog park that is safe for dogs and humans. 
  • I will be a good member of my community. 
  • I will share my dog park ideas and reasons with my classmates. 
  • I will use numbers to help me make decisions. 
  • I will use information from books, talking, and listening to help me make decisions. 

Our learning targets are constructed so that the answers to any investigation or problem are not given away in the learning target itself.

Stage four: Writing the unit. The 5E Instructional Model supports inquiry-based learning: Students are invited to engage, explore, explain, extend (or elaborate), and evaluate. As you develop the unit, it’s important to outline the story line by mapping out the guiding question for the lessons, what the learners did, what the learners figured out, and the standards used in each lesson.

We used the 5Es to scaffold our unit, beginning by engaging students in the task of determining the location of the dog park and then alternating student exploration through investigations, explanations via text and discussion, and further elaboration by extending thinking and answering additional questions.  Students also complete a final evaluation through self-assessment and conferencing with their teacher.

Stage five: Drafting lessons. We found that in creating lessons, it was necessary to complete the lessons and activities ourselves to ensure that they could be completed with the desired outcomes. For example, we had created an activity where students tested shade but kept getting an outcome we didn’t expect—cups of soil with heavier fabric strapped on top were getting hotter, instead of providing shade to keep the soil cool. 

We learned that the fabric was trapping heat in the cup, so we needed to redesign the experiment so that the fabric was above the soil. We solved this problem by using clothespins to keep the shade structure above the soil. Running through the lesson helps to highlight any sticky areas that might need additional teacher notes or revisions to make sure they will work. Throughout the entire process, we continued to reflect back on our learning targets to ensure that we were building understanding in those areas.

Stage six: Develop assessments. In order to know if students are meeting the intended learning targets, the unit writer will develop assessments, rubrics, and/or proficiency scales. Developing high-quality, intentional formative and summative assessments aligned to the learning targets is necessary to measure learning.

Stage seven: Add extensions. Extensions are an opportunity to go deeper into a lesson or an invitation to increase the rigor of a task. Our unit includes extensions like possible guest speakers from the local community, such as their mayor and/or park department director. Other extensions include students engaging in additional reading and writing activities, visiting a local dog park, or talking with animal professionals about the needs of dogs.

Stage eight: Pilot the unit. During this pilot, the teachers take note of any areas that need revision. Once the writers feel this process is complete, share the work with the larger educational community so that others can benefit as they work to teach in an integrated fashion.

Developing integrated units takes time, but both the parents and teachers who piloted the integrated units shared positive reviews. All of our pilot teachers plan to teach the unit, and they noted that student engagement was higher in the integrated unit than with traditional instruction. In our assessment of the pilot program, one teacher stated: “Kids enjoy this time in class, and it is a great opportunity for kids to learn how to work together in a small group. In addition to the content standards, there were a lot of life lessons learned from this curriculum.”

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  • Integrated Studies
  • Science
  • Social Studies/History
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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