Science and Engineering Practices

Science and Engineering Practices are skills used by scientists and engineers as they attempt to conduct investigation and/or solve design problems. Though they may differ for scientists versus engineers, these 8 practices are used in science classrooms and in the real world. As the school year progresses, we will become very familiar with each practice and their importance in science and engineering.

1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering).

  • Scientists are great observers of the world, always asking questions. From “Why is the sky blue?” to “Did Mars have oxidation levels high enough to support microbial life?”, scientists are curious about the world around them. While all questions are good, a good scientific question is one that is defined, measurable, and controllable.
  • Engineers are also very inquisitive, but focus more on understanding how and why things work. They identify human needs and design plausible solutions to those needs. Defining a problem means to choose a problem that has a reasonable, valuable, and affordable solution. For example, designing a robot that cleans up my room for me may not be as valuable as designing a robot that accurately sorts recyclables from trash.

2. Developing and using models

  • A model is anything that helps someone visualize and understand a concept better. Models include pictures, diagrams, 3D structures, computer programs, you name it! Models can be used to understand an object, an idea, or even an entire process or system. Check out the gallery of model examples:

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3. Planning and carrying out investigations

  • The main purpose of an investigation is to collect data which is then used by scientists to answer questions or by engineers to test designs. Though we often think of investigations performed in science laboratories, investigations are completed everywhere, sometimes even just by observation. Engineers may conduct an investigation by building a model or prototype, then testing it many times, including under extreme conditions. Good investigations have large trials or sample sizes, with clearly defined variables and controls. Examples of investigations include comparing popcorn brands, measuring the aerodynamics of different spoke designs on bicycle wheels, observing behavior of crested penguins in Antartica, or collecting soil data on Mars via the rover.

4. Using mathematics and computational thinking

  • Math is a crucial part of both science and engineering. From measuring results, planning or building models,to calculating and analyzing data, math plays a central role in almost all scientific endeavors. Mathematical instruments, such as calculators, protractors, thermometers, force meters, etc, are also required in investigations.
  • Computational thinking is a set of vocabulary and methods used by computers scientists. It too is used in both science and engineering, even if computers are absent. Additionally, computational strategies may enhance the power of math, such as running computer simulations to analyze data.

5. Analyzing and interpreting data

  • After collecting data during an investigation, data must then be analyzed to find any relationships and/or patterns. What do the numbers tell you? Scientists and engineers often display this data in graphs, tables, or other statistical methods. Spreadsheets and databases are used for large amounts of data. The gallery below shows a variety of different ways that data is analyzed and interpreted.

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6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering).

  • Constructing explanations in science means that the scientist tries to explain the relationships and patterns observed in the data. In other words, “WHY” did a particular trend occur? A theory is created, and is then perhaps used to predict future occurrences or explain past events. For example, dissecting owl pellets may lead to an explanation of owl’s eating habits. Or after measuring the temperature of water as it transitions from a solid to a liquid to a gas, students can explain why temperatures don’t change during a phase change.
  • Engineers, on the other hand, use data and research to design solutions to the defined problem. They specify criteria and constraints, plan and build a prototype, test the prototype, then refine the solution until they reach the best possible outcome. For example, after countless attempts, a group finally discovers the best way to wrap a rubber band on a rubber band car. Or, after lots of prototypes in a simulation, JPL finally settles on the best way to fold parachutes that safely land the Mars Rover Opportunity to the ground.

7. Engaging in argument from evidence

  • Engaging in argument from evidence means to state a position or explanation as supported by the data. In other words, making a strong case that is based on facts obtained during the investigation. Or, like in History and English, stating a claim and its supporting evidence. Arguing doesn’t mean yelling or getting in someone’s face, but debating assertively, confidently, and positively – perhaps publicly in a forum or meeting, or privately in essays and journals. This practice requires solid communication skills, including being able to state your position clearly and effectively, while also being a good listener.
  • It’s possible for two different scientists to look at the same data and arrive at two totally different conclusions. It’s also possible to find weaknesses and errors in another’s work. This step allows for scientists and engineers to reasonably critique work until it gains acceptance by the scientific community. For example, Charles Darwin used data from observing Finches on the Galapagos Island to argue his Theories of Evolution & Natural Selection. Over time, additional scientists provided their own evidence to support Darwin’s arguments. And now, these theories are accepted by scientific communities (though perhaps not religious ones!).
  • Another important component of this practice is the ability to identify “bad science”. Scientists, engineers, and students need to use critical thinking to recognize when work is false or misleading, no matter how good it sounds or pretty it looks.

8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

  • This practice is how scientists and engineers take in all of their information and share it with the rest of the world. Scientists share their explanations and engineers share their solutions. Both are impossible without the ability to (1) read and understand scientific literature, and (2) discuss science in written and spoken word. In fact, it’s been studied that scientists and engineers spend more time reading, writing, and talking about their work than they do actually “doing” the work. Communication can be formal (published works, meetings, conferences) or informal (talking, texting, twitter, emailing, blogs), etc.

How do the practices compare in science versus engineering?

Check out these videos for a detailed explanation of each practice.

Source: NGSS Framework for K-12 Science Education