How to Use the Science and Engineering Practices

May 16, 2022 No Comments

Science and Engineering Practices are one of the three dimensions of the NGSS. They represent a significant change in science education because they empower students to take the lead in their own education. And, they represent a shift away from teaching the scientific method.

Many people say that the Science and Engineering Practices, or SEPs, represent the biggest change that comes with the new standards. There is a lot to learn about these practices. Below, I tell you everything you need to know about the practices. Learn what the practices are, how to teach them and how students use them in the classroom.

What are the Science and Engineering Practices?

The Science and Engineering Practices are one of the three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards. The other practices are the Disciplinary Core Idea and the Crosscutting Concepts.

How many Science and Engineering Practices are there?

There are eight Science and Engineering Practices:

  1. Asking Questions and Defining Problems
  2. Developing and Using Models
  3. Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  5. Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
  6. Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  7. Engaging in an Argument From Evidence
  8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
Graphic - Blue Background with navy text on the left.  Image of 3 test tubes on the right.   Text reads "The Science and Engineering Practices: Asking Questions & Defining Problems
Developing & Using Models
Planning & Carrying Out Investigations
Analyzing & Interpreting Data
Using Math & Computational Thinking
Construction Explanations & Designing Solutions
Engaging in an Argument from Evidence
Obtaining, Evaluating & Communicating Information

How are the Science and Engineering Practices different from the Scientific Method?

In earlier versions of the standards, we taught students to use the scientific method. This was a multi-step approach to learning about science. However, there were several problems with the Scientific Method.

For example, the Scientific Method teaches students to follow a step-by-step approach to science. However, science is a dynamic process. Therefore, scientists can't use the same methods in every scenario. Instead, they adapt their methodology to suit the scenario.

Also, the Scientific Method left out several important scientific practices. For example, modeling and argumentation are sense-making tools used by scientists. Yet, this practice isn't in the scientific method. Therefore, the scientific method is an incomplete description of the work scientists do.

To learn more about how the practices differ from the scientific method, check out this blog post.

What is the difference between science and engineering?

Both scientists and engineers study the world around them. However, their studies use a slightly different lens. Scientists seek to describe the world and answer questions about it. Engineers seek to solve problems that they find in the world.

However, there are many similarities between science and engineering. For example, they use many of the same practices. And, both scientists and engineers don't follow a set method. Instead, they use the practices deemed necessary to solve the task at hand.

How do I teach the science and engineering practices?

It's best to introduce the practices one at a time. Personally, I like to provide students with information about the practice right before I want them to use it in the classroom.

This looks different based on the practice and how it is used in my storyline. Often, I ask students to complete a scaffolded version of the practice. Then, I explain the significance and identify it as one of the practices. Finally, I help students refine their use of the practice.

For example, when discussing temperature and particle motion, I put food coloring in two beakers with water at different temperatures. Then, I ask them to draw what they see. After, I ask them to imagine what they think it might look like at the particle level.

Once students have completed their initial drawing, I explain that they created a simple model. We discuss how scientists use models. Then, we decide what things we can do to make our model better. For example, using universal symbols helps other people understand their models.

What mistakes do teachers make when introducing the practices?

One of the common mistakes that teachers make is introducing the practices all at once at the beginning of the school year. There is no harm in a brief introduction. For example, listing the practices and what practices are isn't harmful.

However, students probably won't remember the practices until they actually use them. So, it's not the most effective use of class time to introduce the practices all at once.

What about an intro unit?

In order to make this introduction more meaningful, some teachers build an introductory unit to introduce the classroom. However, this isn't an effective use of time.

Instead, introduce the practices in the context of the content for the year. This ensures that you will get to as much content as possible throughout the school year.

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    What are the science and engineering Practices used for?

    Students use the Science and Engineering Practices to make sense of phenomena and develop solutions to problems. They use these practices the way that a scientist and or engineer would.

    Students use the practices in a variety of ways. However, the practices fall into 3 general categories: Sense-making, investigating, and critiquing. Sometimes, similar practices are used together. But, the practices can be used in different combinations and groupings.

    Purple background with white text: 3 ways the Science and engineering practices are used.   To investigate, for sense-making and to critique.

    Using the Practices to Investigate

    Students use the practices to investigate. For example, students ask questions about phenomena, problems or potential design solutions. Then, they plan an investigation to gather information. Finally, they use mathematics and computational thinking to process the information they gathered during their investigation.

    If you follow the 5E model, students use these practices most often during the explore phase.

    Using the Practices for Sense-Making

    Most often the following practices are associated with sense-making: developing and using models, analyzing and interpreting data and constructing explanations, and designing solutions. While using these practices, students piece together their understanding of phenomena. As they use the practices, their understanding becomes more clear.

    Using the Practices for Critiques

    Critiques are important in both science and engineering. Scientists critique explanations of phenomena. Engineers critique design solutions. In your class, students will use the practices of engaging in an argument from evidence and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information to provide critiques.

    I like to use these practices in conjunction with practices outside of this category. For example, I often ask students to critique peer models. The critiques lead to better sense-making from the practice of modeling.

    Erin Sadler

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