Science and Engineering Practices

by Carolina Staff

In the three-dimensional learning model, dimension 1 is science and engineering practices. The National Research Council (NRC) states that “…students cannot fully understand scientific and engineering ideas without engaging in the practices of inquiry and the discourses by which such ideas are developed and refined.” (NRC 2012)

Scientific and engineering practices are identified by the NRC as the skills plus the content knowledge needed to engage in scientific investigation. The eight practices are tasks that working scientists, engineers, and our students engage in daily in the pursuit of science mastery.

While A Science Framework for K–12 Science Education lists the practices separately, they often overlap. For example, practice 4, “analyzing and interpreting data,” overlaps with practice 5, “using mathematics and computational thinking,” every time students compute averages or graph data. The table below lists the eight practices, summarizes some key points about each practice, and offers sample activities in which students may engage.

Practice Notes What the Practice Looks Like in Classroom Activities

Asking questions

Questions may be driven by curiosity, result from predictions of a model, or spring from previous investigations. In the classroom and the real world, the answers to scientific questions should emerge from empirical evidence. Asking questions leads to other scientific practices. For students, the ability to ask clearly defined questions is essential.

  1. Plan a research project.
  2. Participate in science fair projects and other competitions.
  3. Make observations then determine the relationship between variables.
  4. Generate questions about observations of natural phenomena.
  5. Generate questions from investigation models.
  6. Have a class debate.
  7. Investigate a scientific claim.
  8. Design an engineering solution for a problem.
  9. Generate an argument that supports or refutes a scientific claim.

Developing and using models

Models include diagrams, physical replicas, mathematical formulations, analogies, and computer simulations. Students should realize that good models emphasize certain characteristics or properties and may down-play others. All models have limitations and are based on assumptions. For students, models are representations and can aid in the development of questions and explanations, generate data that can be used to make predictions, and can be used to communicate. Models need to be evaluated and refined as evidence is added or changed.

  1. Construct a 2-D model or labeled diagram.
  2. Construct a 3-D model.
  3. Synthesize a mathematical formula from data.
  4. Synthesize a process based on data, generation of a flow chart.
  5. Given a model, debate the limitations of the model.
  6. Design a test of a model to determine reliability.
  7. Compare models to identify common features.
  8. Develop an analogy.
  9. Design a test of a model through lab experiences.
  10. Create a graph from data.
  11. Use a graph to make predictions.
  12. Use manipulatives and simulations.

Planning and carrying out investigations

Investigations, whether in the field or in the lab, produce data. Raw data by itself has little meaning for students. For data to reveal patterns and relationships, students must first organize data in tables or charts. Students should be able to visualize and analyze data using a variety of techniques and tools appropriate to their grade level. Written, oral, and visual communication of data should lead students toward data interpretation, which results in presenting data as evidence.

  1. Correctly record information.
  2. Use and share pictures and drawings.
  3. Use observations to describe patterns or relationships.
  4. Create data tables.
  5. Tabulate data.
  6. Graph data.
  7. Compare data from different groups.
  8. Perform statistical analysis on data.
  9. Distinguish between causal and correlational relationships in data.
  10. Distinguish linear and nonlinear data sets.
  11. Identify temporal and spatial relationships.
  12. Interpret the meaning of data.
  13. Complete a graphical error analysis.
  14. Present data in written and oral fashion.
  15. Discuss the limitations of data analysis.
  16. Rationalize a decision based on data.
  17. Analyze data to identify design features.

Using mathematics and computational thinking

Students are expected to use mathematics at the appropriate grade level to complete investigations. Typical applications of mathematics include logic, algebra, geometry, calculus, and data visualization. Computational thinking may take place with paper and pencil and with digital tools.

  1. Use probeware for collecting, searching, and storing data.
  2. Use computers for data analysis, graphing, and creating mathematical models.
  3. Use mathematics to represent variables and their relationships. (Derive a formula from data.)
  4. Make quantitative predictions.

Constructing explanations

Students are taught about scientific theories from the beginning of their education, often without understanding exactly what a scientific theory is. A theory begins as a scientific claim supported by evidence. When the claim has been validated numerous times, through a variety of investigations, it becomes an accepted theory. Students need to engage in constructing their own explanations based on evidence and apply standard explanations provided in course content.

  1. Write an explanation for a phenomenon based on evidence.
  2. Present an oral explanation based on evidence.
  3. Provide a written or oral defense of a standard theory using evidence.
  4. When presented with conflicting evidence, modify a theory.

Engaging in argument from evidence

Argumentation is a way of reaching agreements about explanations and design solutions. Students should be able to argue for a position based on evidence, whether that evidence is student-generated or gathered from scientific literature. Students are expected to listen actively, compare competing lines of evidence, and evaluate competing ideas and methods.

  1. Listen to an argument and prepare a table of confirming and conflicting evidence.
  2. Given a written document, prepare a table of confirming and conflicting evidence.
  3. Given confirming evidence, prepare a written or oral argument for maintaining a current theory.
  4. Given conflicting evidence, prepare a written or oral argument for refining a current theory.
  5. Given a written document, distinguish between opinion and explanations based on evidence.
  6. Respectfully provide and receive a peer critique.
  7. Prepare a written critique of two arguments based on the evidence presented.
  8. Make an oral or written argument that supports or refutes an advertised claim.

Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Students should be able to read, comprehend, interpret, and compose scientific and technical texts. They should recognize main ideas, sources of error, inference, and evidence. Their writing should be clear and, when needed, persuasive. Students should prepare communications orally, in writing, graphically, and symbolically (mathematically).

  1. Read and critique grade appropriate literature.
  2. Compare and evaluate sources of information.
  3. Assess the validity and reliability of information.
  4. Communicate technical and scientific information in written, oral, and visual formats.
  5. Generate procedural diagrams.


National Research Council. 2012.A science framework for K–12 science education: practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington (DC): The National Academies Press. Chapter 9, Integrating the three dimensions; p. 217–240.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: for states, by states. Washington (DC): The National Academies Press. Appendix F, Science and engineering practices in the Next Generation Science Standards; p. 382–412.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: for states, by states. Washington (DC): The National Academies Press. Three Dimensional Learning [accessed 2017 March 24].

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