Science and Engineering Practices

In the following sections, we first explain the synergy between each science and engineering practice and the five MDPs. We then provide multiple examples, options, and variations of activities and instructional strategies that are aligned with each MDP and the focal practice in order to be as comprehensive and specific as possible. However, this does not mean that teachers must use all of these strategies to enact the MDPs when promoting each science and engineering practice, nor that these strategies are the only way to do so. We encourage teachers to use their professional discretion to select what will work best for them and their classrooms, and to modify and innovate on these strategies, using the blank space provided at the end of each section for notes, reflections, and new ideas.

Asking Questions

Practice 1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Belonging Supports for Asking Questions and Defining Problems

To engage fully in this practice, students should be comfortable with each other and trust that their questions will be met by their peers and teachers with an open mind and a lack of judgment of them as a person. Instructional strategies that support students’ feelings of belonging cultivate a safe space in which questions can be posed and critiqued as students figure out phenomena and design solutions to problems. Strategies that support belonging also encourage students to develop a sense of being part of a community of scientists and engineers, which is especially important for students who may not have a well-developed science identity or who may feel alienated from science [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity]. As students begin to feel a greater sense of belonging within their science classroom community and within science and engineering communities, they may feel more inclined to engage in scientific questioning and in defining problems.

Strategies

Share pieces of evidence (through journals or videos) of scientists from diverse backgrounds engaging in scientific questioning to help students develop their science identity.
Respond promptly and with an open mind to student questions to communicate that their questions are valued and important.
Learn about and adopt strategies from equitable teaching frameworks (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy) to help select phenomena that facilitate students’ ability to ask scientific questions about the phenomena and feel a sense of belonging as scientists
Provide opportunities for many scientific questions to be heard through group work (e.g., think-pair-share, inner-outer circle) and whole class share out.
Set guidelines/routines that foster peer support (e.g., how to listen to, acknowledge, and respond to others) by creating a safe environment (e.g., not laughing at scientific questions that are shared).

Asking questions and defining problems drives science and engineering. If students do not feel confident that they can ask questions and define problems successfully, they are less likely to put effort into these tasks that are key to engaging meaningfully in authentic scientific inquiry and engineering design. In order to be able to successfully implement activities aimed at answering questions and finding design solutions, it is important to build students’ confidence by providing clear directions, explaining the phenomenon or design scenario, and providing supports to help students ask questions and define problems that are calibrated to their current level of understanding and skill. Providing informational feedback supports students in further developing their skill at asking questions and defining problems.

Strategies

Give students time to practice asking questions/sharing questions/categorizing questions to help students gain confidence in asking questions the way scientists do: to try to extend their understanding and explore further (e.g., “what if we changed a variable?”). Giving students sentence starters for questions or elaboration can help them feel more confident practicing these new types of questions.
  • One way to introduce these questions is to have students practice by asking questions about a phenomenon or design problem that is familiar to them
Use a Driving Question Board: Have students write down what they are curious about regarding a phenomenon or what interests them, and then use their questions and curiosities to generate driving questions that can be investigated over time. Underneath each big driving question, post student sub-questions and wonderments. Accept all initial sub-questions and wonderments to go on the board sending the message that all students’ sub-questions and curiosities are valid. Upon reviewing the sub-questions placed on the board, provide warm and encouraging feedback to improve students’ sub-questions to make them more scientific as needed. A whole-class discussion then leads to some of the sub-questions being merged, re-categorized, or deleted.
Ensure that students receive informational feedback on their scientific questions to help them improve their question-asking over time.
Validate students’ use of everyday language to express their scientific questions and conceptual understanding. Revoice student comments to help connect their everyday language to scientific language.
Model scientific language that students can use when asking questions and defining problems.

Asking questions and defining problems drives science and engineering. A curiosity to figure out a phenomenon or solve a problem drives many of the decisions scientists and engineers make. Having a learning orientation rather than striving to complete assignments, earn points, outperform others, or try to “look smart” supports authentic scientific inquiry and engineering design. Instructional supports for a learning orientation are also necessary to ensure that students feel comfortable asking questions, as ego-oriented students or students who are concerned about confirming negative ability stereotypes could view questions as evidence of incompetence [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity]. Scientists and engineers ask specific types of questions, and as students learn to ask these types of questions, they will make mistakes. A learning orientation will help students to focus on their growth in this skill rather than view themselves as a failure when they make mistakes as they learn.

Strategies

Do a think-aloud in which the teacher models scientific question-asking about a phenomenon or models defining problems, and/or how questions lead to other science and engineering practices, such as analyzing data or planning and carrying out investigations. Eventually, once this routine is familiar, students could also be asked to do a think-aloud of their process.
Incorporate scientific question-asking as an active reading strategy to normalize the practice of asking scientific and engineering questions as part of the process of developing understanding of phenomena or solving problems.
To show the value of asking scientific questions, design activities that use questions from the Driving Question Board. For example:
  • Take a scientific question off of the board and say to the class, “I think we can answer this one now,” and use the question for formative or summative purposes
  • Different scientific questions can be taken down from the DQB and given to different groups of students to answer collaboratively. These questions can be posed to the class, and students can choose one to answer, writing an explanation that uses evidence from class activities, readings, and what they have figured out thus far
  • Students can be invited or assigned to pursue scientific questions independently and to present them to peers or to create a booklet to teach a younger student about what they want to know about a phenomenon or design problem
Explicitly teach students about different categories of scientific questions and the different kinds of information they yield (e.g., descriptive questions to collect evidence, clarification questions, generative investigative questions) and provide them with question stems for each type. Provide numerous opportunities for students to practice generating these different types of scientific questions for different purposes to set the expectation that students are responsible for asking questions to build scientific knowledge.
Create structures/practices in the classroom that provide opportunities for students to pose scientific questions that drive learning. This helps remind students that the overall purpose of their endeavors in science class is to develop a greater understanding of phenomena. For example:
  • Use a Driving Question Board: Have students list what they are curious about regarding a phenomenon or what interests them, and then use that to generate scientific questions that can be investigated. Post the question(s) the students are trying to answer and consistently return to them throughout the unit, asking the class what questions have been answered and what new questions have arisen along the way
  • A KWL graphic organizer is another way to encourage question-asking. After identifying prior knowledge in the “Know” column, students can pose scientific questions for the “Wonder” column and see that their questions are central to the process of increasing/developing knowledge
  • During investigations or at the beginning of units, conduct anonymous live polling where students can both pose scientific questions and see what questions other students are asking. This will help students see that asking questions is a normal part of science inquiry
  • Maintain a “parking lot” for students to place questions that arise to them during class. Regularly read those questions to the class, discuss the extent to which they are scientific and help them to understand phenomena, and incorporate them into instruction as appropriate

Asking questions and defining problems drives science and engineering. Scientific questions arise from the curiosity of a researcher, predictions of a model, or findings from previous investigations. Engineering design problems arise from an unmet need or desire. Ultimately, however, the decision of which question to answer or problem to solve arises from the scientist or engineer. For students to engage in authentic scientific inquiry and engineering design, they must experience a sense of autonomy over the questions and problems they attempt to answer and solve. The constraints that a typical science teacher must navigate do not always allow teachers to provide complete autonomy over the science questions and engineering problems that students work on. However, by supporting student autonomy in asking questions, teachers can give students opportunities to exercise agency in their scientific inquiry and engineering designs that reflect authentic practice.

Strategies

Use a Driving Question Board: In addition to generating scientific questions of interest about a phenomenon or defining design problems at the beginning of a unit, also provide time/opportunity for students to add sub-questions as the unit progresses. Encourage students to research questions that interest them that the class might not get to answer during the unit.
Affirm scientific questions or wonderings that students pose spontaneously in class, even if there is insufficient time to engage with them in the moment. Use structures like the Driving Question Board or a parking lot to store the questions and model the value of considering many questions.
Use talk moves, as in Accountable Talk, the “Supporting Discussions” chapter of the Open SciEd Teacher Handbook, Talk Science Primer, and Discourse Primer for Science Teachers, to promote students’ confidence in directing conversation, asking scientific questions of each other, actively listening, and building off of one another’s ideas.
Leave time at the end of class for students to reflect upon their learning (over the course of the unit or lesson) and write questions that they have, what they would like to learn next, and what they would like to know by the end of the unit.

Asking questions and defining problems drives science and engineering. Instructional strategies aligned with the Relevance MDP can help teachers identify phenomena and design tasks for students to ask questions about and define problems that are aligned with student interest and values. Strategies can also help students to see the value in a phenomenon or design problem they might not otherwise value and/or to realize that their current understanding cannot adequately explain the how and why of a phenomenon or design problem. Students will be more engaged when they find relevance connections that relate to their everyday lives, to their future educational or career aspirations, or that allow them to more fully explain an intriguing phenomenon in the questions they are answering and in the problems they are defining. This engagement helps to sustain student interest as they engage in other practices to answer questions and find problem solutions. Students will also engage more in asking each other questions when they see the phenomenon or design problem as relevant.

Strategies

Model the types of scientific questions students can ask. This may encourage freedom of thought to exercise ideas of their own, and draw on things which are personally relevant to them.
Encourage students to ask personally meaningful questions while engaging with the scientific or engineering content:
  • With phenomena, design problems, and/or materials that may be unfamiliar to students, provide time for students to explore them so that they can become familiar with them and be prepared to ask personally meaningful questions about them
  • For more familiar phenomena and design problems, provide time for students to generate scientific questions or define problems that are of specific interest to them; recognize all initial questions or problems, offer feedback to improve questions to be more scientific or problems to relate to engineering design, and have the class work to discuss one or a few of them (similar to a Driving Question Board). In some instances students may think they understand a familiar phenomenon or know how to solve a design problem. Validate students’ existing knowledge while asking probing questions to push students to think more deeply about the phenomenon or design problem to help them realize that there is need for further investigation to truly understand the phenomenon or solve the problem
  • Use a Driving Question Board: encourage students to ask scientific questions inherently interesting to them. At the end of the unit, address questions that students still want answered
Based on the units of instruction, incorporate current or local examples of science phenomena so that students can generate scientific questions centered on issues relevant to the community.
Invite students to bring scientific questions to class based on their experiences and observations outside the classroom, such as by using a Self-Documentation Worksheet.
Learn about and adopt strategies from equitable teaching frameworks (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy) to help facilitate students’ ability to ask scientific questions and define problems that are relevant to them and their communities.