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.

Explanations and Designing Solutions

Practice 6: Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

Belonging Supports for Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

To engage fully in this practice, students should be comfortable with each other and trust that their explanations and solutions 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 for students to iterate upon their explanations and design solutions, engage in argumentation with their peers about alternative explanations, and receive feedback from their peers and teacher. 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 constructing explanations and designing solutions as a practice.


Model a respectful environment (e.g., building on students’ explanations or design solutions, adding evidence, showing value for evidence through an evidence-based way to agree/disagree). Encourage the use of sentence structures or phrases for “agreeing” or “disagreeing,” to reinforce the practice of challenging ideas not people.
Invite reluctant students to participate by using explanatory practices outside of traditional verbal share-outs (e.g., use technology where students can participate in a full class discussion anonymously).
Provide opportunities for students to work in groups to navigate each other through the systematic process of designing solutions (e.g., ask students to brainstorm with each other to define the problem and discuss how to generate, test, and improve solutions).
Create activities where all members in small groups have roles in constructing/evaluating explanations, and in designing solutions. In this way, each student serves a purpose, and the classroom operates as a community. Furthermore, working in small groups can enable scientific collaboration and innovation.
Facilitate full class discussions where each student has an opportunity to share thoughts about how the data generated from carrying out investigations provide evidence to support claims being made about phenomena or test results to identify the best characteristics among several design solutions.
Encourage students to use everyday language or home languages for initial explanations of scientific phenomena or proposed designs. Help students then connect their everyday language to academic language for scientific explanations.
Many strategies from equitable teaching frameworks (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy) address ways to recognize and incorporate diverse communication practices into the classroom that can provide a bridge to constructing scientific explanations.

Constructing an explanation requires students to use several skills at once to articulate a claim, select and present supporting evidence and science knowledge, and support the claim using logical reasoning. Some students may be less familiar or comfortable with the norms and practices of constructing explanations. Each student will have a different skill level and comfort level in each of the skills and practices needed to construct an explanation and in being able to use those skills in concert to create an explanation. Providing clear description and expectations of an explanation task and supporting, encouraging, and giving informational feedback to students as they develop these skills helps students to improve in constructing explanations without becoming overly frustrated or thinking they cannot do it. When properly structured and scaffolded, constructing explanations can build students’ confidence by reaffirming and building on what they already know. Similarly, designing solutions requires the iterative application of several skills to arrive at a design solution and benefits from the support, encouragement, and feedback promoted by this design principle.


When choosing questions for students to answer in an explanation, choose questions that will have students get at the “how” or “why” of a phenomenon. Write an ideal version of the explanation and reflect on whether students have the skills and knowledge to construct this explanation successfully. For students who might need support, design scaffolds that target areas of difficulty.
Provide consistent tools or scaffolds to support the development of students’ explanation skills (e.g., a graphic organizer or thinking guide that students can use to construct and evaluate claim, evidence, and reasoning statements across units). As students develop skills, these scaffolds should reduce over time.
  • Some scaffolding examples:
    • Here is my claim [... we believe that X is caused by ... or we believe that Y has a role in how Z happens ...]
    • If this claim or explanation is true, then when I look at this data, I would expect to see [this particular result or this outcome]
    • The reason I’d expect to see this is because I collected data from a situation that is really close to the real thing we are studying, and if we had these outcomes, it would mean that [state a brief causal chain of events—this chain has to be consistent with known science ideas/facts]
    • We did see the data pattern we expected. We believe this supports our claim
    • If our claim was not true, then I’d expect to see [a different set of patterns in the data or a particular outcome]. But we didn’t see that outcome, so this reasoning also supports our claim
    • There may be other explanations for the data, such as ______ or ______, but this does not seem likely because __________
Structure activities so as to provide a safe environment for students to share explanations and receive feedback. For example, have students share preliminary explanations in small groups and come to consensus on a group explanation that is shared with the whole class, to minimize the risk that an unsure student feels singled out for an underdeveloped explanation.

Explicitly teach the qualities of a successful explanation[1] and how to improve preliminary explanations (e.g., determine whether and describe why the claim, evidence, and/or reasoning are/are not appropriate or valid), then use those same qualities to provide encouraging and informational feedback when students are sharing their own explanations.

  • 1
    McNeill, K., & Krajcik, J. (2011). Supporting Grade 5-8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science: The Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning Framework for Talk and Writing (1st ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Give example explanations to students during instruction and encourage students to identify the characteristics of an explanation that they have been taught and to give feedback on how to improve the example explanations.
Have students design their own solutions and ask their peers to test these solutions. Ask students to give each other informational and encouraging feedback on their solutions verbally or in writing.
As a whole class activity, review a variety of design features and engage in a discussion to select from among these features to optimize the design of a solution to a problem (e.g., if designing a replica of a car to “jump” a gap in a roadway, discuss how the car’s material, weight, shape, etc. could be optimized to carry out this action).

A learning orientation helps convey the important understanding that there are multiple ways to construct explanations and design solutions, rather than a single right answer that the teacher is seeking. Exploring different solutions and explanations is a part of the process of learning engineering and science. The goal is for students to be thinking deeply and meaningfully about the how and why of phenomena or problems, rather than merely completing an explanation or design as a classroom task. A learning orientation helps students feel comfortable with sharing explanations and design solutions at an early, potentially underdeveloped phase and helps students to be receptive to feedback geared toward improving their work. When students discuss alternative explanations and design solutions with their peers, a learning orientation supports the perspective that the purpose of discussion is to create better explanations and design solutions.


Demonstrate a commitment to the process of sense-making in relation to explanations by:

  • Asking open-ended questions and asking students to support their claims with evidence using the language of science (see talk moves)
  • Providing tools/scaffolds/structures to support sense-making (e.g., consistent tools for helping students construct and evaluate Claim-Evidence-Reasoning statements across units).[1] Scaffolds should give general guidance (e.g., “You should explain why the phenomenon occurred”) as well as guidance specific to the explanation they are currently working on (e.g., “You should explain why the salt and ice mixture was able to freeze pure water.”); be detailed enough to help students but not so detailed that students ignore the help; and should fade over time
  • Modeling sense-making during more teacher-led demonstrations or presentations of information to develop a greater understanding of a phenomenon (e.g., think-alouds while explaining how a variable or variables relate to another variable or a set of variables, describing how to judge the appropriateness of the claim, evidence, and/or reasoning and how to articulate reasoning for making this judgment)
  • Actively communicating the value and scientific authenticity of revising explanations and providing opportunities for students to revise their explanations based on new evidence and more developed understanding of phenomena
  • 1
    McNeill, K., & Krajcik, J. (2011). Supporting Grade 5-8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science: The Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning Framework for Talk and Writing (1st ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Demonstrate a commitment to the process of sense-making in relation to design solutions by:
  • Eliciting students’ ideas of how to define the problem
  • Providing ample time for students to engage in an iterative and systematic process of generating, testing, and improving their solutions
Use small group work to allow students to discuss initial ideas and explanations and then share out group responses to the whole class. This might help decrease feelings of social comparison for students who are unsure about their explanations.
A jigsaw protocol can give students a sense of personal responsibility for generating explanations or design solutions and reinforce the idea that multiple explanations or design solutions, supported by evidence, are possible. The expert groups can work collaboratively to generate an explanation or design solution, and then students can share out and evaluate the different explanations/design solutions in their jigsaw groups.
Give students opportunities to construct explanations and design solutions early in a unit, and then revisit and revise these explanations and solutions throughout the unit as students acquire more knowledge.
When explanations or design solutions are visible (e.g., in writing or on chart paper), do a gallery walk or other share-out with structure (e.g., sentence stems or a note-taking guide) to help students observe and reflect on how peers’ explanations or design solutions are different without judging which one is “best”/“right.” Conclude by asking students to reflect on what they’ve learned/how their own understanding has changed/what new questions they have after viewing others’ explanations or design solutions.

Constructing an explanation relies heavily on student-centered learning (i.e., students thinking on their own and engaging in sense-making). Student choice and decision-making are implicated in the act of defining problems and proposing solutions. It is also important that student ideas and thinking drive the explanations and design solutions they are generating and developing over time, whether those explanations and design solutions are occurring during


Once scaffolds have been introduced for students’ early learning experiences with this practice (e.g., a graphic organizer for Claim-Evidence-Reasoning), offer students the choice of whether they will use the scaffolds for later tasks and which scaffolds they will use.
Explicitly state that it is possible that multiple approaches/solutions fit the evidence or solve the problem and give groups white boards or poster paper when they are solving problems or generating explanations so that their ideas are recorded and can be probed for different approaches even if students say they “did the same thing” as another group.
Recognize, acknowledge, and encourage multiple explanations and sources of evidence, as well as variations in students’ constructed explanations or proposed solutions. Take time to ensure that students get to see/hear the different approaches (e.g., with a gallery walk or a discussion) and ask how students’ thinking has changed.
A jigsaw protocol can reinforce the idea that multiple explanations or design solutions, supported by evidence, are possible. The expert groups can work collaboratively to generate an explanation or design solution, and then students can share out these ideas in their jigsaw groups to see the different approaches other students took to figure out the same phenomenon or solve the same problem.
Have students self-assess their own work using rubrics for common strategies such as Claim-Evidence-Reasoning and set their own goals for their written and spoken work.

Constructing explanations and designing solutions rely upon students' abilities to make claims and use evidence and reasoning to make sense of phenomena or solve real world problems. It is important for students to formulate explanations and develop solutions related to specific contexts or communities. When classroom lessons and investigations center on interesting and community-related problems or phenomena, students understand that designing solutions to problems and constructing explanations for the causes of phenomena are relevant to their lives. Students are more likely to be cognitively engaged in designing a solution or constructing an explanation for something which has a relevant personal connection (e.g., it is important, interesting, or familiar to them). This motivation can be especially important for students who identify with communities that have been marginalized or disenfranchised in science, as it empowers them to use the science and engineering practice as a tool for understanding phenomena or solving problems related to issues they care about [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity].


Incorporate locally-relevant phenomena in science instruction that connects to students’ everyday lives (e.g., plan investigations around chemical reactions that students can relate to, such as food burning in the kitchen). Ask students to construct explanations based on evidence from their observations. Later, have students share out and evaluate the validity and appropriateness of their explanations. Assist students in making connections between their explanations and local phenomena.
Ask students to share with one another how their explanations and design solutions have implications for their communities or everyday lives – e.g., ask “How does this explanation help us understand the world we navigate every day?”
Ask students what types of phenomena they would like to explore, or problems they would like to solve and then use that information to create opportunities for students to construct explanations about those phenomena or design solutions to those problems.
Many strategies from equitable teaching frameworks (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy) address ways to learn more about the local community and their needs, and to connect science and engineering learning to those needs.
When sharing and evaluating explanations, press students about the consistency of their explanations with other science ideas they’ve previously learned or phenomena they’ve previously investigated. This will help students make connections between the explanation and prior science learning. Sample prompts include:
  • How does this help us answer our overarching question: _____________?
  • How does this connect to the big ideas we have been learning about in science?
  • How can we use our science knowledge to help explain _______________?
  • How can we use our model to support or refute these explanations?
To show the value of explanations, design activities that explain answers to questions from the Driving Question Board (DQB). For example, select questions from the DQB that get at the “how” or “why” of a phenomenon and pose them to the class, letting different groups of students choose one to answer collaboratively by writing an explanation that uses evidence from class activities, readings, and what they have figured out thus far.