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.

Planning and Carrying out Investigations

Practice 3: Planning and Carrying out Investigations

Belonging Supports for Planning and Carrying out Investigations

Planning and carrying out an investigation requires the planning and execution of a sequence of varied skills to figure out a phenomenon or design a solution to a problem. At each stage of this process, students rely on each other and their teacher for the sharing of ideas and resources. Instructional strategies that support students’ feelings of belonging cultivate a safe space for students to work with their peers through this process and to ask for and receive support if they encounter challenges. 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 planning and carrying out investigations as a practice.

Strategies

Assign meaningful roles when conducting an investigation to figure out a phenomenon or solve a design problem. This promotes a sense of belonging within the group because everyone has something to contribute. Have students rotate group roles so everyone has a chance to try each role.
Reinforce protocols & norms for working together. This is critical for effective planning and carrying out of investigations because it promotes group cohesion by fostering trust to contribute ideas.
Have the class come to consensus on a student-generated procedure for a particular investigation or part of an investigation.
When possible, at the conclusion of an investigation and after students have drawn their own claims supported by evidence, provide examples of diverse scientists and/or engineers who also contributed knowledge to the same discipline (e.g., for a rocket design project, share a diverse set of individuals who contributed to rocket development and space travel).
Frame investigations around community issues relevant to students to encourage the value of their input as scientists/engineers. This can be as small as having students identify how the results of an investigation might benefit or be useful to their community; or as large as having students identify a community need, and then design and carry out an investigation that can contribute to filling that need. 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 plan and carry out investigations related to issues they care about

Students may have little experience with planning, carrying out, and evaluating investigations and with the specialized equipment needed to investigate particular phenomena or test design solutions. Investigations also contain many steps and therefore many places where students may encounter challenges. Supporting students’ confidence as they engage in these activities will be crucial for them to feel comfortable proceeding from planning to completing an investigation. At the same time, the complexity and safety risks of some investigations could make teachers prone to over-scaffold, which could reduce students’ confidence by diluting the level of challenge and communicating feelings of distrust. It is therefore important for teachers to balance adequate supports with sufficient challenge in order for students to build confidence in this practice.

Strategies

Have students write and post their predictions on sticky notes, or write out predictions on the board or chart paper so that all students’ predictions are recognized.
When using new tools or equipment, provide time for students to practice using the equipment in a low stakes activity before the actual investigation. During the investigation, praise students’ effective use of the equipment as one form of informational feedback to build their confidence about being able to use equipment to carry out more complex investigations.
When possible, provide and assign (or let students choose) different levels of complexity/difficulty/scaffolding in investigations to plan, carry out, or evaluate so that students are working at the right level of challenge for them (e.g., at a low level of challenge students can be provided with guidelines for what and how many materials to use in their investigations and at a high level of challenge students need to determine this based on the guiding question for the lesson).
Provide a rubric for an investigation that includes the many aspects of the investigation (e.g., procedure, data table, data collection, measurement, teamwork, etc.). The rubric can serve as a guidepost for students as they carry out their work of figuring out phenomena or designing solutions to problems. Use the rubric to provide informational feedback to students as they progress through the investigation. Provide opportunities for students to improve in each of these areas and point out the ways in which their skills are developing.
At the end of an investigation, ask students to reflect on what knowledge/skills they gained from that investigation, lessons learned for future investigations, and new investigations they would like to do after completing this one. Refer back to these reflections when starting the next investigation to help students see how they are developing competence in this practice and feel more confident in approaching the new investigation.
Post and make clear the objectives of an investigation and how the investigation will help students explain phenomena or develop design solutions to problems so that students can best plan or evaluate the investigation.
Structure groups with meaningful roles and protocols for collaborating to help students feel more confident in contributing to the investigation. Students could be allowed to choose and/or rotate through roles so that they can work at an appropriately challenging level for them.
For students who are new to planning investigations (or when the complexity needed to plan an investigation is sufficiently high), chunk the planning of the investigation for students (e.g., create mini-goals that are grade-level appropriate, including
  1. identifying multiple variables, such as independent and dependent variables and controls;
  2. selecting tools needed for data collection;
  3. determining how measurements will be taken and logged; and,
  4. deciding how many data points are sufficient for supporting a claim; provide time for students to reflect on the process and their progress on achieving each mini-goal) so they can focus on one part at a time and provide informational feedback on how their plans are aligning with the objective for the investigation. As students gain competence in planning parts of an investigation, give them larger chunks at a time to plan.
Provide supports for planning investigations that can be used throughout the year and expanded as students learn new skills as they make sense of phenomena or solve design problems. For example, when using a new measurement tool (e.g., graduated cylinder), provide (or have students create) a guide for how and when to use the tool. As more new tools are used, add to this resource. As tools are reused, point students to this resource to remind them about how and when to use the tool.
Throughout the planning of an investigation, pause the class and use set protocols (e.g., consultancy protocol) to provide structure for groups to share out about their plans in progress and pose questions to the class about any challenges they are having. Allow time for other groups to make suggestions to solve those challenges, using appropriate sentence stems or talk moves for giving feedback. Point out something positive in each group’s evolving plans and encourage groups to learn from each other to improve their own plans.
If asking students to create their own procedure when planning an investigation, provide a model procedure for a similar investigation and invite students to identify features of the model procedure that they can emulate in writing their own procedures. Point out the effective adoption of these features as a part of informational feedback on the procedures and specify how the features help students to engage in sense-making of phenomena and problem solving.

Supporting a learning orientation helps to place the emphasis on the goal of an investigation (i.e., What are we trying to figure out?), rather than casting it as merely a set of steps to complete or a way to learn a science fact. When planning investigations, an emphasis on the goal of the investigation supports students in making an investigation plan that will best achieve that goal. Framing a prediction as a best guess for right now based on available evidence and/or prior learning, and emphasizing that we update our understanding of a phenomenon or which design solution best meets the criteria and constraints of a problem as we gather more evidence are important strategies to help students students engage in making predictions as part of a learning process, rather than worrying about how their predictions will be judged by their classmates. Especially for students who do not have much experience planning and carrying out investigations, it is common to make errors during investigations and/or to obtain unexpected results. With a learning orientation, students will view those errors as a part of their own learning, as well as part of the process of doing science.

Strategies

Frame investigations as a safe place to fail and talk to students about what scientists have learned from “failed” experiments/investigations in the past. If the students’ own investigation “doesn’t work,” again normalize the idea of “failed” experiments in science - “as scientists, where do we go from here?”
Begin investigations with a discussion of the scientific purpose for the investigation. For investigations that students may be mostly executing as written, invite students to examine the materials and procedures and explain how they will help investigate the phenomenon or solve a problem. For investigations that students are planning and carrying out on their own, invite students to generate procedures in groups and share out their ideas so that the class can see multiple options for achieving the same scientific objective.
Provide a set of guiding questions for creating and carrying out a successful investigation that prompt students to think through their design choices. Have students record these questions in their science notebooks. Use either SI units or non-metric units of measurement as appropriate for the investigation. Possible questions could include:
  • Is this phenomenon something you could observe occurring naturally or should you do something in the classroom to explore it (i.e., a controlled experiment)?
  • What evidence would you need to answer your question?
  • What equipment do you need to do this?
  • How will you know if you have been successful?
  • For observational investigations:
    • What would you need to observe to answer your question?
  • For a controlled experiment:
    • Which variables will be treated as the outcomes of the investigation?
    • How can you measure what you think is important?
    • Which conditions would you vary to see if they have any effect on the outcome variable?
    • What are all the other variables or conditions that should be held constant during the investigation?
During the planning and carrying out of investigations, pause the class periodically to discuss progress and challenges as they figure out a phenomenon or design solutions to a problem. Prompt students to explain procedures that are working well and those that are not and why those procedures may have limitations. Encourage students to learn from each other. Frame progress as the result of student effort and strategy use and frame challenges as learning opportunities.
Regularly conduct post-investigation debriefs about why an investigation did or didn’t “work.” Help students focus on the effectiveness of design choices and strategies, and possible revisions (e.g., “what can we learn from that? What modifications might we make next time?”). Based on this debrief discussion, allow students to redo their investigation and apply their more sophisticated knowledge to this replication effort. In addition, invite students to generate ideas for a class poster or other resource that will remind students of the best practices they have learned for planning and carrying out future investigations.
Provide a rubric for an investigation that includes the many aspects of the investigation (e.g., procedure, data table, data collection, measurement, teamwork, etc.). Model for students how to use a rubric to understand an assignment so that students can understand the purpose of the investigation and focus on their progress as a result of their effort and effective strategy use.

The goal of an investigation is to “figure something out.” Authentic investigative experiences require sufficient student agency to make sense of phenomena or design solutions to problems, ask new questions, and explore ideas of interest; and provide sufficient opportunities for cognitive autonomy so that students are engaged in the “figuring out.” Creating these conditions could take the form of supporting student ownership of the investigation’s purpose and next steps by encouraging students to generate ideas or questions about a phenomenon or design problem to drive the investigation. Developing the skills to plan investigations requires student autonomy to design procedures to accomplish a certain objective. Even when the investigation is a little more pre-determined because of students’ age, skill level, or safety concerns, autonomy can be supported by prompting students to think through the rationale for the investigation procedures. The safety risks of some investigations may mean that teachers must dictate specific constraints on what is possible in the lab, limiting full student control over how to conduct an investigation, but it is important to find opportunities to support other types of student autonomy in these situations.

Strategies

Provide an “Option A” and “Option B” (or additional options) for certain investigation objectives/content/procedures. For example, if students are investigating how simple machines can help move a large crate of supplies, allow a choice of which simple machine to investigate. If investigations call for repeated trials with varying amounts, consider dividing up the trials among the class and letting student groups choose which ones they will perform.
Have students identify the meaningful roles for a particular group investigation and self-select their roles as they engage in activities to figure out a phenomenon or solve a design problem. For example:
  • Big ideas (BI) person. This person pulls the group (occasionally) back to the scientific purpose of the activity. (Often a group will get too wrapped up in the rote execution of the directions)
  • Clarifier. This is a role of monitoring everyone’s comprehension about one or two key science terms related to the investigation
  • Questioner. This person asks probing questions during the activity, listens for questions posed by other group members, and then revoices the questions to make sure that the whole group takes a moment to hear and entertain questions from everyone
  • Skeptic. This person tries to strengthen the group’s work by probing for weaknesses in the developing investigation
  • Progress monitor. This person asks others to periodically take the measure of the group’s progress
Involve students in creating a lab safety contract at the beginning of the year that outlines guidelines that students pledge to follow when carrying out investigations in the classroom. Review and update the safety contract as necessary throughout the year. This helps to communicate important safety considerations for investigations but involves the students as autonomous individuals signing on to participate in that process, rather than feeling controlled by the teacher.
When students are unfamiliar with how to conduct investigations or when an investigation is too dangerous for students to conduct on their own, continue to support their autonomy in “smaller” ways, such as by asking them to provide a rationale for certain procedures, or to verify the correct preparation or measurement of materials.
Think carefully about how to scaffold students’ autonomy in investigations over time. It may be appropriate to provide smaller-scale opportunities for autonomy early in the school year, but later investigations might allow greater autonomy (and should be redesigned as necessary to allow for sufficient autonomy).
Use a Driving Question Board as a source for students’ autonomously generated questions that could be answered through investigation.
Invite students to figure out how to explore a phenomenon or solve a design problem by soliciting ideas from students about what procedures and/or materials will accomplish the objective. Then allow the class to choose from these ideas when executing the lab.

Planning and carrying out investigations requires students to organize themselves and then use knowledge and skills to make sense of phenomena or solve design problems. When students see relevance in the investigations they are planning and carrying out, they are more likely to put effort into designing and organizing their plan, enacting it, and persisting through the completion of the investigation. Seeing that investigations are useful to and doable by students gives students more reasons to engage in future investigations. 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 plan and carry out investigations related to issues they care about [see Motivation as a Tool for Equity].

Strategies

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 learning to those needs
When possible, frame investigations as contributing to meeting the needs and desires of students and their communities.
When investigations are not conducted in direct response to students’ interests or community needs, identify how skills from the investigation can be transferred to other situations to help students make connections between classwork and their lives outside of school.
Carry out investigations with materials students are familiar with, and explore phenomena or solve design problems from their daily life and/or home culture, when possible. A resource like the Self-Documentation worksheet can help students make these connections.
Take students to (alternatively, show video footage of) places where the phenomenon or problem of interest can be explored in the real world. Make clear the applicability this phenomenon or problem has to different people and life experiences.
At the conclusion of an investigation, ask students to reflect on how what they learned during the investigation is relevant to their lives and what they would like to learn next about the same phenomenon or problem (or a related phenomenon or problem).
Share stories of challenge and success from diverse science and engineering professionals that led to advancements for society.