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NGSS Science and Engineering Practices

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Sep 16, 2016

In order to effectively work as scientists and engineers, students must develop these practices as skills or tools which they can use to extend their knowledge to solve problems and answer questions. There are eight science and engineering practices in the next generation science standards (NGSS):

The 8 science and engineering practices


These come directly from NGSS and describe how scientists and engineers engage in the acquisition of evidence-based knowledge and the solving of problems through prototyping, the success of which is also based on evidence and more specifically quantifiable data. Note that the word "engage" is very intentional; to simply "do" science or engineering is a rote process. Real scientists and engineers are active participants creating in the process through their application of science and engineering practices.


These students are engaged in problem solving as engineers.

If students are to become authentic scientists and engineers in the classroom, it is crucial that they internalize the skills outlined by the practices. A student needs to be able to ask questions as a scientist would in a scientific context and needs to be able to define problems as an engineer would in an engineering context. They need to not only be able to use a model, but actually develop models for themselves. They must have internalized the skill of how to employ every single one of these practices in order to truly act as scientists and engineers would in the real world.

The NGSS standards are designed as performance expectations reflected in three dimensions. It's important not to mistake standards for curriculum, however. If you simply explain the food chain and ask students to produce one themselves, they are not acting as scientists and engineers, but are instead learning by rote methods.

The old food chain/food web concept makes for a good example. We can show students a food chain or food web and ask students to recreate it, but that's a traditional way of teaching that does require the student to practice a skill or give the opportunity to develop that skill. If we want students to actually engage in the practices, what we might instead do is show them a picture of the environment and challenge students to develop the model on their own, asking questions such as "How could the plants, animals, and organisms be interrelated?" After students engage with the question, plan their own investigation to seek evidence and form their own conclusions, then as part of a debrief you may show them a food chain or food web and further dialogue.

NGSS Alignment and Releasing Responsibility

The fourth practice is a huge point of misalignment for a lot of programs that call themselves NGSS-aligned: Are students actually planning the investigation themselves, all the way from the question to the conclusion, or are they actually engaging in a rote process, following a canned formula, copying off the board, following a demonstration and parroting back information they’ve been spoon-fed? The former process is rigorous and teaches students to be scientists and engineers; the latter process does not.

Many people get confused because they mistake spoon-feeding for scaffolding. Make-by-number, workbooks with embedded questions, worksheets and videos are not scaffolding, however. True scaffolding is about rigor. Ensuring that students' classroom experience is always a challenge that exceeds student skills, and adjusting supports along the way helps us ratchet up the level of challenge as students develop skills, while make-by-number and worksheet recall teaching formulae do none of that.

Let’s turn our attention to analyzing and interpreting data. The latter implies students need to look at a set of numbers and ask what they mean, while the former asks them to make sense of how this actually applies to the original question and their hypothetical answer to it.

Using mathematics and computational thinking, the fifth practice asks students to use the data themselves and turn it into new data that specifically relates to their original question. The sixth practice—constructing explanation for science and designing solutions for engineering—is that evidence-based conclusion we're talking about in claim-evidence-reasoning. When it comes to engineering, determining that a solution works requires engaging in argument from evidence in the conclusion of the engineering design process.

K-12 science education reflects three-dimensional learning: science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts.

The practices discussed above are a set of skills specific to science and engineering that allow students to actually engage as scientist and engineers in solving problems or answering questions. The processes, on the other hand, are different. These relate to how scientists and engineers actually advance logically from the initial scientific question to an evidence-based conclusion or from the initial engineering problem to an evidence-based solution.

Whether you refer to this process as the scientific process, the scientific method, the engineering design process, the engineering method, or universal design, it is important to realize that this process does not mean the disciplines are linear. Many make the mistake of thinking that because processes appear to be laid out in a linear fashion with steps or stages. This is simply not true. Both science and engineering are nonlinear, involving repeated iterations based on evidence.  Each pass through the process results in new findings, which in turn cause a pivot. We will address this idea in greater depth in a later blog article.

Let’s return to the seventh and eighth practices, which is where a modified CER really fits in. This is how we take what we've obtained, evaluate it, and communicate that information in terms of persuasive argument about our hypothetical answer to the question or our hypothetical solution to the problem. Practices are something common to scientists and engineers. This is a skill set students must internalize and learn to use in the classroom in order to engage as scientists and engineers and in order to succeed in later life, both in the realms of higher education and career.

Keep in mind who the practices are talking about. If a teacher says, "Well, I do that myself" … it frankly doesn’t matter. It does not matter what you as a teacher do, how well you develop a model in front of your students, and how well that model follows the practices. If your students cannot develop the model and use claim-evidence-reasoning to themselves prove or disprove a hypothesis or to argue for or against the success of a prototype, then they are not internalizing and using these practices. Instead, you must ask: Do they have the skill to develop a model on their own without prompting in an unfamiliar context? Can they extend, develop, and use the knowledge that they have without following a model the teacher has developed?

This is how these NGSS standards take the definition of science and engineering and goes beyond the standards we have previously used in the classroom. Almost every state, by adding this science and engineering practices dimension, will end up exceeding the standards they have used previously.

So how, precisely, does claim-evidence reasoning work within the context of the science and engineering processes? Find out in our next blog article.

Topics: Next Generation Science Standards

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