NGSS Science and Engineering Practices and Why They Matter

Elementary students applying the NGSS science and engineering practicesUpdated on November 10, 2023

Science and engineering practices (SEP) are an important part of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These eight practices play a critical role in three-dimensional learning, along with disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts.

If you’re new to NGSS practices, you might be asking: What exactly are the eight science and engineering practices? Why are these practices so important for science and engineering students? And how can I successfully apply them in the classroom? 

In this article, we’ll outline these practices, explain why they’re so important, and offer examples of how teachers can use them in lessons.

What Are the 8 NGSS Science and Engineering Practices?

The eight science and engineering practices of NGSS are:

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)

  2. Developing and using models

  3. Planning and carrying out investigations

  4. Analyzing and interpreting data

  5. Using math and computational thinking

  6. Constructing an explanation (for science) and designing a solution (for engineering)

  7. Engaging in an argument stemming from evidence

  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

The 8 science and engineering practices

These practices describe how scientists and engineers actively engage in the acquisition of evidence-based knowledge and the solving of problems through prototyping. 

If students are to become authentic scientists and engineers in the classroom, it is crucial that they internalize the skills outlined by the practices. 

Students need to be able to ask questions as a scientist would and, define problems as an engineer would. They need to be able to build their own models, conduct their own investigations, and engage in independent analysis and thinking. Crucially, they need to be able to reach explanations and solutions on their own, generate findings from evidence, and acquire information by themselves – without having it provided directly to them in a traditional knowledge transfer model.

In other words, students need to internalize the NGSS practices and have the opportunity to understand them deeply by acting as scientists and engineers would in the real world, while they are in the classroom.

How to Apply Science and Engineering Practices

Building models, designing engineering systems, and collecting data to prove or disprove hypotheses are all career skills that students can practice in the classroom. NGSS storyline pedagogy gives students real world context for what they are learning and doing. Engaging students to go beyond just doing science to actually assuming the role of a scientist figuring out complex phenomena on their own is a powerful result of applying NGSS storyline pedagogy.

SEP 1: Asking Questions (Science) and Defining Problems (Engineering)

Empowering students to take the lead in asking questions and defining problems in the classroom allows them to connect core concepts from textbooks with real-world events and their own life experiences. This can be accomplished with storyline pedagogy. 

When we give students the opportunity to choose what they want to discover about a real world phenomenon, or to identify the problem they want to solve and how they want to solve it, they are building strong, personal connections to what they are studying in the classroom, and a better understanding of the world around them.

In contrast to teaching science through isolated tasks, storyline pedagogy introduces real-world events, like coastal flooding during a recent hurricane, that bring the science to life. Teachers challenge students to ask questions about how these events occur and define problems they can solve together. This allows students to start thinking and acting like scientists and engineers.

SEP 2: Developing and Using Models

Scientists and engineers create new models to help us better understand the world and make it a safer place to live. These models help simplify complex concepts and phenomena, and highlight how understanding key concepts can help us predict how phenomena will react in real world situations. 

When we give students a chance to construct models they can use to help solve a problem, or collect more information about a phenomena that they’ve identified, they’re learning how to apply science practices in the real world. Just like a Pro/Con list can help us make better decisions, practicing how scientists use charts, graphs, diagrams, formulas, computer simulations, and physical models to collect data, understand relationships, and test hypotheses, is a skill students will continue to use inside and outside of the classroom. 

SEP 3: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

Hands-on investigations are more engaging when students design their own paths. To truly investigate, students must apply science and engineering practices and observe the results. Student centered investigation gives them the freedom to challenge their own ideas and create their own personal connections, within some clear classroom frameworks. Using Socratic dialogue, classroom check-ins, and hands-on investigations teachers can encourage deeper learning.

NGSS science practices ask students to design their own experiment, collect their own data, and report their own results. Students who learn from mistakes while planning and carrying out investigations are building new knowledge the same way scientists and engineers do in the lab. When students follow teacher directions from start to finish, we’re not giving them the opportunity to develop agency and thinking skills!

For example, you may not be able to recreate the long-term effects of a drought in your classroom, but students can investigate the environmental interactions closer to home. They can build and test rain collectors to see how surface area corresponds to the amount of water collected. They can investigate how well forces move through systems by designing and testing roller coasters. They can research the water requirements of different kinds of plants and make recommendations for using drought resistant plants

SEP 4: Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Understanding how to use data as evidence to support an argument is an important critical thinking skill that students practice when carrying out their own hands-on science investigations. When they collect their own data, students make a stronger personal connection to the problem they are trying to solve and the conclusion they are working to prove with their own evidence. 

When students collaborate in small teams and then present their findings to a larger group, they practice communicating complex concepts, defending the quality of their data and the strength of their arguments, and responding to their peers. They also learn how data can be understood or ‘misunderstood’ based on how it is presented and what knowledge the listener brings to the presentation. These types of peer-to-peer interactions promote deeper learning. 

The idea of collecting and interpreting data can be daunting. When students practice designing investigations, testing their own hypotheses, and collecting and understanding their own data, they experience firsthand how hard work like this pays off in building a better understanding of the world around them. Using NGSS storyline pedagogy, we can connect hands-on science investigation to real-world phenomena, like predicting a hurricane’s destructive path or reducing water consumption by choosing drought-resistant plants.

SEP 5: Using Math and Computational Thinking

Another way students are learning by doing with NGSS is by putting their math skills in action to solve real world problems. When students are collecting and analyzing their own data, they are using mathematics and computation skills, identifying variables and evaluating relationships, and following a sequence of logical steps to come to a solution. When students use their own math skills to learn more about a real world phenomena, they’re putting their critical thinking skills and current knowledge to use in a very practical way. 

As students collaborate to test and revise their hypotheses, building their own conclusions with the data they’ve collected and analyzed, they learn first-hand the importance of scientific rigor, attention to detail, and analytical math skills. They are also practicing career skills, from small group dynamics to persuasion. When students think about big ideas and connect science to the real world, we can engage them to overcome challenges with collaboration and scientific rigor.

SEP 6: Constructing an Explanation and Designing a Solution

When constructing their explanation of a real-world phenomena or designing an engineering solution, students should use the CER (claim, evidence, reasoning) approach. This can be integrated at all levels, from elementary on. When students practice building a claim using evidence and reasoning, they use their own critical thinking skills to identify missing pieces and evaluate the strength of their evidence. They also learn how to evaluate arguments by analyzing the evidence and reasoning used, while learning to ask good questions of their peers to help them strengthen their own arguments.

If students don’t use the evidence they’ve collected and analyzed to build their own claims, then hands-on activities are not promoting true mastery. As students work together to solve a problem, they are putting their critical thinking skills to use and learning the tools, attention to detail, and analytical skills required to evaluate and solve real world problems in the future. 

SEP 7: Engaging in an Argument Stemming from Evidence

No matter how good your math skills, or how strong your mastery of core concepts, if you can’t make your conclusions understood, and back them up with clear reasoning and evidence, you’re not going to succeed as a scientist or engineer. Public speaking, argumentation, and technical writing are career skills that students can learn in the science classroom. 

Socratic dialogue helps students learn to speak up, share their ideas, question others professionally, and learn from their peers. After designing their own investigations and collecting and analyzing data, when students come back together to share their conclusions – they are learning how data helps us build an argument and sway others’ opinions.  As students revise their own understanding of real world phenomena through hands-on investigation, they learn from the experiences and knowledge of their peers as well.

SEP 8: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

NGSS storyline pedagogy connects understanding science to the knowledge students have learned in other subjects, including math. It promotes a love of learning based on questioning and investigating the world around us. As students learn that they have the skills to evaluate problems, find solutions, and construct new knowledge on their own, they are gaining the tools to better evaluate and communicate information outside of the classroom. 

Critiquing the arguments and evidence students hear every day, evaluating the quality of new information, and better communicating their own opinions and knowledge is a key result of NGSS in action. As students practice building new knowledge together, obtaining evidence to support a personal view first hand, they are equipped to engage in evaluating the arguments of their peers. Communication skills develop in scientific discussion within small groups and among the class as a whole, students gain the skill needed to succeed as engineers, scientists, and in other professions.

NGSS Practices vs. Traditional Approaches

Applying the NGSS science and engineering practices in the classroom requires a different approach than traditional knowledge transfer models. Below, we’ll show you how the traditional approach works and how NGSS practices differ for students.

The Traditional Approach

Prior to NGSS classroom integration, practices were often taught independently of any specific content. So students might be taught how to develop a procedure in the context of creating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They would learn how to use steps to describe the making of the sandwich so that others could follow the procedure.

The Problem with a Traditional Approach

This traditional approach is quite limited in its value for students. Teaching students to develop and use the practices in the context of what they are learning in the classroom is how students develop those skills.

What does that mean? To teach weathering and erosion, it’s not enough to ask students to memorize the definitions of those words or give them an experiment that they follow to see weathering and erosion in action.

Using NGSS Practices in the Classroom

With NGSS three-dimensional learning, students use the practices to access the content. In other words, students plan an investigation that they then carry out to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation (4-ESS2-1). It’s no longer enough for students to be given a procedure that they simply follow. In fact, that is an ELA standard, not a STEM one.

This new approach will dramatically change what the STEM classroom looks like. It means that students are not going to be doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.

Some students might be testing different hypotheses and developing them using different procedures. Some student procedures may not yield results. Students may come up with different explanations or solutions to problems.

Students solving engineerings problems with NGSS SEP practices

Comparing Traditional Approaches and NGSS Practices

The food chain/food web concept makes for a good example of how NGSS practices compare with the traditional approach. 

We can show students a food chain or food web and ask students to recreate it. However, this traditional way of teaching doesn’t ask the student to practice or develop a skill. Instead, they’re learning the concept through rote recall and memorization. If we want students to actually engage with the material, we need to apply the NGSS practices.

Instead of asking students to memorize facts about the food chain, we might show them a picture of the environment and challenge them to develop the model on their own. In developing this model, students can ask questions, such as, "How could the plants, animals, and organisms be interrelated?" 

After students engage with the question, they can plan their own investigation to seek evidence and form their own conclusions. As part of a debrief you may show them a food chain or food web and encourage further dialogue. This allows students to apply the skills they’ve learned to existing scientific concepts.

Why the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices Matter

The NGSS science and engineering practices offer three core advantages for students:

  • They provide deeper learning experiences
  • They nurture higher-order critical thinking
  • They establish and build transferable skills

And that’s the whole point. That’s how meaningful, lasting learning happens. Students have to think about the outcome they’re trying to achieve, look at the materials they have available, and then come up with a process that will get them closer to that outcome.

In science, it means generating data to answer questions. In engineering, it means designing solutions that solve problems.

When the outcome isn’t what’s expected, or when different student groups have varying results, it presents an ideal moment to take a step back and analyze those differences. What’s different? Why did those differences occur? What can we learn from this process? NGSS will lead to richer learning experiences.

This is fundamentally different from how most science classrooms have been structured, but it will transform the STEM experience in ways that go far beyond science, technology, engineering, and math.

Why is this approach so transformative? Fundamentally, it’s because students have to use their higher-order thinking skills of creating, evaluating, and analyzing. This not only prepares students to be true scientists and engineers. It also fosters critical thinking skills that students can apply in almost any situation.

When you help students develop the NGSS science and engineering practices, you are actually developing critical thinking skills that they can apply in any situation.

This is why NGSS STEM education is so important for all students. It provides students with a scientific way of thinking, one that involves questioning, gathering data, analyzing, and communicating—skills that are transferable to any discipline, career, or life event.

Bring NGSS science and engineering practices to your classroom with KnowAtom’s next generation STEM curriculum

image source: CHEN WS /

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