January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Scientific and Engineering Practices Replace Investigation and Experimentation

Posted: Sunday, April 1st, 2012

by Peter A’Hearn

At last weekend’s CUE conference, I spoke to many publisher reps. I asked if their companies were starting to look at the NGSS and how they were approaching it. The most common response I got was, “We’ll just change the standards correlations on what we’ve already got.”

So, no big deal, there’s nothing new under the sun. My reading of the NGSS, however, suggests that there should be some big changes required in the way curriculum is designed and delivered to meet the vision of the NGSS framework. One of the best examples is to look at how different the “how we do science” part of the framework is from the one we currently use in California.


Scientific and Engineering Practices

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 mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information


These standards have a view of science, and what science does, that is much more broad than just setting up investigations using the “scientific method.” As the framework authors state,

Our view is that this perspective is an improvement over previous approaches in several ways. First, it minimizes the tendency to reduce scientific practice to a single set of procedures, such as identifying and controlling variables, classifying entities, and identifying sources of error. This tendency overemphasizes experimental investigation at the expense of other practices, such as modeling, critique, and communication.

The emphasis on practices like modeling, arguing from evidence, and constructing explanations go far beyond what the current California standards ask students to do. These practices have striking connections with the Common Core Standards’ emphasis on applying math and language arts skills in science.

Another big shift is the idea that these practices are to be integrated into every unit along with the content core ideas. For example, in a unit on geologic time, the practice of constructing explanations would be emphasized. This is very different from the way many science classes are now constructed with a unit at the beginning where the scientific method is taught and then it is put away for the rest of the year while content is taught. The addition of engineering practices is another big change that these practices will involve.

Okay, now it’s your turn. What do you think?


Some questions to consider:

Are there any practices listed that you feel are less important than others? Are there any central practices that you feel the committee left out?

Are teachers, students, and families prepared to shift their thinking about what science is? The idea that there is a single central “scientific method” is a strong one.

How will these practices be tested? How will teachers and students be held accountable? Will teachers and schools that struggle be punished?

These standards are intended for all students and some of these practices by the high school level ask students to engage in abstract thinking. Is it realistic to expect all students to reach the high bar set by these standards?


The purpose of this blog: We are about to begin the period for public review of the Next Generation Science Standards. The process is being guided by the Achieve. Twenty-six states including California have signed on to be part of the development of the standards and to adopt them when complete. The new standards will represent a big change in how science is taught in California, so teachers should be closely following the development and giving the feedback that comes with their experience. But few classroom teachers have the time to digest and respond to the amount of material that makes up the science standards. The purpose of this blog is to break it down into chunks and send it out a little at a time for teachers to respond. I will start with the framework and then move on to the standards when they are available. I will be making comparisons to the current California standards, but science teachers from other states are encouraged to participate. The framework can be downloaded as a PDF from the National Academies Press.

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

3 Responses

  1. Good to see the break-away from “THE Scientific Method,” finally! I also like the mandate to carry the processes of science throughout each course. In addition, I would encourage the inclusion of the Nature of Science (NOS), experiencing the realm, limits and assumptions of science, as well as why science is such an effective tool for understanding natural phenomena.

    While including variations on the processes of science, be sure to include how the historical sciences are generally done : the search for understanding events and phenomena of the past, unobserved or unrecorded by people and largely unrepeatable (e.g., forensics, geology, paleontology, astronomy, evolution science, etc.). Generally, this involves the search for clues, the forming of hypotheses based on those clues, and the testing of those hypotheses by searching for additional evidence (clues) suggested by those hypotheses.

    Also, hopefully careful attention will be placed on how hypothesis is defined and used. All too often it’s presented as a mere prediction of experimental results, or simply as an “educated guess” completely missing its role as a tentative, testable explanation about a natural phenomenon. Furthermore, it needs to be made clear that such explanations cannot include supernatural causes (simply because they cannot be definitively tested (any outcome is possible, so it can’t be potentially disproved). Students need to learn this. Finally, testing should be approached as a challenge to a hypothesis – an attempt to disprove it, and to show that results of the test could go either way – could clearly support the hypothesis, OR show that it doesn’t work, and therefore is rejected.

    These things should certainly become prominent in high school science, but the groundwork laid in elementary and middle school should be careful not to create misconceptions that would get in the way of these concepts at the high school level (e.g., a hypothesis being taught as just an “educated guess).

  2. The practices are well explained, but fall a little short on the emphasis of Inquiry instruction as well as the Nature of Science. Both of these were very explicit in the NSES and are now embedded within the Practices of science and engineering. I hope that teachers, curriculum designers, etc. do not feel that these items are any less important now that they are embedded and not as explicit.

  3. […] I’d like to put forward some thoughts on one strand of the new standards, the “Practices.” Last month in this venue, Peter A’Hearn explained how the new focus on practices is different from the current California […]

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