The release of the consensus study report Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine provides teachers of science with a structure to engage students in science and engineering performances. The report concludes that engaging students in learning about natural phenomena and engineering challenges via science investigation and engineering design increases their understanding of how the world works. Investigation and design are more effective for supporting learning than traditional teaching methods. For most teachers, this is a dramatic shift from current practice. The report advocates a transformation from classroom activities emphasizing vocabulary and memorizing science ideas and concepts to instruction that engages students in three dimensional science performances. Central to the report is shifting instructional approaches from learning about science to engaging in science investigations to make sense of phenomena.
The teacher’s role in the classroom becomes transformed into one of facilitator of reasoning as students plan and carry out investigations. Teachers foster student curiosity by presenting phenomena which spark student questions and drive teaching and learning. The report encourages teachers to use culturally and locally relevant phenomena to engender student interest. Constructing developmentally appropriate explanations that relate to students’ background knowledge and social perspectives is also addressed in the report. A key role of the teacher therefore, is to create coherence in learning where students build upon prior knowledge and develop evidence based explanations for the causes of phenomena.
Of the seven recommendations in the report, it is recommendation two which accentuates the idea that instruction should engage students in three dimensional science performances. When students plan and carry out an investigation to determine causes of phenomena, data is collected, analyzed, and used as evidence to support scientific explanations or arguments. This manipulation of data creates a need to focus on student conceptual reasoning. It is here as teachers of science, we realize we cannot just teach about the what. We must also teach about how we came to know.
Duschl and Bybee (2014) assert that teachers must problematize evidence. This means when students carry out an investigation, measurement and observation become problematized. In essence, there needs to be a struggle in doing science. In traditional labs, all students are often provided the same materials, and the activity always works. As teachers, we know this is inconsistent with how science works in the real world. Instead, during investigation and design teachers facilitate reasoning as students gather data, enter it into a spreadsheet program, analyze the data, and then reflect on questions the data prompts. This approach creates teaching moments for conversations with students that promote productive discourse about the meaning of the data.
For example, questions may include how a pattern can be explained, are cause and effect relationships apparent, and are there outliers in the data and if so how should they be addressed. This in depth reasoning helps students see that science is a social enterprise as they engage in discourse and communicate and critique in dialogue with others.
Performances where students generate artifacts help learners organize and share their thinking. The artifacts students make reveal their thinking; early artifacts show initial understanding and later artifacts demonstrate a more sophisticated level of reasoning as students reflect on new evidence. Investigations create opportunities for teachers to engage students in learning about the nature of science. As students engage in a series of coherent science performances, they come to realize scientific knowledge is based upon empirical evidence and why scientific explanations are revised in light of new evidence. (See appendix H in NGSS).
As a current teacher of science, the structure of gathering information and data, reasoning about the meaning of the data, and communicating reasoning through artifacts has yielded increased conceptual understanding in my students. Engaging students in a series of coherent science performances is more than simply having students do hands on activities. Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center provides a research based rationale for how student science performances create situations where students’ interest and motivation is cultivated as they develop explanations for the causes of phenomena. This report provides strategies for how teachers of science can thoughtfully reflect on their instruction to ensure student investigation remains at the center of the classroom experience.
Duschl R.A. and Bybee R.W. (2014). Planning and carrying out investigations: an entry to learning and to teacher professional development around NGSS science and engineering practices. International Journal of STEM Education, 1:12. https://stemeducationjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40594-014-0012-6
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center. Washington, D.C. The National Academies Press www.nap.edu/25216
Kenneth L. Huff is a teacher of science at Mill Middle School in Williamsville, New York and a member of the Committee on Science Investigations and Engineering Design Experiences in Grades 6-12.