NGSS Practices

What are NGSS Science and Engineering Practices?

Introduction to NGSS Practices

The Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS, offer a new framework for science and engineering education in the United States. The NGSS standards are built on a fundamental belief in blending the practice of science with content, so the NGSS practices emphasize learning by doing. While the standards hope to encourage more careers in science and engineering, the greater goal is to engage you in the practice of scientific and analytical long term thinking, which is applicable throughout your life.

The first overhaul of science education standards in nearly 15 years, the Next Generation Science Standards are based on an interdependent and interdisciplinary Framework, comprised of three principal concepts:

  1. Science and Engineering Practices
  2. Cross Cutting Concepts
  3. Disciplinary Core Ideas

Every NGSS practices lesson plan reflects this blended approach, creating a system of learning that builds on what was learned in previous years. Until these new science standards, students were typically taught subjects in isolation—biology its own class, chemistry another, for example—with little overlap amongst topics covered. With the NGSS standards, students will focus on fewer subjects overall but dive into them more deeply. All three of these principal concepts work together as a Framework, but in this article, we’ll be looking more deeply at the first concept, Science and Engineering Practices.

What are Science and Engineering Practices?

Essentially, Science and Engineering Practices are the methodology of science. How do we identify a problem? How can we analyze the problem using practical and analytical thinking? Those active skills are what make up the Science and Engineering Practices in the new standards, and are a critical component of the new standards. There are eight practices as outlined by the Next Generation Science Standards:

  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

The emphasis on practice, rather than rote memorization and content delivery is purposeful. Engaging in the practice of science allows the student to see that science and engineering is a creative endeavor, one that is always changing as we learn more about the world around us and ourselves. With the new NGSS standards for high school, students have the opportunity to engage more meaningfully with the content, to grapple with it and come to terms with it. In doing so, this can pique curiosity and motivate continued study in these fields.

Teaching science without teaching practices ignores the many potential applications of science in the world and for a student on the cusp of diving into their adult lives, it mispresents the scope of what science and engineering could be.

Guiding Principles for Teaching Science and Engineering Practices

While the NGSS standards do not provide a detailed curriculum, the structure of their lesson plans is fundamental to the successful execution of the new standards. They take a holistic view of K-12 science education and offer the following guidelines to an instructor shaping curricula.

First, the students in every grade band should be regularly engaging in all eight Science and Engineering Practices. Each practice can be scaled to an appropriate age and learning level, so through the entirety of K-12, the student is learning ways to use the eight practices over and over.

With the second guideline, it follows that the practices should and will grow in complexity and sophistication as the student progresses. So while a kindergarten student might be engaging with developing a simple representative model, a student in high school might be asked to create a model that’s much more layered and analytical.

Third, each of the practices may reflect science or engineering. The essential difference between how the practices are applied between the two has to do with the goal of the activity. If the goal is for the student to answer a question, then the students are working on a science practice. If the goal is to define and then solve a problem, this is the same practice but used in the service of engineering.

Fourth, the practice reflects what the student should be doing. They are not teaching methods (something the instructor does to “show” the students) nor are they curriculum on their own. The students themselves should be directly engaging in the eight practices.

A common mistake that can be made is to see each of the eight practices as independent ideas, when in fact; they are meant to be used together. The practices intentionally interconnect and overlap, and as the student progresses in his or her education, their understanding of how these practices work together deepens. For example, the practice of “asking questions” may lead to the practice of “modeling,” where the “planning of an investigation,” may lead to “analyzing and interpreting data”.

Finally, it’s important to understand that engaging in practices also means engaging in discourse: language and conversation are fundamental to the eight practices. Every opportunity to discuss the problem at hand in the classroom should be encouraged.

Asking Questions (Science) and Defining Problems (Engineering)

The simplicity of this practice is deceptive. Students should be asking questions of each other, their instructor and their subject matter throughout the NGSS standards in high school, and leading up to it as well.

At any grade level, asking questions at its most basic level means the ability to ask each other questions about what they’ve seen and read, investigating the phenomena they observe in the classroom and interpreting their own conclusions. For Engineering, this differs slightly in that the questions are meant to define a problem and then help to solve it. For students in high school, the practice starts to become much more complex, and at this grade band, a student should be able to use the practice of asking questions to:

  • Question careful observation, to clarify and seek additional information.
  • Examine models or a theory and seek additional information and relationships.
  • Determine quantitative relationship between independent and dependent variables.
  • Clarify or refine a model, an explanation or an engineering problem.
  • Evaluate a question to determine if it is testable
  • Ask and evaluate questions that challenge the premise(s) of an argument, the interpretation of a data set, or the suitability of design.
  • Define a design problem that involves the development of a process or system

Developing and Using Models

Models may include anything from diagrams to physical replicas, mathematical representations to computer simulations. The importance of building models has to do with bringing certain ideas into focus while obscuring others. All models contain limiting approximations and assumptions, which is important for the student to recognize.

In science, models are used to represent a system, or parts of a system, to aid in the development of questions and explanations, to generate data that can be used to make predictions, and to communicate ideas to others. As an iterative practice requiring evaluation, reevaluation and refinement, the building of models pushes the student to ask more questions, find more evidence. Models can also be used to visualize and refine a design. The NGSS standards for high school say a student should be able to:

  • Evaluate merits and limitations of two different models to select or revise a model that best fits the evidence or design criteria.
  • Design a test of a model to ascertain its reliability.
  • Develop, revise, and use a model based on evidence to illustrate and predict relationships between systems
  • Develop and use multiple types of models to provide accounts or predict phenomena.
  • Develop a complex model that allows for manipulation and testing of a proposed process.
  • Develop and use a model to generate data to support explanations, predict phenomena, analyze systems, and solve problems.

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

Students should have the opportunity to plan and carry out several different kinds of investigations during their K-12 years. Scientific investigations may be undertaken to describe a phenomenon, or to test a theory or model for how the world works.

The purpose of engineering investigations might be to find out how to fix or improve the functioning of a technological system or to compare different solutions to see which best solves a problem. Whether students are doing science or engineering, at any grade level, they should be able to state the goal of an investigation, predict outcomes, and plan a course of action that will provide the best evidence to support their conclusions. A high school student engaging with investigations under the NGSS standards should be able to:

  • Plan an investigation or test a design individually and collaboratively to produce data
  • Plan and conduct an investigation individually and collaboratively to produce data
  • Plan and conduct an investigation or test a design solution in a safe and ethical manner
  • Select appropriate tools to collect, record, analyze, and evaluate data.
  • Make directional hypotheses
  • Manipulate variables and collect data about a complex model of a proposed process

Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Data on its own has little meaning without context. By learning how to analyze and interpret data, the student can reveal patterns and relationships in the data and allows them to communicate those results to others. Much of this work is done through tabulating, graphing, or statistical analysis, which can bring out the meaning of data. As students mature, they are expected to expand their capabilities to use a range of tools, while also developing a keener eye for interpreting data. At the high school level, this includes the ability to:

  • Analyze data using tools, technologies, and models (e.g., computational, mathematical) to make valid and reliable scientific claims
  • Apply concepts of statistics and probability to scientific and engineering questions
  • Consider limitations of data analysis, like measurement error or sample selection, when analyzing and interpreting data
  • Compare and contrast various types of data sets to examine consistency of measurements and observations
  • Evaluate the impact of new data on a working explanation

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

Although there are differences in how mathematics and computational thinking are applied in science and engineering, mathematics brings these fields together by allowing engineers to apply the mathematical form of scientific theories and by enabling scientists to use powerful information technologies designed by engineers. As such, students are expected to use mathematics to represent physical variables and their relationships and to make quantitative predictions.

Other applications include logic, geometry, and at the highest levels, calculus, and the concept of mathematics as a key to understanding science. In the high school grade band, students should be able:

  • Create and revise a computational model or simulation of a phenomenon
  • Use mathematical, computational, and algorithmic representations of phenomena to support claims
  • Apply techniques of algebra and functions to represent and solve problems
  • Use mathematical expressions, computer programs, algorithms, or simulations of a process or system to see if a model “makes sense.”
  • Apply ratios, rates, percentages, and unit conversions in the context of complicated measurement problems (such as mg/mL, kg/Mg, acre-feet, etc.)

Constructing Explanations (for Science) and Designing Solutions (for Engineering)

The goal of science is to offer explanations for phenomena. A claim, then, is made in response to a question and in the process of answering the question, scientists design investigations to generate data. In engineering, however, the goal is to solve problems. Designing solutions to problems is a systematic process that involves defining the problem, then generating, testing, and improving solutions. You will learn how to:

  • Make a quantitative and qualitative claim regarding the relationship between dependent and independent variables
  • Construct and revise an explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources
  • Apply scientific ideas, principles, and evidence to provide an explanation of phenomena and solve design problems
  • Apply scientific reasoning, theory, and models to link evidence to the claims to assess the extent to which the reasoning and data support the explanation or conclusion
  • Design, evaluate, and refine a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and trade off considerations

Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Argumentation is a process for reaching agreements, and an essential communication tool in the practice of science and engineering. In science, reasoning and argument based on evidence are essential in identifying the best explanation for a natural phenomenon. In engineering, reasoning and argument are needed to identify the best solution to a design problem. Student engagement in scientific argumentation is critical if students are to understand the culture in which scientists live, and how to apply science and engineering for the benefit of society. High school students will be taught how to:

  • Compare and evaluate competing arguments or design solutions
  • Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning behind currently accepted explanations
  • Respectfully provide and receive critiques on scientific arguments
  • Construct and present an oral and written argument or counter-argument based on data and evidence.
  • Make and defend a claim based on evidence about the natural world or the effectiveness of a design solution that reflects scientific knowledge and student-generated evidence
  • Evaluate competing design solutions to a real-world problem based on scientific ideas and principles, empirical evidence, and logic

Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Being able to read, interpret, and produce scientific and technical text are fundamental practices of science and engineering, as is the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively. One of the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards is to empower students to become critical consumers of information when it comes to science and technology.

Communicating information, evidence, and ideas can be done in multiple ways: using tables, diagrams, graphs, models, interactive displays, and equations as well as orally, in writing, and through discussion. NGSS standards for high school students dictate a high school student should be able to:

  • Critically read scientific literature adapted for classroom use to determine the central ideas and be able to summarize complex evidence, concepts, processes
  • Compare, integrate and evaluate sources of information presented in different media or formats
  • Gather, read, and evaluate scientific and technical information from multiple authoritative sources, assessing the evidence and usefulness of each source.
  • Evaluate the validity and reliability of claims by verifying the data when possible.
  • Communicate scientific and technical information or ideas in multiple formats (i.e., orally, graphically, textually, mathematically)

The Science and Engineering Practices make up one of the three key concepts in the overall NGSS practices. Do you think these skills are valuable for a high school student? The Next Generation Science Standards will ask instructors to consider practices in conjunction with Disciplinary Core Ideas and Cross Cutting Concepts. To learn more about how students are evaluated under the NGSS framework, check out our post on how to read an NGSS lesson plan.

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