Teaching Science as a Practice – A Fundamental Change in How We Teach Science

Science StandardsThe Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013), which New York State is in the process of adopting, incorporate three dimensions: scientific and engineering practices; cross cutting concepts; and disciplinary core ideas. The NGSS requires K-12 science instruction that fully integrates all three dimensions. The previous Next Generation Science Center blog introduced us to the NGSS. This blog will begin the process of developing an initial understanding of the NGSS by discussing one of the dimensions: scientific and engineering practices. Even though we are initially introducing the three dimensions individually, remember that classroom instruction must integrate all three dimensions.

Before identifying the eight scientific and engineering practices, lets be clear that these practices do represent a shift in prior standards and the associated classroom practices. The previous National Science Education Standards (1996) called for teaching science as inquiry. These standards identified skills and abilities associated with scientific inquiry and listed them separately from the content standards. The separation of inquiry from the scientific concepts and phenomena is also illustrated in New York State’s current, but soon to be replaced, Elementary and Intermediate Level Science Core Curriculum, as the inquiry and process skills are identified at the beginning, completely separated from the content specific standards.

The separation of the inquiry skills from the content often resulted in classroom practices that included lessons specifically focused on the inquiry or process skills with little coherent integration with core scientific concepts. The full integration means we can no longer teach things like organizing data or identifying variables in standalone lessons. Furthermore, the focus on skill-based activities is no longer a focus, nor is a lesson only focused on the facts of science.

“If we want students to learn the content, they have to engage in the practice. But if we want students to learn the science and engineering practices, they have to engage in content. Leave one out, and the students will not develop proficiency in the other. If we want students to use content, problem-solve, think critically and make statements based on evidence, then we must have all three dimensions working together, linking practice with content.” (Krajcik, Codere, Dahsah, Bayer & Mun, 2014, p. 159).

The Framework (NCR, 2012) is clear about the distinction between skills and the practices: “We use the term ‘practices’ instead of a term such as ‘skills’ to emphasize that engaging in scientific investigations requires not only skill but also knowledge that is specific to each practice” (NRC, 2012, p. 30). The scientific and engineering practices are about engaging students in cognitive processes, not acquiring skills.

The NGSS includes the following scientific and engineering practices:

  1. Asking Questions 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 and Designing Solutions (engineering)
  7. Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

As identified in the previous blog a guiding principle of the NGSS is the learning progressions model. Thus, the scientific and engineering practices are also built on the learning progressions model, suggesting that the complexity and sophistication of students’ engagement in the practices increases throughout their K-12 education. However, beginning in kindergarten, students are expected to engaging in each of the practices. A summary of the K-12 progression of each of the practices is included in Appendix F of the NGSS.

To better understand the integration of scientific and engineering practices with scientific concepts lets look at an example the NGSS for third grade life science related to the concept of heredity: “Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms”. Emphasis was added to analyze and interpret data to illustrate the embedded nature of the scientific and engineering practice. To achieve this standard, students must be the ones that are engaging in analyzing and interpreting data, to access evidence related the inheritance of traits. The scientific and engineering practice is the vehicle students use to develop an understanding of the scientific concept. This illustrates the NGSS’s “call for moving away from learning content and inquiry in isolation to building knowledge in use – building and applying science knowledge” (Krajcik et al., 2014, p. 158).

In closing, not only does the NGSS call for the full integration of scientific and engineering practices with learning scientific concepts, the practices also demonstrate a more authentic view of the nature science as a discipline. That is scientists and engineers engage in cognitive processes around investigation, evidence based explanations, reasoning, and evaluating. Scientists and engineers do not engage in a “one-size fits all”, linear or cyclical procedure. Thus, we have to teach science as the cognitive process that it is, not as a method with specific steps. We also have to provide classroom-learning opportunities that allow students to do the cognitive work of engaging in the scientific practices to develop an understanding of scientific concepts. When we do this, we will provide students with improved science learning opportunities: “Engaging students in scientific practices, it is argued, will make cognitive demands of a form that science education rarely does. Hence, asking students to engage in practice can improve the quality of student learning” (Osborne, 2014, p. 183).

The type of science instruction that fully integrates the practices of science and engineering with scientific concepts is new and will require a shift in our current practices. As we make the transition to implement New York State’s adoption of the NGSS, the Next Generation Science Center will be providing professional development opportunities to support the shift in instruction beginning this fall. Additionally, you can look forward to next month’s blog that will focus on the disciplinary core ideas.

Hehl_Jessica_150pxJessica Whisher Hehl
Science Coordinator




  • Krajcik,J., Codere, S., Dahsah, C., Bayer, R., & Mun, K. (2014). Planning instruction to meet theintent of the Next Generation Science Standards. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25(2), 157-175.
  • National Research Council (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press
  • NGSS Lead States (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Osborne, J. (2014). Teaching scientific practices: Meeting the challenge of change. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25(2), 177-196.

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