It is essential for today’s students to learn about science and engineering in order to make sense of the world around them and participate as informed members of a democratic society. The skills and ways of thinking that are developed and honed through engaging in scientific and engineering endeavors can be used to engage with evidence in making personal decisions, to participate responsibly in civic life, and to improve and maintain the health of the environment, as well as to prepare for careers that use science and technology.
The majority of Americans learn most of what they know about science and engineering as middle and high school students. During these years of rapid change for students’ knowledge, attitudes, and interests, they can be engaged in learning science and engineering through schoolwork that piques their curiosity about the phenomena around them in ways that are relevant to their local surroundings and to their culture. Many decades of education research provide strong evidence for effective practices in teaching and learning of science and engineering. One of the effective practices that helps students learn is to engage in science investigation and engineering design. Broad implementation of science investigation and engineering design and other evidence-based practices in middle and high schools can help address present-day and future national challenges, including broadening access to science and engineering for communities who have traditionally been underrepresented and improving students’ educational and life experiences.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened the Committee on Science Investigations and Engineering Design
Experiences for Grades 6–12, under the guidance of the Board on Science Education, to address the following statement of task:
The committee will review research on science investigations and engineering design for middle and high school students conducted since publication of America’s Lab Report (National Research Council, 2006) and use this research to inform the revision of the original report. The review of research will include research and evaluations of innovative approaches, such as computer modeling or use of large on-line data sets that have become more widely available since publication of the original report. The committee will provide guidance for designing and implementing science investigations and engineering design for middle and high school students that takes into account the new vision for science education embodied in the Framework for K–12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) and standards based upon it.
Over the past decade, there has been a shift in the thinking about the role of the teacher and about the nature of student work. Instead of receiving knowledge from the teacher, students make sense of phenomena through exploration, reflection, and discussion. Instead of students learning science content and methods for doing science separately, they engage simultaneously with three dimensions: science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts as part of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. These three dimensions and much of this approach were introduced in A Framework for K–12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework; National Research Council, 2012). Learning in the style described in the Framework is often referred to as three-dimensional learning: that is, learning where students incorporate aspects from all three dimensions as they make sense of the natural and engineered world around them. The Framework’s presentation of engineering as part of what K–12 students should learn is another shift in the last decade. Instead of seeing engineering as separate from science, students can see the ways science and engineering each serve the other.
The current report revisits America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science (National Research Council, 2006) in order to consider its discussion of laboratory experiences and teacher and school readiness in an updated context. It considers how to engage today’s middle and high school students in doing science and engineering through an analysis of evidence and examples. It provides guidance for teachers, administrators, creators of instructional resources, and leaders in teacher professional learning on how to support students as they make sense of phenomena, gather and analyze data/information, construct explanations and design solutions, and communicate reasoning to self and others during science
investigation and engineering design. It provides guidance to help educators get started with designing, implementing, and assessing investigation and design. Science investigation and engineering design are driven by questions about phenomena and engineering challenges and include multiple connected coherent experiences. These experiences allow students to engage deeply with the ideas and ways of thinking used in science and engineering and to make sense of themselves as learners as they draw on their own ideas and identities in the process of doing science and engineering.
Some previous attempts to reform science education focused on the students expected to join the future scientific and technical workforce and intentionally or unintentionally excluded others. This report recognizes the extensive inequities in science education that currently exist and acknowledges that while some previous attempts to improve science education have called for science for all students, they ultimately failed to meet all students, teachers, schools, and districts where they were. Many previous reform efforts incorrectly assumed that all students and all schools begin at an even starting point for change, but this is generally not the case. For example, because schools that served primarily students of low social and economic status began at a disadvantage, they were not in a position to fully benefit from reform efforts. Likewise, many students from groups underrepresented in science and engineering have not had the advantages of students from other groups. Therefore, providing equal resources to students and to schools that started out at a disadvantage could not result in equitable outcomes. Equitable outcomes require development and use of instructional strategies intended to make education more inclusive of students from many types of diverse backgrounds and cultures, as well as attention to distribution of resources and the ways educators think about student access, inclusion, engagement, motivation, interest, and identity.
Engaging all students in learning science and engineering through investigation and design will require a system that supports instructional approaches that (1) situate phenomena in culturally and locally relevant contexts, (2) provide a platform for developing meaningful understanding of three-dimensional science and engineering knowledge, and (3) provide an opportunity for the use of evidence to make sense of the natural and engineered world beyond the classroom. These are big changes to the status quo and will require significant and sustained work by teachers, administrators, leaders in professional learning, those designing instructional resources and assessment tools, as well as policy makers. This report discusses key aspects that need to be considered to improve experiences for all students as they investigate science and engineering in the classroom, in the laboratory, in the field, online, and beyond their time in school.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
In reviewing the evidence, the committee noted many factors and contexts that influence the learning of science and engineering in middle and high schools today and made the following conclusions and recommendations.
CONCLUSION 1: 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. They engage students in doing science and engineering, increase their conceptual knowledge of science and engineering, and improve their reasoning and problem-solving skills.
CONCLUSION 2: Teachers can use students’ curiosity to motivate learning by choosing phenomena and design challenges that are interesting and engaging to students, including those that are locally and/or culturally relevant. Science investigation and engineering design give middle and high school students opportunities to engage in the wider world in new ways by providing agency for them to develop questions and establish the direction for their own learning experiences.
CONCLUSION 3: Science investigation and engineering design entail a dramatic shift in the classroom dynamic. Students ask questions, participate in discussions, create artifacts and models to show their reasoning, and continuously reflect and revise their thinking. Teachers guide, frame, and facilitate the learning environment to allow student engagement and learning.
CONCLUSION 4: Inclusive pedagogies can support the learning of all students by situating differences as assets, building on students’ identities and life experiences, and leveraging local and dynamic views of cultural life for the study of science and engineering.
CONCLUSION 5: Centering classes on science investigation and engineering design means that teachers provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their reasoning and show understanding of scientific explanations about the natural world. Providing opportunities for teachers to observe student learning and embed assessment into the flow of learning experiences allows students as well as teachers to reflect on learning.
CONCLUSION 6: Instructional resources are key to facilitating the careful sequencing of phenomena and design challenges across units and grade levels in order to increase coherence as students become increasingly sophisticated science and engineering learners.
CONCLUSION 7: Teachers’ ability to guide student learning can be improved by preservice education on strategies for investigation and design as well as opportunities for professional learning at many stages of their in-service teaching careers. Intentionally designed and sustained professional learning experiences that extend over months can help teachers prepare, implement, and refine approaches to investigation and design.
CONCLUSION 8: Engaging students in investigation and design requires attention to facilities, budgets, human resources, technology, equipment, and supplies. These resources can impact the quantity and quality of investigation and design experiences in the classroom and the students who have access to them.
CONCLUSION 9: Changes in the teaching and learning of science and engineering in middle and high schools are occurring within a complex set of systems. Classroom-level change is impacted in various and sometimes conflicting ways by issues related to funding and resources, local community priorities, state standards, graduation requirements, college admission requirements, and local, state, and national assessments. When incentives do not align, successful implementation of investigation and design is hindered.
CONCLUSION 10: There are notable inequities within and among schools today in terms of access to educational experiences that engage students in science investigation and engineering design. Many policies and structures tend to perpetuate these inequities, such as disparities in facilities and teacher expectations, experiences, and qualifications across schools and districts.
RECOMMENDATION 1: Science investigation and engineering design should be the central approach for teaching and learning science and engineering.
- Teachers should arrange their instruction around interesting phenomena or design projects and use their students’ curiosity to engage them in learning science and engineering.
- Administrators should support teachers in implementation of science investigation and engineering design. This may include providing teachers with appropriate instructional resources, opportunities to engage in sustained professional learning experiences and work collaboratively to design learning sequences, choose phenomena with contexts relevant to their students, and time to engage in and learn about inclusive pedagogies to promote equitable participation in science investigation and engineering design.
RECOMMENDATION 2: Instruction should provide multiple embedded opportunities for students to engage in three-dimensional science and engineering performances.
- Teachers should monitor student learning through ongoing, embedded, and post-instruction assessment as students make sense of phenomena and design solutions to challenges.
- Teachers should use formative assessment tasks and discourse strategies to encourage students to share their ideas, and to develop and revise their ideas with other students.
- Teachers should use evidence from formative assessment to guide instructional choices and guide students to reflect on their own learning.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Instructional resources to support science investigation and engineering design need to use approaches consistent with knowledge about how students learn and consistent with the Framework to provide a selection of options suitable for many local conditions.
- Teachers and designers of instructional resources should work in teams to develop coherent sequences of lessons that include phenomena carefully chosen to engage students in the science or engineering to be learned. Instructional resources should include information on strategies and options teachers can use to craft and implement lessons relevant to their students’ backgrounds, cultures, and place.
- Administrators should provide teachers with access to high-quality instructional resources, space, equipment, and supplies that support the use of Framework-aligned approaches to science investigation and engineering design.
RECOMMENDATION 4: High-quality, sustained, professional learning opportunities are needed to engage teachers as professionals with effective evidence-based instructional practices and models for instruction in science
and engineering. Administrators should identify and encourage participation in sustained and meaningful professional learning opportunities for teachers to learn and develop successful approaches to effective science and engineering teaching and learning.
- Professional development leaders should provide teachers with the opportunity to learn in the manner in which they are expected to teach, by using Framework-aligned methods during professional learning experiences. Teachers should receive feedback from peers and other experts while working throughout their career to improve their skills, knowledge, and dispositions with these instructional approaches.
- Professional development leaders should prepare and empower teachers to make informed and professional decisions about adapting lessons to their students and the local environment.
- Administrators and education leaders should provide opportunities for teachers to implement and reflect on the use of Framework-aligned approaches to teaching and learning.
RECOMMENDATION 5: Undergraduate learning experiences need to serve as models for prospective teachers, in which they experience investigation and design as learners.
- College and university faculty should design and teach science classes that model the use of evidence-based principles for learning and immerse students in Framework-aligned approaches to science and engineering learning.
- Faculty should design and teach courses on pedagogy of science and engineering that use instructional strategies consistent with the Framework.
- College and university administrators should support and incentivize design of new courses or redesign of existing courses that use evidence-based principles and align with the ideas of the Framework.
RECOMMENDATION 6: Administrators should take steps to address the deep history of inequities in which not all students have been offered a full and rigorous sequence of science and engineering learning opportunities, by implementing science investigation and engineering design approaches in all science courses for all students.
- School and district staff should systematically review policies that impact the ability to offer science investigation and engineering
design opportunities to all students. They should monitor and analyze differences in course offerings and content between schools, as well as patterns of enrollment and success in science and engineering courses at all schools. This effort should include particular attention to differential student outcomes, especially in areas in which inequality and inequity have been well documented (e.g., gender, socioeconomic status, race, and culture). Administrators should use this information to construct specific, concrete, and positive plans to address the disparities.
- State and national legislatures and departments of education should provide additional resources to schools with significant populations of underserved students to broaden access/opportunity and allow all students to participate in science investigation and engineering design.
RECOMMENDATION 7: For all students to engage in meaningful science investigation and engineering design, the many components of the system must become better aligned. This will require changes to existing policies and procedures. As policies and procedures are revised, care must be taken not to exacerbate existing inequities.
- State, regional, and district leaders should commission and use valid and reliable summative assessment tools that mirror how teachers measure three-dimensional learning.
- States, regions, and districts should provide resources to support the implementation of investigation and engineering design-based approaches to science and engineering instruction across all grades and in all schools, and should track and manage progress toward full implementation. State, regional, and district leaders should ensure that the staff in their own offices who oversee science instruction or science educators have a deep knowledge of Framework-aligned approaches to teaching and learning.