Modeling is More Than Replicating

Students often examine and interact with models as they learn content. But is it really modeling when students create a 3-dimensional representation of a cell?

cell model

We’ll use the word “modeling” here to refer to the practice of developing and using models in science. Teacher modeling of behaviors, skills, and cognitive routines is incredibly important in classrooms, but this post will focus on students’ interactions with conceptual models.

From the page 50 of the Framework for K-12 Science Education:

Science often involves the construction and use of a wide variety of models and simulations to help develop explanations about natural phenomena. Models make it possible to go beyond observables and imagine a world not yet seen. Models enable predictions of the form “if … then … therefore” to be made in order to test hypothetical explanations.

Creating the cell representation pictured above might demonstrate a student’s ability to design to criteria or to recall the shape of organelles, but it isn’t really an explanation or prediction. Continue reading “Modeling is More Than Replicating”


Engineering in Unexpected Places

We all engineer parts of our lives every day. Children (and adults!) engineer structures with blocks, Legos, and Minecraft. Cooks engineer recipes. Teachers engineer learning experiences.

Engineering K-2There are many different graphics of the engineering design process. The image above comes from Appendix I of the Next Generation Science Standards. At its core, engineering consists of three key processes: identifying a problem, developing solutions, and optimizing those solutions. Sounds a lot like a teaching and learning cycle, right?

TL CycleIt sounds a lot like almost any artistic process, too. A “problem” is identified (a piece of music to perform), solutions are developed (rehearsed) and optimized (director feedback).


What about mathematicians? Don’t they identify problems, develop solutions, and optimize? And how about writers? How are the processes of drafting and revising similar to designing and testing?

Engineering, design, and art are not always distinct activities; the lines between them are often fuzzy. Our students should know about and appreciate this “fuzziness”. It brings them closer to understanding the outside world and eliminates some of the potential barriers to STEM careers that students encounter. Students benefit from seeing engineering as something that everyone engages in because it makes the field more approachable and provides a set of useful problem-solving skills that students can apply in many different ways.

Interested in some additional reading? Check out this research brief:  Learning STEM Through Design: Students Benefit from Expanding What Counts as “Engineering” or this blog post on the connections between engineering and social emotional learning.

Rewriting Chapter 1

Pete A’Hearn of the California Science Teachers Association has a great post describing the need to rewrite chapter 1, or whatever we call our introductory science unit. This encapsulates a great deal of what is different (and great!) about the Next Generation Science Standards: learning happens best when it sits within a context that is relevant to students. Teaching one thing at a time might make planning and assessment seem simpler, but it robs students of the best ways to learn and grow. Continue reading “Rewriting Chapter 1”

SEL and Empathy through Engineering

As we work to support students with their social and emotional learning (SEL) at all grade levels, we need to find ways to make this learning accessible and relevant, in the same ways that we work to personalize other learning experiences. When we ask students to problem solve, are we helping them to see themselves as engineers?

Engineering instruction presents an underutilized opportunity for supporting SEL. Empathy is at the root of all engineering. The empathy component of engineering might not be obvious from reading the Merriam-Webster definition, but the acts of identifying a problem to solve, designing solutions, and optimizing those solutions require the engineer to have a level of empathy for the people (or other organisms) involved in the problem. When we ask students to be engineers, are we being transparent enough about the need for empathy?

Particularly in the early grades, students need help sorting out big problems from small problems in their interactions with others. Identification and classification of problems is a key component of the engineering design process. By making the connection between students’ work with social problems (i.e. Kelso’s Choice) and engineering, teachers can help to encourage all students to see themselves as both engineers and problem solvers.

Engineering in the classroom provides students with opportunities to fail safely and try again. This process of iteration is a great way for students to build their persistence and support a growth mindset. Students can also consider engineering (or design) in contexts outside of building. As we involve students in setting up flexible learning environments or establishing group norms, they can be engaged in a form of process engineering. A classroom culture is one example of a designed system; students can be made aware of this and take an active role in engineering the systems and processes in place at school.

Group collaboration is critical in professional engineering contexts: Engineering is a social activity. Group engineering tasks allow students to practice and develop their skills with collaborative relationships and positive social interactions. When a team goal is in place or a problem needs to be solved, many students are more engaged and collaboration occurs in more authentic ways.

Student decision-making and self-management skills can also be developed, refined, and assessed through engineering activities. Time management is almost always a factor in an engineering task – the problem needs to be solved in a reasonable time frame. As students consider the reasons why a design has failed or how to optimize a solution, they consider trade-offs and which solution is truly the best fit for the criteria. By providing authentic experiences for students to practice these skills in a way that teachers can assess and provide feedback.

Intentionally linking SEL and engineering instruction is efficient and will increase student access to critical life and academic skills. Here are a few resources for you to consider digging into that help connect engineering with concepts in SEL:

  • Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking – a fantastic Edutopia post by Rusul Alrubail
  • An Introduction to Design Thinking – this look at Stanford’s process guide begins with empathy
  • Ann McMahon’s TEDx talks in 2012 and 2015 – these videos provide a great look at the role of empathy in engineering from the perspective of an aerospace engineer and educator
  • STEM Teaching Tools #7, #36, and #39 – these tools offer ideas and insight into helping to engage students in relevant design and engineering processes that can help support a variety of SEL goals
  • TeachEngineering – as the name suggests, this site offers a variety of engineering lessons and units aligned to a variety of standards for every grade level

NGSS on itslearning

Interested in learning more about the Science and Engineering Practices in the Next Generation Science Standards? We have a course for that!

This self-paced course includes short videos, excerpts from the Framework for K-12 Science Education, short articles, and opportunities to create tasks to engage students in each of the practices.

Just search for NGSS in the Site Course Catalog on itslearning. Use the registration code science to enroll and get started!