Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Design Practices and Misconceptions: Helping Beginners in Engineering Design

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Design Practices and Misconceptions: Helping Beginners in Engineering Design

Article excerpt

A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC 2012) includes engineering design, formerly technological design (NRC 1996), alongside scientific inquiry in K-122 science instruction. Design challenges can include creating whirligigs or parachutes that descend a given distance as slowly as possible, building a model bridge or tower while learning about stability of structures, making a catapult that can hit a target with its projectile, and designing model cars powered by rubber bands, balloons, or fans so that they travel far or fast.

Some science educators may be dismayed at the prospect of including a whole new class of learning activities in their already crowded teaching calendar. Though some teachers may have taught engineering design tasks, few take engineering courses in college and fewer still are trained in effectively using design tasks with students. Such teaching know-how (i.e., pedagogical content knowledge) includes recognizing students' different design practices, knowing learning progressions and common beginners' misconceptions, and using effective teaching and assessment strategies.

In this article, I describe beginner habits and misconceptions related to design practices (Figure 1, p.52). Once teachers are aware of these habits and misconceptions, they can more easily recognize them and work to remedy them through instruction. "The Informed Design Teaching and Learning Matrix" (Crismond and Adams 2012) provides more in-depth descriptions of the design practices, research on misconceptions, and teaching strategies for helping students become "informed designers" who can learn and use science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) ideas and practices while doing design challenges.


A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC 2012) describes eight practices related to both scientific inquiry and engineering design (Figure 1). Inquiry and design share six of the practices, and two (i.e., numbers 1 and 6) describe practices that make inquiry and design quite different from one another.

FIGURE 1 Practices for K-12 science classrooms (NRC 2012, p. 42).

Inquiry and design share the following practices:

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, & communicating information

Practitioners perform some of the same practices with different goals in mind (NRC 2012). For example, scientists and engineers both use simple models of more complex systems; however, scientists use them to understand how nature works, and engineers use them to understand how products or built systems work. Both scientists and engineers also

* research to understand problems better,

* argue from evidence when choosing which hypothesis to support or what design plan to build,

* conduct fair-test experiments,

* use mathematics to transform data,

* interpret test data to see if a hypothesis (science) or prediction about a prototype's performance (engineering) has been refuted or supported, and

* communicate results to others.

What practices make design and inquiry different from one another and unique as key STEM activities? Figure 2 (p. 53) compares the process models for these "big STEM tasks."

FIGURE 2 Scientific inquiry and engineering design process
model comparison.

A side-by-side comparison of process models for scientific
inquiry and engineering design shows that certain practices
are shared and others aren't.

Scientific inquiry               Engineering design

Observe and question             Grasp and frame problem

Research                         Research

Generate hypotheses              Generate ideas

Use models and make predictions  Use models and build prototypes

Conduct experiments              Conduct experiments

Interpret data and iterate       Troubleshoot and iterate

Communicate                      Communicate

The following are habits and misconceptions related to seven of the Framework's eight practices. …

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