The Difference Between Science and Engineering and Why It Matters for Your Teaching

There are three dimensions to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS):

  1. The science and engineering practices (referred to as “practices” or SEP)
  2. The disciplinary core ideas (DCIs)
  3. The crosscutting concepts (CCCs).

When it comes to the science and engineering practices, there are slight differences between the two that make a big impact on the way you teach them in the classroom.

Science Uses Investigation to Understand the Natural World

In other words, science is in the pursuit of understanding the natural world. Scientific investigations, therefore, are aimed at generating descriptive theories and explanations for how different aspects of the natural world work and are connected. They may also be geared toward the verification of other scientific explanations, or toward defining the set of conditions for certain phenomena. This is why repeatability and the use of fair tests and controls are so important in science — explanations need to be repeatable, and trustworthy.

Engineering Applies Those Understandings To Solve A Problem

When we think of engineering, we usually think about taking what we’ve learned through science and using it to solve a problem. Engineers also investigate, but their investigations are geared toward finding solutions to problems, where as in science, investigations may just be done to gather data and gain understanding. Engineering takes what we know about science (and technology and math) to come up with multiple solutions to an issue or problem. Engineering investigations, therefore, test and evaluate these applications to find the best solutions for different problems or needs.

Comparing the Differences and Similarities

Although both science and engineering use similar practices (in fact, they share all eight practices), they serve two different purposes.

In relation to teaching, both approaches use inquiry-based methodologies. However, an inquiry-based scientific lab is about understanding a phenomenon or describing how something works.

An inquiry-based engineering lab is about constructing, building, or applying a solution, evaluating the effectiveness of that solution, and then applying this knowledge toward the design of even better solutions.

In short, science is about describing and understanding the natural world, while engineering is about the application and improvement of solutions to solve a problem or need.

For both science and engineering, it is important to give students time to reflect on their investigation. In science, this reflection is about evaluating the validity of their data, and suggesting improvements or next steps to their experimental design. For engineering, give your students time to go back and make modifications to improve their solutions, and to test these improved solutions to see how effective they are toward solving the problem that you have proposed.

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  1. Pingback: The Engineering Structure - How It Applies to Elementary STEM - STEAM Café

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