Engineering Design and Science Inquiry

Engineering design and science inquiry share a number of similar features. Both are reasoning processes used to solve problems. Both use similar cognitive tools, such as brainstorming, reasoning by analogy, mental models, and visual representations. And both require testing and evaluation of the product—the engineering design or the scientific hypothesis.

The two processes also differ in significant ways. One point of divergence is the role of constraints. Budget constraints, for instance, can limit science inquiry and can even keep scientists from answering a particular question. But they do not affect the answer itself. For engineers, however, budget constraints can determine the actual characteristics of a design solution—the materials used, for example, or the number of redundancies included to protect against possible failure.

In 2012, A Framework for K-12 Science Education described a new vision of science instruction that actively engaged students in science and engineering practices to develop a deep understanding of core ideas in those fields. By placing greater emphasis on these practices in learning experiences, instruction can provide students with a richer and more accurate view of science, engineering, and technology.

The framework identified 8 practices essential for K-12 science and engineering education. These are practices that both engineers and scientists engage in as part of their work. Each practice, however, is utilized in slightly different ways in the two fields, as noted in the table below which is adapted from the framework.

A Comparison of Essential Practices in Engineering and Science



1. Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Engineering begins with a problem, need, or desire.

Science begins with a question about a natural phenomenon.

2. Developing and Using Models

Engineering uses models and simulations to analyze existing systems to identify possible flaws or test possible solutions.

Science uses of a wide variety of models and simulations to help develop explanations for natural phenomenon.

3. Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

Engineers use investigations to gain data for specifying design criteria and to test their designs.  They must identify relevant variables, decide how they will be measured, and collect data for analysis.

Planning and carrying out systematic investigations is a major practice for scientists. They must identify what is to be recorded and, if applicable, what are to be treated as the dependent and independent variables.

4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Engineers analyze data collected in testing designs and through investigations to compare solutions.

Scientists analyze data produced by scientific investigations in order to derive meaning.

5. Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

In engineering, math is an integral part of design. Computational representations are essential in simulations and prototype development. Math-based analysis allows engineers to calculate if a given solution can meet criteria and still be completed within budget.

In science, math is used to in a variety of ways to represent physical variables and their relationships.  Computational representations allow scientists to make and test predictions. Statistics allow them to assess the significance of patterns or correlations.

6. Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

The goal of engineering is to solve a problem or meet a need.

The goal of science is to construct theories that explain features of the world.

7. Engaging in Argument from Evidence

In engineering, reasoning and argument are essential for finding the best possible solution to a problem.

In science, reasoning and argument are essential for identifying the strengths and weaknesses of an explanation.

8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

New or improved technologies will not be produced if engineers cannot accurately gather requirements or clearly and persuasively communicate the advantages of their designs

Science cannot advance if scientists are unable to communicate their findings clearly and persuasively or to learn about the findings of others.

An excellent article entitled "Untangling Science Inquiry and Engineering Design" provides examples of how learning activities can be structured to allow students to master different NGSS performance expectionswhile utilizing either the engineering or science version of the same practices.