Nov. 13, 2018

Investigation and Design Can Improve Student Learning in Science and Engineering; Changes to Instructional Approaches Will Require Significant Effort

WASHINGTON – Centering science instruction around investigation and design can improve learning in middle and high schools and help students make sense of phenomena in the world around them.  Current approaches to science in many classrooms do not reflect this approach and constrain the opportunities afforded to students, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Changing instructional approaches will require significant and sustained work by teachers, administrators, and policy makers, the report says.

“Students learn by doing, and science investigations provide an opportunity to do,” says Brett Moulding, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and director of the Partnership for Effective Science Teaching and Learning. “Our report provides guidance on how teaching can shift toward investigations in a way that piques students’ curiosity and leads to greater interest in science.”

The term “investigation” refers to all aspects of engaging in science and engineering practices, whether in the laboratory or outside of it.  In classrooms using these approaches, 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. Thus, instead of discussing “laboratories” as one component of science classes, the report explains how to make “investigation” the central focus of what students do to learn science and engineering.

Science investigation and engineering design offer a promising vehicle for anchoring student learning in contexts that are meaningful to them, the report says. Interacting with real-world phenomena allows instructional choices that better connect to students’ lives, experiences, and cultural backgrounds than science instruction that is focused on discrete facts organized by discipline.

While recent years have seen advances in the understanding of how students learn science and engineering concepts, the experiences of students in middle and high school classrooms have remained relatively unchanged. Whereas traditional science classroom activities promote knowledge of vocabulary, facts, and concepts, science investigation and engineering design promotes learning that simultaneously engages with science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts that have broad scientific applications. This approach was introduced in the Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) and helps students make sense of the natural and engineered world. Incorporating this approach into middle and high school classrooms is a dramatic change from the status quo and will entail significant changes for both students and teachers.

Given the potential for science investigation and engineering design to motivate students’ learning, the report recommends that teachers arrange their instruction around interesting phenomena or design projects and use their students’ curiosity to engage them in learning. The report also says that instructional resources and curricula designed to support science investigation and engineering design should use approaches consistent with knowledge about how students learn, and also include information on strategies and options teachers can use to craft and implement lessons relevant to their students’ backgrounds and cultures.

“When investigation and design are at the center of learning, students can gather evidence and take ownership of the evidence they have gathered,” said Nancy Songer, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor in the School of Education at Drexel University.

As student learning goals are changing, so must professional learning for teachers, the report says.  High quality, sustained professional learning opportunities are needed to engage teachers with effective evidence-based instructional practices and models for instruction in science and engineering.

Professional development leaders should provide teachers with the opportunity to learn in the manner in which they are expected to teach, and empower teachers to make informed decisions about adapting lessons to their students, says the report. School and district administrators should also identify and encourage participation in sustained professional learning opportunities that enable teachers to develop successful approaches to science and engineering teaching and learning.

The report also recognizes the need for science and engineering to be more inclusive and to ensure that students from groups that have been excluded or marginalized in the past have equitable access to quality science and engineering learning opportunities.

School and district staff should review policies that impact the ability to offer science investigation and engineering design opportunities to all students, the report says. This effort should include particular attention to differential student outcomes, especially in areas in which inequities have been well documented, such as gender, socioeconomic status, race, and culture. Administrators should use this information to construct specific, concrete, and positive plans to address the disparities.

Engaging all students in investigation and design can only happen if the complex factors outside the classroom support their work, the report says. Influences come from policies and practices at the school, district, regional, state, and national levels. States, regions, and districts should provide resources to support the implementation of investigation and engineering design-based approaches to instruction across all grades and in all schools, and should track and manage progress towards full implementation. State, regional, and district leaders should also ensure that the staff in their own offices who oversee science instruction or science educators are knowledgeable about these approaches to teaching and learning. Conscious alignment of goals and intentionality in addressing equality, equity, and inclusion by the various stakeholders can facilitate improvements in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development needed to support science investigation and engineering design for all students.

The study was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Amgen Foundation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions relations to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit A committee roster follows.

Kacey Templin, Media Relations Officer
Andrew Robinson, Media Relations Assistant
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Copies of Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Board on Science Education

Committee on Science Investigations and Engineering Design Experiences in Grades 6-12

Brett D. Moulding (co-chair)
Partnership for Effective Science Teaching and Learning
North Ogden, UT

Nancy Songer (co-chair)
Dean, and
Distinguished University Professor
School of Education
Drexel University

Juan-Carlos Aguilar
Director of Innovated Research Programs and Research
Georgia Department of Education

Anne Egger
Associate Professor
Central Washington University

Erin Marie Furtak
Professor of Science Education, and
Associate Dean of Faculty
School of Education
University of Colorado

Kenneth L. Huff
Mill Middle School
Williamsville Central School District
Williamsville, N.Y.

Joseph Krajcik
Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education, and
CREATE for STEM Institute
Michigan State University
East Lansing

Michael C. Lach
Director of STEM Education Policy and Strategic Initiatives
UChicago STEM Education
University of Chicago

Ronald M. Latanision1
Senior Fellow
Exponent, Inc.
Natick, Mass.

Mitchell Nathan
Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Educational Psychology
School of Education
University of Wisconsin

Eileen R. Parsons
Professor of science Education
School of Education
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill

Cynthia Passmore
Professor of Science Education
School of Education
University of California

Helen R. Quinn2
Professor Emerita of Particle Physics and Astrophysics
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Andrea Tracy
Assistant Principal
Lawton High School
Lawton, Okla.


Kerry A. Brenner
Staff Officer

1Member, National Academy of Engineering
2Member, National Academy of Science