Making Engineering Accessible: A Brief Overview of Engineering in NGSS

One of the significant changes highlighted by NGSS is the emphasis on teaching engineering as a distinct but integrated subject within science curriculum. This higher profile for engineering can be found throughout the Three Dimensions of Learning on which the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are constructed. Engineering practices are integrated into and awarded the same status as comparable and sometimes overlapping processes in science, and are even celebrated in the moniker of one of the three NGSS dimensions: Scientific and Engineering Practices.

All of us realize the importance of inquiry to science education. Now, NGSS recognizes engineering design with that same credence. At all grade levels, engineering design must be raised to the same level as scientific inquiry.  But what does this mean for science instruction?

Before we address this question, we must engage in a bit of conceptual housekeeping.  This detour is simple and limited to definitions that differentiate between three key terms: science, engineering and technology.

Science is all about understanding the natural world. Scientists ask questions that can be addressed through the practices of science. Through research and analysis, they extend our understanding.

Engineering, however, is not about pushing out the boundaries of our understanding. Engineering is focused on "addressing a problem" or "meeting a need." Engineers seek solutions that improve the human condition. They rely on scientific understanding, but the practices and processes they follow are quite different from those of scientists. Unlike the more linear scientific method, the engineering process is based upon "feedback loops."  Does something work? If so, go on to the next step. If the results of a certain step do not meet expectations, go back and "rethink" the step. Eventually, you arrive at a final product or process. This result, along with its impact on the natural world, is called technology.

For the most part, NGSS addresses engineering design in three elements: Define, Develop and Optimize solutions. Although this categorization would seem to suggest a linear progression, the new standards make it clear that that is not the case. In following the engineering design process, one might discover the need to revisit an earlier stage that may now require an additional cycle of define, develop and optimize.

These loops form dynamic elements of the design process in which one must rethink design components based upon evolving constraints and criteria. However, within the overall scaffold of engineering design or within its component loops, the conceptual elements remain:

  • Define - A problem or need is identified in this stage.  As we advance through the grade bands, students must define various and grade-appropriate engineering challenges in terms of constraints and success criteria.
  • Develop solutions - In this stage, students are encouraged to use visual and physical models to communicate their thoughts as they suggest solutions that address a problem or need that has been defined. As they advance through the grade bands, the sophistication of potential solutions evolve with the suggestion, combination, and exploration of multiple possibilities.   
  • Optimize - Solutions are tested, compared and evaluated as part of this phase. As we advance through grade bands, students will refine solutions (reengineer) based upon the evaluation and analysis of their testing.

Now that you have the big picture of NGSS engineering, you may be wondering: what is the next step? My suggestion is to first access the NGSS online to read more about the specifics of the engineering curriculum (check out the useful overview in Appendix I).  You might also wish to access the Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas, the parent document of the NGSS standards.  It is published by the National Academies Press.

Once you've done this preliminary research and opened your own feedback loop, it will be time to learn more about the specifics of the engineering design process. You'll need to uncover best practices for integrating these concepts into your science teaching. For many instructors, this begins with constructing an understanding of engineering design as presented in Appendix I of NGSS. Using this basic foundation as a springboard, you'll continue to refine your approach as you research and select from a variety of competing engineering design models. In addition to constructing your own deeper understanding, you might wish to explore how various classroom solutions address engineering.

The groundwork has been laid for your success in teaching engineering as an integrated part of an NGSS driven science curriculum in the classroom, and as a next step in this journey I trust that you’ll soon close your first feedback loop.