Helping youth succeed in science – Part 7: Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Encourage youth to construct explanations and design solutions while engaged in activities to explore their world.

In 2011, the National Research Council released a report, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education.” Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H are working to increase science literacy through the inclusion of the Scientific and Engineering Practices described in the framework – and you can too!

The Scientific and Engineering Practices outlines eight simple but powerful practices about how to engage youth in science and engineering to increase STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) literacy. The practices are:

  1. Asking questions (science) and defining problems (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 and designing solutions.
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence.
  8. Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.

Scientific explanations are explanations that link scientific theory with observations. A scientific theory, for example E=mc2, has a very different meaning than the informal “theory” used in everyday conversations. A scientific theory is based on a significant body of knowledge and data, and is revised as new evidence is discovered. A scientific theory is constantly reviewed and tested by the scientific community. Engineers design solutions rather than construct explanations. These designs have common parts and follow a design plan, like:

  1. Identify the problem or challenge.
  2. Image or brainstorm possible solutions.
  3. Choose a plan that meets your criteria.
  4. Build the solution prototype.
  5. Test the prototype and make improvements.

Youth need opportunities to engage in the construction of explanations and in the designing of solutions. You can help youth engage in constructing explanations and designing solutions by asking questions with keywords like “why” and “how.”

Answering questions beginning with why and how generally require a deeper level of thinking. Youth need to connect what they have seen, heard or observed to their answer to deepen their understanding of the topic. Asking why or how can also help uncover misconceptions like those in the MSU Extension article, “Where do trees get their mass from?” “How” is often the keyword in questions linked to designing solutions where something needs to be built or modified to solve the problem. “How can I hold a pencil without bending my fingers?” “How can I compare the sizes of different shaped boxes?”

You can help youth engage in constructing explanations and designing solutions by asking guiding questions. Carefully thought-out questions can help youth make the important connections between an answer and the evidence that supports that answer. We can ask youth to make a claim or answer a question then follow up with guiding questions to help them realize why they provided a specific answer. Asking youth, “Do we have seasons?” is a good question, but asking, “Why do we have seasons?” is even better. Going forward from when we used to ask our preschoolers questions requiring only a yes or no or a one-word answer, like “What is your favorite color?,” we can now guide our youth with the “why” and “how” questions, like “Why is yellow your favorite color?” or “How can we build a faster soapbox than we did last year?” The why’s and the how’s involve higher critical thinking skills and are important to practice to encourage youth to develop a better understanding of the world.

Engaging youth in constructing explanation and designing solutions will help them succeed in science. Youth who construct explanations and design solutions learn how to clearly share their understanding of the world. They develop the skills to share information logically and can compare ideas in order to apply the one best suited to the situation. Helping youth construct explanations and design solutions allows them to strengthen their understanding of the world in which they live.

This is Part 7 in a series of articles that will explore a variety of ways you can help youth engage in Scientific and Engineering Practices. Although the series will address individual practices, it is important to remember that as a whole they increase STEM literacy and like science itself, the individual practices do not function in a vacuum, but are intertwined with STEM Exploration. To learn more about the Scientific and Engineering Practices, you can download a free copy of “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” or Appendix F of the Next Generation Science Standards.

To learn more about helping youth succeed in science, read the other articles in this series listed below and explore the MSU Extension Science and Technology website. For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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