What are Science and Engineering Practices? The “New Hands-On”

Why are the Science and Engineering Practices important? 

Historically, for many educators, the indicator of a “good” science program was the number of experiments involved. These hands-on experiments would follow the scientific method: posing a question, testing a hypothesis, and drawing a conclusion.

So it came as quite a shock when the National Research Council, in its “Framework for K–12 Science Education,”(1) described this focus on the scientific method as “overemphasiz[ing] experimental investigation at the expense of other practices, such as modeling, critique, and communication.”

How do the SEPs help students work as scientists and engineers? 

Instead, the Framework set out eight “important” science and engineering practices—including modeling, developing explanations, and engaging in critique and evaluation—that “have too often been underemphasized in the context of science education.”(2) These practices are “derived from those that scientists and engineers actually engage in as part of their work”(3) and they reflect the way that, in real life, scientists and engineers move fluidly between three “spheres” of activity, within which we find the eight SEPs:

Investigation and empirical inquiry

  • Asking questions (science) and defining problems (engineering)
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Analyzing and interpreting data

Evaluation, analysis, and debate

  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Construction of explanations and solutions

  • Developing and using models
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • Constructing explanations (science) and designing solutions (engineering)

In seeking to understand our world and deliver better design solutions, “scientists and engineers try to use the best available tools to support the task at hand.”(4) They do not focus solely on investigations and empirical inquiry, running repeated lab experiments. In fact, technology and computing is integral to virtually all aspects of their work.

Programs that do NOT reflect the working practices of scientists and engineers also do NOT meet the requirements of modern science standards such as the NGSS.

How do you know if a program genuinely covers the SEPs? 

Once we understand the thinking behind this shift—moving the focus of science education from the over-reliance on experimentation to a more fluid approach, applying the practices most relevant to a given task—it becomes easier to identify genuine NGSS programs.

The NGSS requires students to investigate phenomena that can range from “weather patterns” in first grade to “the cycling of matter” in fifth grade. Looking at the eight SEPs, we can see that certain SEPs are better fitted to some phenomena than others.

In short, a genuine NGSS program like Twig Science can be identified by the way it uses SEPs in investigations:

  • It will unpack phenomena in varied and fluid ways—just like scientists and engineers—using appropriate SEPs at each stage.
  • The range of SEPs used to unpack each phenomenon will be driven by the phenomenon itself. Some phenomena are more suited to being unpacked via data analysis, research, or observation than by experiment.
  • Similarly, it will NOT employ a rigid lesson structure that adheres, for example, to the “explore” phase always involving an experiment and the “explain” phase always involving reading a text.

It is critical that the nature of the phenomenon being investigated drives the use of SEPs, and not the other way round. This is because “when [experimental investigations] are taught in isolation from science content, they become the aims of instruction in of themselves rather than a means of developing a deeper understanding of the concepts and purposes of science.”(5)

We call science programs that fall into this trap “random acts of science”—a series of experiments, rather than a cohesive, phenomena-driven program.

Need a genuine NGSS program? Check out Twig Science.


(1) National Research Council (2012) p.43. “A Framework for K-12 Science Education. Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas.” H. Quinn, H. Schweingruber, and T. Keller (eds.), Committee on Conceptual Framework for the New K-12 Science Education Standards.
(2) National Research Council (2012) p.44
(3) National Research Council (2012) p.49
(4) National Research Council (2012) p.45
(5) National Research Council (2012) p.43

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