From infancy, children build on their interactions with both the material world and with the people around them to discover how the world works—physically, socially, and linguistically (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2018b). As noted in Science and Engineering for Grades 6–12 (NASEM, 2019b), “the centerpiece of the vision of the Framework is engaging students in making sense of phenomena and designing solutions to meet human needs” (p. 12), and this report builds on that in making science investigation and engineering design central. Science and engineering can be understood as ways of knowing that children can deploy to address questions and issues that matter to them. These investigations can be playful, creative, and sources of joy. They can also be challenging and even troubling as children seek to understand the sources of difficulties and dangers in their lives. Regardless of the direction in which children point their curiosity, young children are developmentally and cognitively capable of making robust, recognizable, and meaningful use of the practices, tools, and big ideas of science and engineering on their own terms and for their own purposes across the contexts of their activity.
This chapter highlights how children’s proficiencies, interests, and identities are drawn on and developed through science investigation and engineering design and provides a picture of what this might look like in preschool through elementary school settings. First, the chapter defines investigation and design, describing some key features of these activities. Next, the chapter explores how children develop conceptual understanding through investigation and design, showing the sophistication of children’s ideas. Then, the chapter turns to the proficiencies children bring to investigation and design, unpacking how children orient to phenomena and design challenges, collect and analyze data and information, develop explanations and design solutions, communicate reasoning, and connect learning across both content areas and sites of activity. Throughout, the chapter looks at how children can engage in sophisticated scientific and engineering work that is meaningful to them, even from young ages.
This chapter presents research that examines what children do in specific contexts, at specific ages of their cognitive and physical development. Most of this research cannot untangle maturational change from learning and from the context in which the learning occurred (e.g., school experiences, informal spaces, home); this could be achieved through longitudinal studies or cross-sectional developmental research explicitly designed for this purpose, but such research is currently limited. Thus, the discussion in this chapter hangs on a somewhat limited evidentiary base, and the committee does not attempt to untangle learning, maturation, and context.
Centering investigation and design in children’s classroom experiences from the earliest years helps them demonstrate and develop their proficiency in science and engineering. This approach emphasizes introducing children to the purposes of science and engineering, and it creates opportunities for learners to develop and use ideas, practices, and tools in the context of meaningful activity (Lehrer and Schauble, 2015; NASEM, 2019b; National Research Council [NRC], 2012; Schwarz et al., 2017). This, in turn, invites exploration of practices, contexts, and questions of their everyday lived experiences (Bang et al., 2012; Davis and Schaeffer, 2019; Rosebery et al., 2010). In learning environments that put investigation and design at the center, children extend their understanding and learn science concepts as they observe and seek to explain puzzling phenomena or work to propose, evaluate, and refine solutions to design problems. Careful design of the learning environment, strategically chosen activities, and teacher guidance support children’s learning about and through science and engineering practice (Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn, 2007; NRC, 2007).
Defining Investigation and Design
Following Science and Engineering for Grades 6–12 (NASEM, 2019b), the committee uses the term investigation in a broader sense than the science and engineering practice of “planning and carrying out investigations” described in the Framework (NRC, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013). Investigation highlights the ways that people develop knowledge by puzzling, posing questions, gathering information from a variety of sources—including designing empirical tests and collecting observational data—and revising their ideas in light of that information. The committee uses investigation to encompass the full range of science practices children and guiding adults might engage as they seek to understand their world (NASEM, 2019b). This approach is quite different from the so-called “scientific method,” in that practices are engaged iteratively, as needed, rather than in lockstep order, and are applied in different combinations across science disciplines (NASEM, 2019b; NRC, 2012).
A focus on design recognizes that the overarching enterprise of engineering differs from that of science and that engineering design provides a
1 Portions of this section include content from a paper commissioned by the committee titled “Engineering Education in Pre-Kindergarten through Fifth Grade: An Overview” (Cardella, Svarovsky, and Pattison, 2020).
useful context for allowing children to pose problems, draw on and refine science understanding, and develop their understanding of how the world works. Engineering design is an intentional, iterative activity to develop an object, system, or process that addresses a particular need, solves a particular problem, or accomplishes a particular goal. This activity involves defining and designing optimal solutions to complex problems, testing and refining designs in light of goals for their use, and balancing numerous tradeoffs. Although engineering has often been approached as a process focused on achieving technical quality or innovation, both the profession and K–12 engineering education increasingly recognize the critical role that end users or recipients play in shaping the implementation and sustainability of engineering solutions (Gunckel and Tolbert, 2018; Walther, Miller, and Sochacka, 2017). Cultivating empathetic social perspective-taking is well aligned with engineering practice and with a broader range of goals for science and engineering education (Mouw et al., 2020) and connects to social studies or social sciences, writ large, as well. Here, too, the committee includes the full range of engineering practices when conceptualizing “design.”
Thus, investigation and design, together, draw on all of the science and engineering practices named in the Framework: asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering); developing and using models; planning and carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics and computational thinking; constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering); engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. The next section depicts how the science and engineering practices—with disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts—are in play in the forms of activity of investigation and design.
The evidence presented throughout this chapter shows that preschool through elementary aged children can engage productively with investigation and design, and through investigation and design can engage in meaningful and robust learning. Children’s engagement in investigation and design can be organized into five forms of activity (described in the 6–12 report, NASEM, 2019b) that resemble (but are not identical to) the work of scientists and engineers: children (1) engage with phenomena and design challenges, (2) collect and analyze data and information, (3) construct explanations and design solutions, (4) communicate their reasoning to self and others, and (5) connect learning across content areas and contexts (NASEM, 2019b). Table 4-1 describes the connec-
tions between these forms of activity and the science and engineering practices laid out in the Framework and NGSS. The forms of activity, and the science and engineering practices encompassed in them, interact throughout the work of investigation and design (Bell et al., 2012; NASEM, 2019b; NRC, 2012), and can be undertaken in any order and in any combination.
TABLE 4-1 Examples of Children’s Experiences Within Forms of Activity of Investigation and Design
|Orient to Phenomena and Design Challenges||Gather and Analyze Data and Information||Construct Explanations and Design Solutions||Communicate Reasoning to Self and Others||Connect Learning Across Content Areas and Across Contexts|
|Develop and ask questions about the causes of phenomena.||Plan and conduct investigations or tests of explanations and solutions.||Develop models of the relationships among components within and between systems.||Develop models and artifacts to communicate reasoning.||Use three-dimensional learning to make sense of phenomena across content areas, grades, and contexts such as home and school.|
|Define engineering challenges by identifying stakeholders, goals, constraints, and criteria for evaluating solutions.||Collect and organize data and seek patterns.||Develop arguments for how the evidence supports an explanation for how and why phenomena occur.||Engage in productive and respectful discourse and argumentation.||Apply learning to make sense of phenomena beyond the classroom.|
|Analyze data and evaluate information for evidence.||Design and evaluate solutions based on evidence.||Reflect on learning.||Draw on practices and ideas from mathematics, literacy, social studies, etc.|
|Obtain and evaluate information from other sources.|
The focus on investigation and design is consistent with the Framework’s emphasis on the connections between “knowing” and “doing” in science and engineering, underpinning a commitment to integrating science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts in instruction. Cognitive accounts of learning and knowledge development emphasize that expertise involves not only the accumulation of facts and explanations, but the development of networks of concepts, categories, and heuristics for making sense of the world and for problem solving. These networks influence what people notice in new situations, how they organize and interpret information, and how they construct and evaluate explanations (NASEM, 2018b; NRC, 1999). Learning involves integrating information across experiences and contexts, “putting together different sorts of information and experiences, identifying and establishing relationships and expanding frameworks for connecting them” (NASEM, 2018b, p. 90). In addition, the development of a sense of the application and use of knowledge and the ability to extend knowledge beyond the context in which it is learned are essential components of deep and flexible learning (NRC, 1999).
Taking Science to School (NRC, 2007) describes the research base regarding how children understand concepts in physical, biological, and astronomical science and how they develop their conceptual thinking. For example, with instruction, children can come to recognize the importance of internal organs in the human body and elaborate their ideas about how those organs function, combining ideas about structure and (physical) function. They see the heart as a pump and that the body has a system of interconnected tubes for transport of materials. In terms of digestion, children may recognize that food is broken down into pieces—but often miss the idea that digestion involves chemical breakdown as well as physical breakdown.
As described in Chapter 3, practices and ideas are conceptual tools used to navigate activity (NASEM, 2018b; Vygotsky, 1980; Wertsch, 1998) and to understand the natural and designed world. Participating in communities involves learning about and taking up concepts and ideas that shape that community’s work (Hall and Jurow, 2015). Disciplinary learning involves learning to use tools developed over the history of disciplines or communities for particular purposes; for example, children learn how to meaningfully use a ruler, conduct a controlled experiment, engage in sampling procedures, and apply the laws of motion.
The Framework therefore recommends that from kindergarten, children be supported to use, connect, represent, and refine understanding through science and engineering practices, with the idea that such activity
can support children to develop deeper, more connected, and more flexible understanding.2 Necessarily, the phenomena and design challenges, associated conceptual understanding, complexity of the activity, and needed support will differ from middle and high school grades and across the preschool through elementary years.
Table 4-2 provides a snapshot of what investigation and design might look like in preschool, the primary grades, and later elementary school, each focusing on the study of water, while exploring different disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts. The examples in the table draw from portions of instructional units, selected to help to illustrate some of the forms of activity for investigation and design. At the preschool level, children are exploring how to move water at a water table, using a range of tools and materials. In the second grade example, children are discussing why a town flooded after a dam was built, collecting data on how water moves through different substances; they are making progress on disciplinary core ideas in Earth Sciences and are supported to attend to scale and cause and effect. In the fifth grade example, children explore issues of water contamination and water access through the context of the Flint water crisis. Throughout the rest of the chapter, these three examples are drawn on consistently to illustrate the forms of activity and what they may look like at different ages, with different purposes, and in different contexts.
Box 4-1 describes the unfolding of the fourth and fifth grade unit described in Table 4-2 as one example of a sequence that situates science investigation in grappling with the sociopolitical context of science content—specifically, a context of water use, water access, and health. (As noted later in the chapter, children are able to engage with justice issues across the preschool through elementary ages.) Although this example takes up injustice—the poisoning of water within a community and larger issues of access to clean water—the authors of the study in which this example appears note the importance of not focusing solely on identifying community problems but also engaging children with “examples of liberation, imagination, and healing” and “community innovation and ingenuity” (Davis and Schaeffer, 2019, p. 386). Kotler (2020) took up related issues, also using the Flint water crisis to explore issues of sustainability and justice. The author found that the participating Latinx fifth graders could engage in perspective-taking, including through embodied performance, and that they constructed scientific knowledge at the same time as developing critical consciousness and agentic identities.
2 The Framework does not explicitly address preschool. However, emerging evidence indicates that preschool children can and do engage productively in science and engineering in ways that are playful, build on their interests, and are consequential for learning (Larimore, 2020).
TABLE 4-2 Examples of Developing Understanding Through Investigation and Design in Preschool, Primary, and Upper Elementary Grades
|Disciplinary Core Ideas||Water flows from higher points to lower points. The flow of water can be changed by changing the size of the opening where it flows, the amount of water flowing, and the steepness of the surface it flows on.|
|Crosscutting Concepts||Cause and Effect
Systems and Systems Thinking
|Phenomenon or Design Challenge||Children explore how to move water at a water table with a pegboard, tubes, sieves, cups, and bottles, and a funnel.|
|Data and Information||Children gather information from posing and trying out challenges (e.g., moving the water out of a container faster or slower).
Teacher provides bottles with holes of different sizes. Children predict and observe.
|Construct Explanations and Solutions||Children explain relationships between actions or materials and water flow within challenges.|
|Communicating||Children share observations and experiments with teacher and each other at the water table.
Children use collage materials (e.g., yarn) to show water movement, describing their work to their teacher, who records their thinking.
|Connecting||Children go on a walk to examine sources of flowing water in their community.
Children solve related design challenges (e.g., figuring out how to fill a bucket far from a source of water).
|Grade 2||Grade 5|
|ESS1.C: Some events happen very quickly; others occur very slowly, over a time period much longer than one can observe. ESS2.A: Wind and water can change the shape of the land.||PS1.A: Matter of any type can be divided into sub-particles that are too small to see. ESS3.C: Human activities in agriculture, industry, and everyday life have had major effects on the land, vegetation, streams, ocean, air, and even outer space.|
|Cause and Effect
Scale, Proportion, Quantity
|Cause and Effect
Systems and Systems Thinking
|Children discuss why they think the town of Moncton flooded a year after a dam was placed on the other side of a mountain.||Children read about the Flint water crisis, asking questions about water contamination, water access, and water as a human need.|
|Children collect data on how fast water moves through sand, soil, clay, and rocks.
Children examine maps showing glaciers and glacial retreat.
|Children identify and study local bodies of water.
Children collect and analyze water samples from a local river.
|Children explain how the dam caused water to pool and move through the mountain, which is a glacial moraine.||Children choose a stance on the question of whether water is a human right and support their stance with evidence.|
|Children construct models showing a cross section of the moraine and how water move through the sand and pebbles that make it up.||Children develop posters and, later, a video s about their local river.|
|Children examine the movement of water in their communities and explore a map of their watershed.
Children consider the history of the land ana people interacting with land and water.
|Children make informational posters, drawing on literacy practices, and connect science to issues in their local communities and in other communities.
Children interview activists, understanding how science knowledge can be drawn on for social change.
Further, children develop understanding through investigation and design across contexts, as described in Chapter 3. They bring this learning into classroom contexts. As described in Taking Science to School (NRC, 2007), children continually build on their prior knowledge, work to develop more detailed mechanistic explanations (e.g., understanding biological processes like blood flow and digestion or physical ones like gear action), and put together concepts to create new, more sophisticated ones. The 4-year-olds (preschoolers in Table 4-2) likely knew that water can move through holes in containers; instruction supported them in testing what affected that movement. The 8-year-olds (second graders in Table 4-2) likely knew that water has force, can move through materials and move materials, and can be frozen or melted; in turn, instruction helped them see these ideas as useful for a new phenomenon and engaged them in connecting and extending their ideas (diSessa and Wagner, 2005; Hammer et al., 2005; see also Kuhl et al., 2019, for an example of preschoolers taking up similar ideas). Similarly, the 10-year-olds in Box 4-1 and Table 4-2 likely knew that humans need clean water for survival, and instruction supported them in extending their knowledge to the ethical implications of access to clean water and how race relates to environmental justice, as well as to develop more sophisticated understanding about mixtures and solutions, water quality, and the environmental impact of humans (Davis and Schaeffer, 2019).
Although children of different ages might engage in similar forms of activity, with those becoming generally more sophisticated for older children (see Table 4-2), it is impossible to specify a precise set of activities and learning supports that will be most appropriate for a particular age or grade band given developmental variability within ages and grade bands as well as diversity of previous experiences and knowledge. Proficiency must be taken into consideration along with children’s neurodevelopment, cognitive skills, prior knowledge, cultural variation, and—as discussed in Chapter 5—the instructional context.
How People Learn II (NASEM, 2018b) described how the brain develops throughout an individual’s life. This development is “broadly consistent for humans but is also individualized by every learner’s environment and experiences” (p. 68). Thus, development—including brain development—shapes what children will do and show in their activity. At the same time, children’s knowledge shapes how they engage in and demonstrate their engagement in practice (Metz, 2011; NRC, 2007; Schauble, 1996). Children’s cultural repertoires of practice include dimensions such as their language use, question asking, observation, and collaboration (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003) (see Chapter 3). Cultural repertoires of practice are consequential
for how children’s proficiencies get recognized and positioned in science and engineering learning settings. At the same time, children’s cultural repertoires of practice must not be viewed as individual traits or as static over time, and nondominant groups especially must not be viewed through homogenous or essentialized lenses, as if every member of a group shares every cultural practice. (See Chapter 5 for a discussion of how learning environments and teachers’ instructional practices can help such proficiencies to blossom, and Chapters 7 and 8 for ways of supporting teachers in engaging in this challenging work.)
Based on research on learning through investigation and design (e.g., NASEM, 2019b) and the description of children’s developing proficiencies above, the committee reviewed literature pertinent to the forms of activity of investigation and design. The research is not even across the forms of activity, meaning the treatment here varies in depth. Furthermore, connecting across content and across sites of activity is not taken up in depth here (see Chapter 6).
Children Orient to Phenomena and Design Challenges
Science and engineering activity typically begin not with fully formed questions, but with puzzling phenomena, challenges, and unmet needs (NRC, 2012). Before preschool and continuing through elementary school, children ask how and why questions, seek patterns, and develop and engage with design challenges as they go about their everyday activity (Bagiati and Evangelou, 2011; Bairaktarova et al., 2011; Brophy and Evangelou, 2007; Fusaro and Smith, 2018).
Posing genuine, investigable questions in new contexts can be challenging for children and adults alike (Kuhn and Dean, 2004, 2005; Samarapungavan, Manzicopolous, and Patrick, 2008). If children are asked to pose questions about phenomena without further support, they are likely to pose a wide array of questions, including many that are less fruitful for exploring the desired content or less investigable (Chin, Brown, and Bruce, 2002; Manz, 2012) (for more discussion, see Chapter 5). Likewise, children (and adults) might not immediately recognize gaps in their understanding or ways that they disagree with one another about ideas (McNeill and Berland, 2017; Mills and Keil, 2004).
The examples in Box 4-2 and Table 4-2 illustrate how orienting around phenomena and design challenges set the stage for other forms of activity that are entailed in investigation and design. Box 4-2 presents two engineering design challenges and shows how they support opportunities for children to engage in collecting data and information, posing and evaluating design solutions, communicating their ideas, and making connections. The water-related phenomena in Table 4-2 similarly open up opportunities
for scientific questioning, investigation, and the development of ideas. In the preschool example, children explore how to use different tools (e.g., cups, funnels, tubes) to move water at a water table (a staple of many preschool environments), whereas in the second grade example, children are oriented around the puzzling flooding of a town as an opportunity to ask and explore questions about land and water (e.g., how water interacts with different materials such as soil, sand, and clay), and in the fifth grade example, children explore water contamination and access, reconceptualizing a phenomenon that at first seems distant as something that they and others could seek to change.
Berland and colleagues (2016) argue that science learning should be meaningful to the scientific community and meaningful to the classroom community. Careful attention to the kinds of phenomena and design challenges to which children orient themselves may require a shift from privileging what matters to science or engineering as disciplinary fields, to privileging what matters to the thriving of all humans and the natural world. Children can engage with “should we” questions (Learning in Places Collaborative, 2020), exploring issues of ethics, power, and history. Chil-
dren’s readiness to explore justice-linked topics extends across the ages of childhood (e.g., Davis and Schaeffer, 2019; Verwayne, 2018). Children may benefit from engaging with phenomena and design challenges that connect to equity and justice issues as well as ethical issues as they are presented with opportunities to consider the potential societal, cultural, and ethical implications of their designs (Gunckel and Tolbert, 2018; Rodriguez and Shim, 2020); this is a central aspect of engaging in engineering design (Paugh, Wendell, and Wright, 2018).
Children Collect and Analyze Data and Information
Developing empirical systems and gathering and analyzing data are central to science and engineering activity, including making decisions about what data to collect and about how to organize it to identify patterns. From infancy, children observe the world around them and draw conclusions about how it works. They consider the frequency of events, use their bodies to act out “what if” questions (Keifert and Stevens, 2019), and draw interpretations about the reasons for adults’ actions to inform their own strategies (Gergely, Bekkering, and Kiraly, 2002). They build and manipulate structures purposefully, developing and testing ideas about balance (Karmiloff-Smith and Inhelder, 1974; Metz, 1993) and force and motion (Counsell et al., 2015). In contexts that are meaningful to them, children can also interpret evidence and recognize the difference between informative and uninformative evidence (Bullock, Sodian, and Koerber, 2009; Köksal, Sodian, and Legare, 2021; Sandoval et al., 2014). Further, children spontaneously engage in more exploratory play, and extend such play, when engaging with toys and devices characterized by confounded evidence or inconsistent outcomes (Legare, 2012; Schulz and Bonawitz, 2007). In situations where there is information to be gained, children are more likely to engage in play that is informative to distinguish between potential mechanisms for how a toy works; that is, they spontaneously select or design actions that isolate relevant variables (Cook, Goodman, and Schulz, 2011).
With opportunities and support, preschool and elementary school children can reason through processes of constructing, representing, and critiquing data and methods (Gerde, Schachter, and Wasik, 2013; Lehrer and Schauble, 2015; Manz, 2016; NRC, 2007; Piekny, Grube, and Maehler, 2014; Sandoval et al., 2019). This involves, for example, making decisions about what data are needed, what sorts of methods are appropriate, how data can be represented, and how to make sense of representations. By kindergarten, children can plan comparisons to test competing hypotheses (Sandoval et al., 2014); identify sources of uncertainty in data and propose reasonable improvements to data collection and instrumentation (Kanari and Millar, 2004; Metz, 2004, 2011). Elementary aged children can en-
gage in sophisticated thinking about “empirical systems” and how they inscribe relations between phenomena, data, and claims (Manz, Lehrer, and Schauble, 2020). Whereas very young children tend to draw inferences from single instances, over the course of the elementary years, they increasingly attend to sample size and variability when drawing inferences (Sandoval et al., 2014).
Table 4-2 describes different experiences children might have with data. In preschool, the teacher supports children to manipulate materials as they pose new questions, uses carefully selected materials (bottles with different size holes) and directs children’s attention to where the water goes to deepen their play toward explanation. Second graders engage with an empirical system (different materials in a filter/funnel apparatus) to understand how water might move through a glacial moraine and discuss how to time the water movement to draw comparisons. Fifth grade children collect data on water quality but also use second-hand data from research and newspaper articles to draw conclusions about water quality and access to clean water.
Cultural knowledge and family experiences shape children’s engagement with data and data analysis. Ethnographic studies demonstrate that Indigenous children’s communities may put more emphasis on learning through observation and relationship with the land and the more-than-human world, supporting their science observation skills (Mejía-Arauz, Rogoff, and Paradise, 2005). Marin and Bang (2018) provide an expanded vision of observation grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing that disrupts Eurocentric science’s orientation toward obtaining “objective” data. They illustrate how “walking, reading, and storying the land” while in an urban forest is a way of “learning about the natural world and coming to know one’s place in the world” (p. 89). Taking up such perspectives of children and their families, especially when learning in and moving through place, develops a broader range of knowledge on which the class can build and positions children as knowers. For example, when children’s focus extends broadly rather than narrowly, and when they draw on observations across time and place, they are able to “see” (and therefore value) relationships across an entire ecosystem, rather than focusing only on a single organism at a time; this supports, ultimately, complex systems thinking and socioecological decision making.
Although children demonstrate many strengths as scientific thinkers, there is also evidence that some aspects of investigative work are challenging for children, due to both their developing scientific reasoning skills and understanding, including
- Developing informative comparisons: Although young children can produce informative contrasts when testing hypotheses, they often
- struggle to produce controlled tests themselves (Bullock, Sodian, and Koerber, 2009). Children, but also adults, commonly distort or ignore evidence that does not fit prior beliefs and can struggle to test hypotheses systematically (Bullock, Sodian, and Koerber, 2009; Koerber et al., 2015).
- Attending to data as evidence: Children tend not to privilege, or sometimes even perceive, the forms of evidence that an expert in the domain would (Eberbach and Crowley, 2009). For example, they might not pay attention to features of birds that allow them to draw conclusions about feeding patterns (Trumbull, Bonney, and Grudens-Schuck, 2005), differentiate between geologically important and irrelevant features when producing observations of rocks (Ford, 2005), or attend to characteristics of surfaces when examining how objects move when pushed down ramps (Presser et al., 2019).
- Understanding assumptions inherent in phenomena represented in classrooms: Children may not accept assumptions about how an investigation represents, and thus has implications for, events in the wider world. For example, sixth graders rejected experiments intended to help them understand relationships between the volume of model boats and their carrying capacity because of the lack of verisimilitude between the aluminum foil models and real boats (Schauble et al., 1995).
Children Construct Explanations and Design Solutions
As children orient to phenomena and design challenges, they work toward developing explanations and design solutions. Explanations and design solutions serve as both products and processes within science and engineering. The emphasis here is on the process of developing explanations and design solutions; learning involves the development of tentative explanations and design solutions throughout investigation and design. It is important for educators to consider cultural variation as they interpret children’s explanations and design solutions. Research has suggested that educators may privilege forms of expression that align with middle-class, European American adults’ language (Brown, Mistry, and Yip, 2019), invoke narrow ideas about “proper” scientific explanations (Warren et al., 2001), or place higher value on the technical aspects of engineering design work over the relational work (Turpen et al., 2019). This privileging may make it more challenging to see the strengths of children’s many ways of communicating (e.g., using everyday language, gesture, drawing), yet when a broader perspective is taken, those strengths can be visible. For example, in a comparative study of 4-year-olds’ play with a forest diorama, Washi-
nawatok and colleagues (2017) found that rural and urban Native American children were more than twice as likely as non-Native American peers to take on the perspective of an animal in their play, and that the diorama was an effective way to elicit relational thinking. As educators recognize the richness in youths’ cultural repertoires of practice, they come to appreciate the high-level, cognitive complexity in relational ways of thinking (Bang, Medin, and Altran, 2007), the use of everyday language as a means to communicate scientific understanding (Warren et al., 2001), and the use of cultural linguistic word play as a semiotic resource in scientific critique (Wright, 2019).
An explanation can be defined as a set of connected claims about how something happens or functions, whether a natural phenomenon or an engineered artifact. Scientific explanations strive to articulate causal mechanisms, to explain how or why something happens, and often support predictions about what might happen under specified conditions (Russ et al., 2008). Models are related to explanations in that they articulate sets of relationships between entities in some system to characterize how that system works, or how it is structured. Models and explanations can take many forms, including theories, mathematical equations, diagrams, and physical instantiations (Giere, 1990; Lehrer and Schauble, 2006; Schwarz et al., 2009; Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten, 2008).
Young children typically display a range of competence in developing explanations. By preschool, children seek plausible causal mechanisms to explain events and take alternative explanations into account, and by second grade, they can distinguish conclusive from inconclusive tests of hypotheses (Bullock, Sodian and Koerber, 2009; Sandoval et al., 2014). Furthermore, elementary-age children express a preference for data as a justification for claims, when data are consistent (Bullock, Sodian, and Koerber, 2009; Sandoval and Çam, 2011). Elementary children can develop robust practices of explanation, including developing norms for evidentiary justification (Manz, 2016; Ryu and Sandoval, 2012), identifying gaps in explanations and seeking coherence (Phillips, Watkins, and Hammer, 2018); and coordinating the behavior of molecular entities to explain observable changes in materials (Kenyon, Schwarz, and Hug, 2008; Schwarz et al., 2009).
Returning to Table 4-2, preschool children primarily described relationships between actions and outcomes; cause and effect produced through actions and observation of outcomes is a crosscutting concept that seems to start early, and is relatively straightforward for adults to recognize. For example, children showed that they could hold a tube of water up higher
to make the water travel faster and that larger holes in containers led to a wider, faster flow of water. Second grade children constructed an explanation of how a dam caused the water from a river to first pool and then to move through the glacial moraine—moving through the sand and rocks that made it up—whereas the water did not move through the mountain range on the other side of the valley, which was made of solid rock. Fifth grade children constructed an explanation that went beyond cause and effect and involved taking a stance on water as a human right, supporting their claims with evidence from their investigations, text, and engagement with community activists. Further, fifth grade students might use molecular-level understanding to explain contaminated water as a mixture and to describe the mechanisms used in water purification systems (Kenyon, Schwarz, and Hug, 2008).
The research on children’s strengths, struggles, and needs for support highlights the cultural, situated, and knowledge-based nature of explanatory work. Children might be cued into different forms of explanatory work depending on their audience, task, and knowledge base. For example, Louca and colleagues (2004) documented how third grade children discussing why leaves changed in the fall first provided nonmechanistic descriptions (“In the winter I don’t think the tree needs the leaves”). However, when the teacher asked, “What’s going on inside of the leaf?” and pointed out that that this question called for different forms of reasoning, children drew on new resources, such as their understanding of cells, veins, and pigments, and engaged in mechanistic reasoning to explain what made the leaves change color. McNeill (2011) demonstrated fluctuations in third grade children’s written explanations as they encountered new content. Across ages, there is evidence that youth’s explanatory strategies are flexible and situationally dependent, and that forms of explanation (i.e., teleological and anthropomorphic thinking) that are often discouraged can serve as productive reasoning tools and building blocks for more sophisticated understanding (diSessa, 2014; Gouvea and Simon, 2018).
There is not yet consensus about the appropriate targets of explanatory work for children in preschool through elementary grades. For example, although the standards for first and second grades focus on children observing generalizable changes between liquids and solids, some scholarship shows children sometimes—with support—reason with ideas about particles and molecules (DeLiema, Enyedy, and Danish, 2019; Samarapungavan, Bryan, and Wills, 2017) and about gases in addition to solids and liquids (Varelas et al., 2008). Furthermore, there is little research that focuses on children’s socioscientific explanations, particularly at younger ages, as well as around issues of equity and justice (see Box 4-1).
Children are likely to require support as they develop their explanations. Areas that need support include
- Forms of explanation: When reasoning about a phenomenon, many forms of explanation are possible, including generalization, probabilistic, teleological (an explanation for something as a function of its purpose), relational, and mechanistic (Braaten and Windschitl, 2011; Russ et al., 2008). Children may use forms of explanation other than those that teachers expect or that scientists might use to explain specific phenomena (Kelemen, 2004; Louca et al., 2004).
- Invisible entities/scale: Many mechanisms undergirding scientific explanations occur at scales of time and space to which children do not have experiential access. Children can struggle to coordinate the actions of unseen entities with observable changes to phenomena (Grotzer, 2003; Schwarz et al., 2009).
- Correctness: Children may display productive questions and tools for explanation well before they have developed, or even before it is productive for them to develop, an understanding of the mechanisms for a “correct” or canonical explanation (Gallas, 1995; Russ et al., 2008; Suárez, 2020).
- Explanation products: Numerous studies have documented the difficulties learners of all ages experience in developing written explanations that include a how/why explanation, evidence, and connections to canonical understanding (Berland and Reiser, 2009; McNeill, 2011; Schwarz et al., 2009; Zembal-Saul, McNeill, and Hershberger, 2013). Children may demonstrate proficiencies in each of these aspects of explanatory work when co-constructing ideas with teachers or in conversation with peers, but might struggle to put them together independently, in writing, and for an imagined audience (Berland and Forte, 2010; Berland and Reiser, 2009).
Developing Design Solutions
A design solution in an engineering context can be defined as one of many possible ways to solve a given problem. Once a set of design solutions has been identified, further restrictions may be imposed to identify the best-suited design solution for a given context. For example, the problem of “lifting a heavy object” may be solved using, among other aids, a lever, an inclined plane, or a set of pulleys as a design solution for the problem. Which of these design solutions works best will depend on the nature of the object and the ability to place machinery in its surroundings. For example, an object that is hard to pull on the floor may not be suitable for lifting using an inclined plane; an object that does not have sufficient structural integrity within may not lend itself to lifting using a pulley system. Iterative experimentation and collaboration are generally needed to identify the best possible design solution in any given design context.
Preschool-age children use many of the reasoning skills underlying engineering design, such as identifying relational and causal patterns, categorization, deductive and inductive reasoning, generating questions, foundational modeling skills such as the appreciation of representational qualities of objects and images, use of problem-solving heuristics, experimentation, and reasoning about evidence (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018; Klahr, Zimmerman, and Jirout, 2011; NRC, 2007; Shwe Hadani and Rood, 2018; Zimmerman and Klahr, 2018). By this age, children are also increasingly sophisticated problem solvers. For example, by the age of 2 children can develop questions, maintain focus on a goal, monitor their progress, make corrections, and evaluate results (Bjorklund and Causey, 2018; Zimmerman and Klahr, 2018). Elementary children continue to build on these strengths. For example, children can develop design solutions that center around humans and their problems (rather than just “the thing” being designed) (Hynes and Swenson, 2013; National Academy of Engineering [NAE], 2008; Zoltowski, Oakes, and Cardella, 2012). They can also come to see failure as a constructive part of the design process (Lottero-Perdue and Parry, 2017; Martin, 2015). Cunningham and colleagues (2018) articulated a framework for thinking about engineering design across ages 3–8, and note that by the upper age band, design solutions can include designs that are entirely new to children. One main area for support in terms of children’s design solutions is consideration of the role of failure; however, further research is needed to more fully explore areas in which children may need support in developing design solutions.
Children Communicate Reasoning
Science and engineering rely on a range of communication modalities, practices, and even languages to support sensemaking and problem-solving efforts (Gee, 2000; Grapin, 2019; Paugh, Wendell, and Wright, 2018; Warren et al., 2001). “Communication,” here, is more than simply sharing one’s thinking with another; it is the mechanism through which much of the work of science and engineering practice and sensemaking takes place.
Discourse and artifacts are fundamental mediational tools through which children can externalize and develop their observations and reasoning (Keifert and Stevens, 2019; Michaels, O’Connor, and Resnick, 2008; Rosebery et al., 2010; Suárez, 2020; Varelas et al., 2008). Learners often make progress through externalizing ideas and revising artifacts (see Chapter 5). Moreover, opportunities to communicate one’s observations and reasoning invite learners to engage with their peers’ ideas, which in turn creates opportunities for them to check their own understanding and see if they (dis)agree and help them refine their and their peers’ thinking through a process of collaborative knowledge co-construction (Berland and Hammer, 2012).
One main way children communicate their reasoning is through generating, testing, and revising models and representing their ideas. (This chapter focuses on this dimension; Chapter 6 takes up other ways of representing ideas, through writing and other literacy practices.) Modeling principally involves representation: selecting features and relationships to focus on, using analogies, and inscribing entities and relationships in objects or drawings (Hesse, 1966; Nersessian, 2005, 2008). Children bring substantial representational proficiencies to the work of scientific modeling. In play, they use objects to stand in for other objects and maintain complex “act as if” stories. They produce and interpret pictures, and by preschool, they can recognize and interpret representational intent and representational choices (Callaghan and Corbit, 2015; DeLoache, 2004).
Useful entrees into modeling for young children include models such as physical microcosms that rely on correspondence and developing drawn observations in which children make choices about what to show and how to show it (Lehrer and Schauble, 2015). Over time, they can iterate these, moving from making models that look like objects to models that represent processes and functions (Penner et al., 1997). Working collectively with models by comparing representational choices and implications can support both the proficiency with modeling purposes and practices and development of conceptual understanding (Georgen and Manz, 2021; Schwarz et al., 2009). Children can be supported to work with a wide range of representations and to coordinate across representations, discussing what different representations show and hide in regard to the same phenomenon (Tytler et al., 2013). Forms of modeling that depart further from physical resemblance (e.g., molecular models of phase change; mathematical models) may require further support for children to understand what the model is meant to represent and to construct or use it flexibly (Danish, 2014; Dickes et al., 2016; Lehrer and Schauble, 2015).
Attending to cultural variation in children’s reasoning about and representing ideas means offering them multiple ways to represent their ideas, such as diagrams, photographs, drawings, gestures, dramatic play, and journaling. This diversity of representations is even more important for multilingual children (Siry and Gorges, 2020; Suárez, 2020; Varelas et al., 2010). Poza (2016), for example, found that fifth grade emergent bilingual children’s language and science learning deepened when they were encouraged to use their full linguistic repertoire—such as coordinating and flexibly using Spanish and English across speech, text, and digital imagery.
Models and modeling represent an opportunity for children to expand modes of engagement and engage with two- and three-dimensional representations of science concepts (Varelas et al., 2010), but attention to multiple modalities is important. Varelas and colleagues (2010) demonstrated how molecule- and food-web drama activities were forms of mod-
eling where primary grade, mostly Latinx and Black children (grades 1–3) thought about how concepts related to one another, brought in their own funds of knowledge, recruited emotion as a resource in learning science, and moved back and forth between imaginary and actual worlds. Modeling scientific ideas through dramatic play became a way for children to explore scientific ideas in sophisticated ways and to author their own understanding even as they were shaped by others’ ideas.
Table 4-2 illustrates how children across preschool through elementary can communicate their ideas. Preschoolers’ communication was highly supported by the teacher; they shared their observations with the teacher and with one another, and they built a physical record of their ideas and dictated their thinking to their teacher, who recorded their ideas. Second graders constructed models to show the mechanism of water movement through the glacial moraine, and fifth graders made a video and posters. These examples all use different media and illustrate the range of options for children’s communication of their thinking and reasoning.
Children’s communication of their reasoning with models thus requires support, to include
- recognizing correspondences and differences between a model and the phenomenon (or design solution) it represents, and moving from literal depiction to representation of attributes and causal factors (Carey and Smith, 1993; Penner et al., 1997; Schwarz et al., 2009; Varelas et al., 2010);
- understanding how models show and hide different aspects of a phenomenon depending on their purpose, and identifying the limitations of particular models or representations (Schwarz et al., 2009; Tytler et al., 2013); and
- seeing models as a way of strengthening sensemaking and not just for representing current thinking or as a correct explanation (Schwarz et al., 2009).
Children Connect Learning Across Content Areas and Across Sites of Activity
Learning about the natural and designed worlds entails learning across an individual’s lifespan, learning across the various contexts that individuals navigate and move between, and learning by making meaning of natural phenomena and design challenges through the lenses of personal and cultural value systems (Bell et al., 2012; Bricker and Bell, 2014). Productive science and engineering learning environments in preschool through elementary can nurture and build upon the multifaceted nature of who children are, have been, and will become.
Children come to school with an inclination to identify patterns and integrate ideas across the many contexts of their activity (see Chapter 3). Children engaging in the forms of activity described above are consistently and constantly engaging with literacy and mathematics practices and using ideas from those domains, and others (French, 2004; Gelman et al., 2009; Nayfeld, Brenneman, and Gelman, 2011) (Chapter 6 discusses connections across content areas). Chapter 5 addresses how teachers and designers can develop instructional contexts where children see their ideas, concerns, and practices as meaningful for school science and engineering and, conversely, see school science and engineering as useful for their lives.
Table 4-2 shows how children can make progress toward these ends through making connections to their local environments. Preschool children can solve design challenges that are related to the phenomena and/or disciplinary core ideas under consideration, such as how water can flow from one place to another; connections often involve children engaging with a series of interrelated experiences that build coherently upon each other. Similarly, in an attempt to connect to what they were learning about the relationships among waters, lands, and humans, the second grade children made a connection to the role water played in shaping the history of the land, and fifth graders brought together content areas (e.g., drawing on literacy practices to make informational posters) and used their interviews with activists to see connections between science knowledge (e.g., water quality) and social change (e.g., water as a right).
Drawing on each child’s resources—including their cultural repertoires of practice, their linguistic resources, and their funds of knowledge—can give a broader range of children increasing opportunity and access to high-quality science and engineering (Approach #1). For example, drawing on children’s relational ways of thinking can allow children to demonstrate their proficiencies with regard to developing explanations and design solutions (Bang, Medin, and Altran, 2007), which supports their access to meaningful opportunities to learn.
With respect to increased achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering (Approach #2), helping children to orient to phenomena and design challenges that are of interest to them and connect to the needs and goals of their communities may help them to engage more fully in sensemaking, and children can engage with such issues from a young age (Davis and Schaeffer, 2019; Verwayne, 2018). Moreover, incorporating this kind of learning experience can help children develop their identities as people who do science and engineering.
An expanded vision of what constitutes science and engineering practices (Approach #3), such as observation, helps demonstrate the strengths Indigenous children bring to science (Marin and Bang, 2018; Mejía-Arauz, Rogoff, and Paradise, 2005) but at the same time, extends (all) children’s perspectives about what constitutes science. Similarly, allowing children’s ways of expressing their ideas (in explanation and design solutions and in communicating their reasoning) that go beyond standard Eurocentric discourse practices (e.g., taking on a perspective of an animal, Washinawatok et al., 2017; using their full linguistic repertoire, Poza, 2016; Siry and Gorges, 2020; Suárez, 2020) supports a similar expansion. Children’s cultural practices of explanation and communication may privilege cooperation, respect for authority, or an emphasis on social and emotional support. An accurate default position, then, is to assume that all children are engaged in sensemaking. Indeed, in How People Learn II (NASEM, 2018b), a central assumption is that learning is a process of incrementally building on whatever resources learners bring to the situation. By failing to recognize the science and engineering in what children say and do—because they use everyday language rather than scientific language, for example, or because they use strategies or perspectives different from Eurocentric science—educators may fail to capitalize on rich, meaningful opportunities for children’s learning.
Children engage with science and engineering as a part of justice movements with support (Approach #4). For example, Box 4-1 illustrated how at first, children saw the water issues in Flint as problematic, but as distant from their own home 100 miles away. By the end of the year of exploration, they recognized water justice as an issue that connected to them, too—at the same time as developing central understanding of ideas about matter, cause and effect, and systems thinking (Davis and Schaeffer, 2019). Kotler (2020), also exploring the Flint water crisis with fifth graders, found benefits for children’s science knowledge, critical consciousness, and agentic identities. Both examples, though taking on the same specific issue, illustrate the broader point of helping children see how science and engineering can be a part of justice movements.
This chapter explores how children’s development, knowledge, cultural background, and the instructional context itself all interplay to shape how children demonstrate and develop their proficiencies related to investigation and design. From a young age, children can engage in the five forms of activity used to organize this chapter: (1) orienting to phenomena and design challenges; (2) collecting and analyzing data and information; (3) constructing explanations and design solutions; (4) communicating their reasoning; and (5) connecting learning across content areas and contexts.
Their engagement in these forms of activity is deeply tied to the purposes, knowledge, and cultural practices they bring to investigation and design. Their engagement draws upon the eight science and engineering practices named in the Framework, the crosscutting concepts, and the disciplinary core ideas. Thus, engaging in investigation and design work toward the vision of the Framework by engaging children in three-dimensional learning (NRC, 2012).
Children bring strengths to these forms of activity that provide the basis for much of what can happen inside (and outside) classrooms. For example, they can think about what data they need to collect to answer a question or solve a problem, how they can bring those data to bear as evidence in support of explanations or design solutions, consider mechanistic accounts, reason about what representations of a phenomenon show or do not show, and build connections across many dimensions of their work. Children’s engagement in investigation and design not only looks different from adults, or even from middle or high school learners, but changes across the preschool through elementary ages. This means that children’s work with investigation and design needs to be carefully orchestrated to support their developing proficiency, as discussed in Chapter 5.
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