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SEP1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Students at any grade level should be able to ask questions of each other about the texts they read, the features of the phenomena they observe, and the conclusions they draw from their models or scientific investigations. For engineering, they should ask questions to define the problem to be solved and to elicit ideas that lead to the constraints and specifications for its solution. (NRC Framework 2012, p. 56)


Introduction to SEP1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

from NGSS Appendix F: Science and Engineering Practices in the NGSS

Students at any grade level should be able to ask questions of each other about the texts they read, the features of the phenomena they observe, and the conclusions they draw from their models or scientific investigations. For engineering, they should ask questions to define the problem to be solved and to elicit ideas that lead to the constraints and specifications for its solution. (NRC Framework 2012, p. 56)

Scientific questions arise in a variety of ways. They can be driven by curiosity about the world, inspired by the predictions of a model, theory, or findings from previous investigations, or they can be stimulated by the need to solve a problem. Scientific questions are distinguished from other types of questions in that the answers lie in explanations supported by empirical evidence, including evidence gathered by others or through investigation.

While science begins with questions, engineering begins with defining a problem to solve. However, engineering may also involve asking questions to define a problem, such as: What is the need or desire that underlies the problem? What are the criteria for a successful solution? Other questions arise when generating ideas, or testing possible solutions, such as: What are the possible trade-offs? What evidence is necessary to determine which solution is best?

Asking questions and defining problems also involves asking questions about data, claims that are made, and proposed designs. It is important to realize that asking a question also leads to involvement in another practice. A student can ask a question about data that will lead to further analysis and interpretation. Or a student might ask a question that leads to planning and design, an investigation, or the refinement of a design.

Whether engaged in science or engineering, the ability to ask good questions and clearly define problems is essential for everyone. The following progression of Practice 1 summarizes what students should be able to do by the end of each grade band. Each of the examples of asking questions below leads to students engaging in other scientific practices.


Distinguishing Practices In Science from Those In Engineering

from A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (page 50)

1. Asking Questions and Defining Problems 
Science begins with a question about a phenomenon, such as “Why is the sky blue?” or “What causes cancer?,” and seeks to develop theories that can provide explanatory answers to such questions. A basic practice of the scientist is formulating empirically answerable questions about phenomena, establishing what is already known, and determining what questions have yet to be satisfactorily answered.


Engineering begins with a problem, need, or desire that suggests an engineering problem that needs to be solved. A societal problem such as reducing the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels may engender a variety of engineering problems, such as designing more efficient transportation systems, or alternative power generation devices such as improved solar cells. Engineers ask questions to define the engineering problem, determine criteria for a successful solution, and identify constraints.

 


 


K-12 Progressions

from NGSS Appendix F: Science and Engineering Practices in the NGSS

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12
Asking Questions and Defining Problems

A practice of science is to ask and refine questions that lead to descriptions and explanations of how the natural and designed world(s) works and which can be empirically tested.

Engineering questions clarify problems to determine criteria for successful solutions and identify constraints to solve problems about the designed world. Both scientists and engineers also ask questions to clarify ideas.

Asking questions and defining problems in K–2 builds on prior experiences and progresses to simple descriptive questions that can be tested. 

Asking questions and defining problems in 3–5 builds on K–2 experiences and progresses to specifying qualitative relationships.

Asking questions and defining problems in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to specifying relationships between variables, and clarifying arguments and models.

Asking questions and defining problems in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to formulating, refining, and evaluating empirically testable questions and design problems using models and simulations.

Ask questions based on observations to find more information about the natural and/or designed world(s). 

Ask questions about what would happen if a variable is changed.

Ask questions

  • that arise from careful observation of phenomena, models, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.
  • to identify and/or clarify evidence and/or the premise(s) of an argument.
  • to determine relationships between independent and dependent variables and relationships in models.
  • to clarify and/or refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.

Ask questions

  • that arise from careful observation of phenomena, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.
  • that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationship
  • to determine relationships, including quantitative relationships, between independent and dependent variables.
  • to clarify and refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.

Ask and/or identify questions that can be answered by an investigation. 

Identify scientific (testable) and non-scientific (non-testable) questions.

Ask questions that can be investigated and predict reasonable outcomes based on patterns such as cause and effect relationships.

Ask questions that require sufficient and appropriate empirical evidence to answer.

Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the classroom, outdoor environment, and museums and other public facilities with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on observations and scientific principles.

Evaluate a question to determine if it is testable and relevant.

Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.



Ask questions that challenge the premise(s) of an argument or the interpretation of a data set.

Ask and/or evaluate questions that challenge the premise(s) of an argument, the interpretation of a data set, or the suitability of a design.

Define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.

Use prior knowledge to describe problems that can be solved.

Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Define a design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process or system and includes multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions.

Define a design problem that involves the development of a process or system with interacting components and criteria and constraints that may include social, technical and/or environmental considerations.


Goals for SEP1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

from A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (pages 55)

By grade 12, students should be able to

  • Ask questions about the natural and human-built worlds—for example: Why are there seasons? What do bees do? Why did that structure collapse? How is electric power generated?
  • Distinguish a scientific question (e.g., Why do helium balloons rise?) from a nonscientific question (Which of these colored balloons is the prettiest?).
  • Formulate and refine questions that can be answered empirically in a science classroom and use them to design an inquiry or construct a pragmatic solution.
  • Ask probing questions that seek to identify the premises of an argument, request further elaboration, refine a research question or engineering problem, or challenge the interpretation of a data set—for example: How do you know? What evidence supports that argument
  • Note features, patterns, or contradictions in observations and ask questions about them.
  • For engineering, ask questions about the need or desire to be met in order to define constraints and specifications for a solution.

Performance Expectations Associated with SEP1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12
K-ESS3-2
K-2-ETS1-1


3-PS2-3
3-PS2-4
4-PS3-3
3-5-ETS1-1
MS-PS2-3
MS-ESS3-5
MS-ETS1-1
HS-PS4-2
HS-LS3-1
HS-ETS1-1

Additional Resources

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (pages 54-56)

Science Practices Continuum - Students' Performance
This tool is a continuum for each practice that shows how students' performance can progress over time. A teacher can use the continuum to assess students' abilities to engage in the practices and to inform future instruction. From Instructional Leadership for Science Practices.

Science Practices Continuum - Supervision
This tool is a continuum for each practice that shows how instruction can progress over time. An instructional supervisor can use the continuum to identify the current level for a practice in a science lesson. Then the supervisor can provide feedback, such as offering instructional strategies to help move future instruction farther along the continuum. From Instructional Leadership for Science Practices.

Potential Instructional Strategies for Asking Questions and Defining Problems
This instructional strategies document provide examples of strategies that teachers can use to support the science practice. Supervisors might share these strategies with teachers as they work on improving instruction of the science practices. Teachers might find these helpful for lesson planning and implementing science practices in their classrooms. From Instructional Leadership for Science Practices.

Bozemanscience Video

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