"What's the Science Behind It?" The Interaction of Engineering and Science Goals, Knowledge, and Practices in a Design-Based Activity

WCER Working Paper No. 2011-5

Mary Leonard and Sharon J. Derry

October 2011, 62 pp.

ABSTRACT: Design-based science curricula have sprung up in middle- and high-school science classrooms, attracted by the promise of increased student motivation and improved learning outcomes from providing real-world, engineering problem-solving contexts for science concepts. Yet while engineering and science are deeply interrelated domains of practice, they have epistemological differences that predict difficulties for students (and teachers) engaged in such activities. This study investigated how science and engineering goals, knowledge, and practices interacted in a design-based science activity. Our investigation focused on 2 weeks of video from an eighth grade science classroom in which students were challenged to design and build a miniature balloon-powered car for the purpose of learning Newton’s Third Law of Motion. The study was grounded in sociocultural theory, employing activity theory and discourse analysis in an ethnographically-grounded approach. The analysis identified tensions in the activity related to epistemological differences between science and engineering and suggested ways to transform curriculum design and teacher professional development. Although not specifically addressed in the curriculum, the activity required students and teachers to develop and use technological knowledge in addition to science knowledge, and to develop and communicate models of balloon car motion, practices that have the potential to bridge designs and science concepts. The study contributes an epistemological framework for thinking about design-based science activities, furthers our understanding of how engineering and science interact in such classrooms, and identifies scientific modeling as a promising practice for creating effective engineering design contexts for learning science.

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keywords: Design-based Science, Scientific Modeling, Technological Knowledge, Engineering Epistemology, STEM Education, Physics Education