ERIC Identifier: ED478715 Publication Date: 2002-10-00
Author: Haury, David L. Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Learning Science through Design. ERIC Digest.
Mention of "hands-on" or experiential learning and skill development in
science education generally brings to mind the emphasis on inquiry in current
reform efforts. Inquiry has been a major focus in science education for three
decades (Haury, 1993), but it is only one component of the active learning in
science endorsed by national science curriculum standards (National Research
Council, NRC, 1996). Actively engaging students in technological design is the
complementary strand that has received much less attention. The lack of
attention to learning science through design is unfortunate since this neglected
counterpoint to inquiry has the potential to profoundly enrich science teaching.
The neglect is also ironic, since the underlying concept is as ancient as
humanity itself. Teaching anything through design taps into the most basic of
human tendencies: designing procedures and artifacts--using "tools"--to meet
environmental challenges, accomplish difficult tasks, reach goals, increase
personal and collective well-being, and generally enrich life. Using technology
to meet the challenges of life is a characteristically human endeavor that
predates science by thousands of years. Sadly, technology as a subject has been
largely ignored in U. S. schools (Project 2061, 1993) and "has no fixed place in
elementary education, is absent...in the college preparatory curriculum, and
does not constitute part of the content in science courses at any level" (p.
Teaching science through design formally engages students in this basic human
approach to meeting life's challenges, and in the process addresses several
longstanding issues in science education, including the following:
* Integrating the sciences with other subject areas in
the arts, humanities, and social studies.
* Forging connections to daily life.
* Facilitating active learning.
* Accommodating a variety of student learning styles.
* Attending to science in the context of technology and society.
* Nurturing imagination and creative thinking.
* Developing skills in critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making.
* Increasing awareness of science-related dimensions in occupations and
Alexander (Foreword to Davis, Hawley, McMullan, & Spilka, 1997) has pointed
out that, "Whether the objective is a product, a building, a city plan, or a
graphic communication, when children are engaged in the process of designing,
they are learning to identify needs, frame problems, work collaboratively,
explore and appreciate the context within which a solution must work, weigh
alternatives, and communicate their ideas verbally, graphically, and in three
dimensions." In short, learning through design engages students in activities
fundamental to a satisfying and productive life in the desig7ned environment of
WHAT DOES LEARNING THROUGH DESIGN ENTAIL?
process varies to some extent according to situational circumstances and the
individuals involved, but it generally includes the following steps:
* Identifying and defining problems.
* Gathering and analyzing information.
* Determining performance criteria for successful solutions.
* Generating alternative solutions and building prototypes.
* Evaluating and selecting appropriate solutions.
* Implementing choices.
* Evaluating outcomes (Davis et. al., 1997, p. 3).
In describing the abilities to develop among students the NRC (1996)
delineated a 5-step framework for design:
* Stating the problem.
* Designing an approach.
* Implementing a solution.
* Evaluating the solution.
* Communicating the problem, process, and solution (p. 137).
this framework is elaborated somewhat differently for standards in grades K-4
(p. 137), 5-8 (p. 165), and 9-12 (p. 192), the same 5-step structure is
maintained. In the NRC model there are modest, but significant, deviations from
the general design process: First, four discrete elements in the generalized
model are combined into the single step of "designing an approach" and second,
the important step of communicating the problem, process, and solution is
explicitly stated. Some have questioned the validity and value of depicting the
design process in such a simplistic, linear model (Roth, Tobin, & Ritchie;
2001), but there is widespread agreement that engaging students in design is an
important dimension of science education (American Association for the
Advancement of Science, 1989; Project 2061, 1993).
The concept of learning through design is not new (Royal College of Art,
1976), and there have been a number of programs in U. S. schools during the past
30 years promoting the design process. Until recently, however, it could be said
that "the use of design activities in U. S. schools remains an isolated practice
that has its strongest support at the level of the individual teacher" (Davis,
et. al., 1997, p. 8). The current science education reform movement and
publication of national standards (National Research Council, 1996), however,
have reemphasized the need to pay greater attention to design, particularly in
the context of technology and engineering. Though the standards present design
as "the technological parallel to inquiry in science" (p. 135), others go
further in making a distinction between the roles of analysis and synthesis,
pointing out that analysis is more central to inquiry, but synthesis is more
central to the problem solving strategies associated with design (Davis et. al,
1997, p. 4). The differences between inquiry and design also relate to
differences in the purposes of science and technology: "scientific inquiry is
driven by the desire to understand the natural world, and technological design
is driven by the need to meet human needs and solve human problems" (NRC, 1996,
BENEFITS OF LEARNING THROUGH DESIGN
As noted by Roth,
Tobin, and Ritchie (2001), the act of designing focuses student attention on
doing something rather than knowing something, which changes the school learning
context to a more natural condition that resembles learning situations outside
schools, learning on a "need-to-know" basis. Design involves learning along the
way in the process of pursuing goals, goals that can be set by students
themselves and pursued at their own pace (p. 27).
Another benefit of design activities is the opportunity to naturally weave
together skills, processes, and knowledge that are typically taught separately
in the discrete subjects of traditional curricula. Design activities engage
students in "enterprise" rather than "school subjects"(Davis et al, 1997, p. 4),
an approach that introduces students to the integrated, synthetic problem
solving required of adults in their work and daily lives.
Design activities also provide an experiential context for students in the
early grades to gain familiarity with the materials and forces of nature before
they are able to engage in direct scientific inquiry (Davis et. al, 1997, p.
74). Young students can examine familiar objects from zippers to can openers and
cars to study design problems and evaluate effectiveness.
Roth (1996b) has also pointed out that design activities give rise to
questions for which teachers do not have predetermined answers. Questioning
patterns can be directly based on student experiences and their thinking
relative to the challenges and concerns emerging from the design process.
Student understanding and reasoning, then, can be evaluated on context-specific
criteria associated with the design activity rather than semblance to
Finally, learning to frame and solve the problems associated with design
activities prepares students for the lifelong challenge to frame questions,
gather information, learn, and develop competences as they solve problems in the
context of daily life (Roth, 1996a, p. 45).
SOURCES OF INFORMATION AND SUPPORT
Formal attention to
learning through design is an emerging field in education, and there are few
sustained programs with resources and proven practices to lead the way. There
are, however, widely scattered programs, case studies, and information sources
where science educators can gain direction and assistance. For reports on the
implementation of engineering design projects in 24 secondary-science classrooms
following an inservice professional-development course conducted at a university
engineering college, see Carlsen (1998). Several detailed case studies of
learning through design are presented by Roth, Tobin and Richie (2001).
Following is a brief compilation of resources that can point the way to learning
science through design.
by Design from Theory to Practice"
L. Kolodner, D. Crismond, J. Gray, J. Holbrook, & S. Puntambekar
school challenges published by the National Science Teachers Association.
Individual titles include: "Construct-a-glove", "Construct-a-boat",
"Construct-a-greenhouse", and "Construct-a-catapult".
Design, and Education"
American Association for the Advancement of
Science. (1989). "Science for all Americans: A Project 2061 report on literacy
goals in science, mathematics, and technology". Washington, DC: Author.
[Available online at: http://www.project2061.org/tools/sfaaol/sfaatoc.htm]
Carlsen, W. S. (1998). Engineering Design in the Classroom: Is It Good
Science Education or is It Revolting? "Research in Science Education", 28 (1),
Davis, M., Hawley, P., McMullan, B., & Spilka, G. (1997). "Design as a
catalyst for learning". Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and
National Research Council. (1996). "National science education standards".
Washington. DC: National Academy Press. [Available online at:
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