Do you implement the 8 Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) in your science classroom? These standards were created with the aim of improving science education. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing a detailed look at each one of these SEPs, starting with asking questions and defining problems.

Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering) provides an emphasis for students to practice coming up with clear and focused questions that help guide investigations and problem solving. They are the first steps in science and engineering!

When making observations of phenomena, scientists and engineers may be looking at the same thing, but the outcome will be different. Scientists are looking for a greater understanding whereas engineers are looking for a practical application.

Let’s explore this more! These will definitely help you bring the WOW Factor to your science classroom!

**Asking Questions (For Science)**

What is science? It’s the systematic study of the universe! It’s the study of everything at all levels and how things work.

Why are asking questions important? As mentioned, they are pretty much the first step for science. For students, they need to learn how to ask questions so they can study and explore phenomena!

To study something, you must ask good questions. Once you have a question, you can launch an investigation (inquiry) to answer the question. From there, more questions and investigations can occur! Questions come from questions!

### Where do these questions come from?

- something students are curious about
- theories already existing
- looking for better solutions

Here are some examples of questions:

- Why is the sky blue?
- What causes heart disease?
- How do plants eat?
- Why does the moon shine at night?

Questions can come from anywhere and help to guide investigations.

### Scientific Questions Vs Nonscientific Questions

Before you work to answer a question, you have to make sure the questions are testable. There is a difference between scientific questions and nonscientific questions.

Here are some examples of scientific questions:

- How does pollution affect ecosystems?
- How are rocks formed?
- How do earthquake eruptions occur?

Here are some examples of nonscientific questions:

- What is the best flavor of ice cream?
- Are dogs better than cats?
- How do you become rich?

At the middle school level, you should help your students come up with good questions. You can start out my modeling a good question for your students, and even set up the inquiry to answer the question. Then you can give them a chance to come up with their own question to build off what they learned. This toy car lab gives a great example of this!

**Defining Problems (For Engineering)**

Science sometimes leads to design.

What is engineering? Engineering is the practice of solving problems and increasing productivity. It’s practically finding a solution for human needs!

For example, there are problems that we face today that humans are constantly trying to find a solution to:

- How can we travel to the planet Mars?
- How do we provide efficient and sustainable energy?
- How do we protect the digital world from cyber threats?

In science, you are looking to answer a question about the world. In engineering, there is a problem to be solved, and you need to define this problem. From there, you can design and create a solution to that problem.

When trying to solve a problem, engineers follow the same basic steps: define the problem, imagine a solution, create a plan, follow the plan and design the solution, improve your plan, and start again.

The first step, defining the problem, isn’t always easy, so at the middle school level, your task is to help your students with this! To define a problem, help students ask questions to really determine the problem. Here’s a great video to explain this.

In addition, there’s not always one correct solution to solve a problem. There may be many! Engineers also ask questions to define the problem, look at what makes a successful solution, and identify any constraints.

**What Does this Practice Look like in Middle School?**

In elementary school, students are asking questions to find out more information about the world and what could be answered through inquiry. In addition, they learn to define simple problems.

Middle school teachers help students to build on this knowledge. Students begin to observe what happens if a variable changes. They should also be able to distinguish between those questions that could be answered through inquiry with those that are non-scientific. Once they determine this, they can participate in an investigation to answer the question.

From the engineering standpoint, students should be able to use prior knowledge and the engineering design process to define a simple problem and work to solve it.

By the end of high school, students should be able to ask clear and thoughtful questions that will be able to be investigated. For engineering, they should be able to ask questions to truly be able to find a solution to a problem.

**More Resources for SEP #1 – Asking Questions and Defining Problems**

Asking Questions and Defining Problems – Montana NAEP

How will you implement asking questions and defining problems?

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