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Engineering the 5Es

With the introduction and adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the BCSC 5E Instructional model has returned to the forefront of science teaching and curricular design. Key foundational works such as How People Learn (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999) and A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC 2012) support the practices embodied in the 5Es – engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. But another new idea embodied in the NGSS is the need to include the designed or engineered world in the education of our young people. This makes it possible to engineer a whole new set of E s – engage, empathize, envision, empower, experience. The different models of the 5Es say it all – science is about inquiry and developing explanations; engineering is about application and developing solutions.

Engagement. Meaningful endeavors always begin with engagement. We engage in the questioning of science because out curiosity is piqued and we engage in problem-solving because we need a solution. Engagement in learning is always driven by a “need to know”. In a world of information powered by Google, engagement is what will lead to lifelong learning. We no longer seek knowledge for knowledge’s sake but because we need to answer a question or solve a problem. You can Google anything at any time, but you don’t. You Google what you need to know at any given moment. Engagement is not about entertainment value, it is about creating a real “need to know”.

Jobs quote

Empathy. Engineers design technologies to solve human problems. Good design always considers the end-user. So in Engineering, empathy is very much in play. This is not the case in science. Science is, and should be, a highly objective pursuit. Empathy has no real place in scientific discovery because it challenges one’s objectivity and brings human nature into the forefront.  The empathy that is not a player in pure science, powers well-designed engineering. We cannot prepare students for the highly connected, and crowded, world they will inherit if we do not teach them to be empathetic. From a purely “clinical” aspect, systems thinking, the ability to see all of the consequences of a solution, demands an understanding of the human factor. From a more humanistic view, understanding the world you live in demands the ability to immerse yourself in different cultures, viewpoints, and circumstances. Engineering, with its focus on the end-user, brings empathy into the science classroom in a meaningful and realistic way.

Envisioning. Theodore von Karman, a true rocket scientist, said “Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.” Discovery requires questioning and the imagination to connect the dots. Engineering takes vision and

creativity. Science is, in a sense, about convergence as it seeks agreement on one model. Engineering is all about thinking divergently, seeing things differently. It doesn’t matter if it is a brand new invention or an innovation on an existing product, the end result didn’t exist before. The end result often exists in the engineer’s mind before it becomes a reality. The design process starts with understanding the problem and the end-user and moves through the steps of envisioning and creating a solution. The engineer weaves a solution from a complex web of constraints, criteria, scientific principles, mathematical models, and aesthetics. She needs to be able to envision what a solution might look like to orchestrate a suitable solution. That takes vison, creativity, and perseverance.

Empowerment. Engineering empowers young people to see the solutions not just the problems. It differs from scientific inquiry in terms of its ability to affect change. Engineering is not about discovering; it is about doing. It is highly disingenuous of us to cite all of the myriad problems in the world without focusing on our ability to apply science to engineer solutions. We need to convince young people that they can change the world. And it is true that with great power comes great responsibility. Science tells what we can do; engineers often have to decide what we should do.

Experience. We end with a word that both science and engineering have in common. Students need to “do” or experience science much as they need to experience the challenges of engineering solutions to problems. Telling someone about science or engineering without an opportunity to experience it is the same as showing students seated in desks a swimming stroke and then declaring they know how to swim before they even get wet. Why do we persist in doing this in classrooms?  Scientists do not discover how nature works without active pursuit of connections and conducting experiments. Solutions to problems aren’t engineered because we decide they should happen; we need to actively create them.

swimming without water

In the end, science and engineering begin and end at the same E. The first step should always be engagement – creating that self-motivating “need to know”. And no matter what E s come in between, in the end, it is all about the experience – doing science and engineering solutions.


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