How to teach science

The Purpose of Science and Technology/Engineering Education

Investigations in science and technology/engineering involve a range of skills, habits of mind, and subject matter knowledge. The purpose of science and technology/engineering education in Massachusetts is to enable students to draw on these skills and habits, as well as on their subject matter knowledge, in order to participate productively in the intellectual and civic life of American society and to provide the foundation for their further education in these areas if they seek it.

The Nature of Science

Science may be described as the attempt to give good accounts of the patterns in nature. The result of scientific investigation is an understanding of natural processes. Scientific explanations are always subject to change in the face of new evidence. Ideas with the most durable explanatory power become established theories or are codified as laws of nature. Overall, the key criterion of science is that it provide a clear, rational, and succinct account of a pattern in nature. This account must be based on data gathering and analysis and other evidence obtained through direct observations or experiments, reflect inferences that are broadly shared and communicated, and be accompanied by a model that offers a naturalistic explanation expressed in conceptual, mathematical, and/or mechanical terms.

Inquiry-Based Instruction

Engaging students in inquiry-based instruction is one way of developing conceptual understanding, content knowledge, and scientific skills. Scientific inquiry as a means to understand the natural and human-made worlds requires the application of content knowledge through the use of scientific skills. Students should have curricular opportunities to learn about and understand science and technology/engineering through participatory activities, particularly laboratory, fieldwork, and design challenges.

Inquiry, experimentation, and design should not be taught or tested as separate, stand- alone skills. Rather, opportunities for inquiry, experimentation, and design should arise within a well-planned curriculum. Instruction and assessment should include examples drawn from life science, physical science, earth and space science, and technology/engineering standards. Doing so will make clear to students that what is known does not stand separate from how it is known.

Asking Questions

Asking questions and pursuing answers are keys to learning in all academic disciplines. In the science classroom, one way students can do this is by exploring scientific phenomena in a classroom laboratory or an investigation around the school. Investigation and experimentation build essential scientific skills such as observing, measuring, replicating experiments, manipulating equipment, and collecting and reporting data. Students may choose what phenomenon to study or conduct investigations and experiments that are selected and guided by the teacher.

Students can also examine questions pursued by scientists in previous investigations of natural phenomena and processes, as reported or shown in textbooks, papers, videos, the Internet, and other media. These sources are valuable because they efficiently organize and highlight key concepts and supporting evidence that characterize the most important work in science. Such study can then be supported in the classroom by demonstrations, experiments, or simulations that deliberately manage features of a natural object or process. Whatever the instructional approach, science instruction should include both concrete and manipulable materials, along with explanatory diagrams and texts.


An inquiry-based approach to science education also engages students in hands-on investigations that allow them to draw upon their prior knowledge and build new understandings and skills. Hands-on experiences should always be purposeful activities that are consistent with current research on how people learn and that develop student understanding of science concepts. Students should also have multiple opportunities to share, present, review, and critique scientific information or findings with others.

            • In grades 3–5, students can plan and carry out investigations as a class, in small groups, or independently, often over a period of several class lessons. The teacher should first model the process of selecting a question that can be answered, formulating a hypothesis, planning the steps of an experiment, and determining the most objective way to test the hypothesis. Students should incorporate mathematical skills of measuring and graphing to communicate their findings.

            • In grades 6–8, teacher guidance remains important but allows for more variation in student approach. Students at this level are ready to formalize their understanding of what an experiment requires by controlling variables to ensure a fair test. Their work becomes more quantitative, and they learn the importance of carrying out several measurements to minimize sources of error. Because students at this level use a greater range of tools and equipment, they must learn safe laboratory practices (see Appendix IV). At the conclusion of their investigations, students in these grades can be expected to prepare reports of their questions, procedures, and conclusions.