Initial Publication Date: May 24, 2021

What is "investigation and design"?

"Investigation and design" is shorthand for a robust, holistic learning process in which students use science and engineering practices and crosscutting scientific concepts in order to deepen their understanding of phenomena and to address design challenges. Our use of the phrase builds on the 2018 report Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center, as further described below.

Students often experience investigation and design in advanced courses in the sciences, or as graduate students, but less frequently have those experiences in introductory science courses, which can focus on the content of a discipline rather than the processes. The TIDeS project aims to change that, because introductory science courses are the only opportunity that most students—including those who go on to be K-12 teachers—have to engage in the practices of science.

What does investigation and design look like for students?

When students are learning through investigation and design, they ask questions about a natural phenomenon or real-world engineering challenge, gather data to use as evidence in constructing explanations and designing engineering solutions, and communicate their reasoning to themselves and others. In other words, students are engaged in the authentic processes that lead to new knowledge and solutions.

Deepening understanding of phenomena

When presented with phenomena or design challenges that are socially or culturally situated, relevant to their daily lives, provide some choice or autonomy, or pique their curiosity, students are motivated to ask questions and develop investigations that will give them the opportunity to explore their ideas. Getting started in such an investigation likely involves some initial information-gathering and facilitated discussion to develop tractable questions. Those questions sustain student interest over a substantial period of time; a single quarter or semester may involve 5-7 investigation or design units.

Working with data and models

Students collect and/or gather data, analyze data and construct explanations, and develop models (conceptual, mathematical, or computational) that can be used predictively. Students may collect their own data using authentic tools and techniques appropriate to the investigation, or they may gather data from well-established data repositories. In analyzing data, students make meaningful use of graphs and statistical techniques and assess the quality of the data and relevance to the question.  Students then use these analyses as evidence to construct explanations

Communicating ideas and reasoning

Throughout an investigation, students are engaging in productive discourse with each other, often facilitated by the instructor. They question each others' reasoning in order to develop stronger explanations. They produce plans for investigations, graphs, and other artifacts that elicit their thinking and allow instructors to provide formative feedback.

What does teaching with investigation and design look like? 

For college-level instructors, our definition of investigation and design may sounds a lot like mentoring students in research, and that's not a bad way to think about it. Teaching with investigation and design in introductory science courses is a bit like giving students scaffolded initial experiences to get started in research, helping them build the skills that they can take to the next step. Unlike a full research project, however, investigation and design in an introductory science courses is focused on the core ideas in the disciplines, and deepening students' understanding of these ideas through making use of more sophisticated data, tools, and reasoning than they may have used in the past.

Selecting relevant phenomena

A key aspect of teaching with investigation and design is selecting phenomena that are relevant for students. Relevance can be established in many ways—through connections to students' communities, experiences, and interests, or to real-world issues and challenges. Selecting relevant phenomena and challenges builds inclusion, and requires knowing your students, and building on their lives and experiences to provide context and purpose for their science learning.

Introducing a phenomenon to students does not require front-loading with facts or what is already known about the phenomenon. A stronger approach involves student gathering of information and sharing of ideas, and instructor facilitation in developing relevant and tractable questions for investigation.

Scaffolding work with data and models

Instructors can support students in using the tools and techniques of science for rigorously gathering, collecting, and analyzing data. The availability of high-quality datasets collected by government agencies and private researchers on the internet allows for data-rich investigations even it is impractical or impossible for students to collect their own data. Likewise, the widespread presence of smartphones and other personal devices can allow for sophisticated data collection without additional instrumentation. By leveraging data in the context of meaningful and relevant scientific questions, instructors can scaffold students' use of appropriate statistical techniques, graphical representations, and assessment of data quality.

Instructors can establish clear expectations for how students will construct explanations of the data, including outliers and assumptions made in analyses.

Eliciting student thinking and facilitating productive discourse

An important feature of teaching with investigation and design is creating multiple opportunities to elicit student thinking. These opportunities should include facilitating productive discourse, in which students share, build on, and respond to each others' ideas while establishing a learning environment based on inclusion and respect. Discourse serves as formative assessment for instructors to gauge students' progress and to provide feedback.

Facilitating inclusive and productive discourse involves making use of "talk moves" that support participation and sharing of ideas. These moves include (adapted from Ambitious Science Teaching):

  • Probing: Asking students to make their thinking public without passing judgment or evaluating their responses
  • Pressing: Asking students to further reason out loud, provide an example, or additional explanation based on evidence
  • Re-voicing: Paraphrasing and/or restating what someone has said for purposes of clarification and/or to connect everyday language with scientific vocabulary or concepts
  • Prompting peer-to-peer talk: Asking students to discuss ideas in small groups.


Ambitious Science Teaching, A Discourse Primer for Science Teachers,, Accessed May, 2021

National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), 2018, Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center, Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press, 312 p.