Method Mania: Scientific Inquiry vs. Engineering Design

Congratulations! You’ve made it through registration. You have a team and you chose your Mission Challenge. Maybe it was food, health and fitness. Perhaps you picked national security and safety. Whatever challenge you chose to address in your community, another challenge awaits: deciding whether to use scientific inquiry or engineering design to address your problem.

So how do you choose which is the best route for you and your team to take? Because there’s no specific recipe, you know there will be many surprises along the way and this in turn makes the road to addressing your problem half the fun!

When you are at the point where you need to choose which route to go, what you should do is examine the difference between science and engineering as a team. Sometimes the answer isn’t clear. The decision can seem daunting.  So we want to help you determine which method is the best option for you, your Mission Folder, and your team. 

Scientific Inquiry:
When applying the method of scientific inquiry, you should follow these steps throughout your experimentation:

  • Observe and Explore - What do you already know and what do you want to know?
  • Ask Questions - Think about things that you notice, and then expand on what you “wonder” about these items.
  • Select a Question That Can Be Answered Through Investigation - Review the items of “wonder” regarding different topics of interest. Choose one of these items that can be solved through testing and experimentation, and form a hypothesis to test this theory.
  • Experiment or Observe to Answer - Conduct an experiment to test the question at hand.
  • Reflect on What Happened - Describe what happened during the experimentation, reporting these findings through tabulating, graphing, etc.
  • More Questions - Now that your theory has been proven or disproven, what other results and experimentation could result from this? Conclusions often lead to more questions and will increase the chance for further discovery!

Engineering Design:
Engineers design and build all types of structures, systems and products that are important in our everyday lives. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recommends you utilize the below series of steps to solve engineering-based problems: 

  • Identify the Problem - State the challenge problem. Example: How can we design a ________ that will _________?
  • Identify Criteria and Constraints - Specify design requirements, or criteria.
  • Brainstorm Possible Solutions - Each student on the team sketches his or her own ideas as the group discusses ways to solve the problem. These sketches should be brief and use rudimentary labels to show the basic mechanics of the item.
  • Generate Ideas - Each student should develop two or three ideas more thoroughly. Students create new drawings that are orthographic projections and isometric drawings.
  • Explore Possibilities - Share and discuss the ideas among team members. Students should discuss the pros and cons of each design idea.
  • Select an Approach - Identify a design that best appears to solve the problem and create a statement that describes why this solution was chosen for future use. In this statement, include criteria and constraints for future reference.
  • Build a Model or Prototype - Construct a full-size or scale model based on the drawings.
  • Refine the Design - Examine and evaluate the prototype based on the criteria and constraints listed previously. Based on the criteria and constraints, the team will identify any problems and pose additional solutions.

To sum it all up, engineering design is all about solving a problem and scientific inquiry is about answering a question.

So, talk it over with your team. A big part of your project and how successful it can be depends greatly on the communication efforts you put in with your fellow teammates. Once you determine the best method for your Mission Challenge, science or engineering, you will have all the tools you need to succeed. If you’re looking for even more help, you can utilize eCYBER’s resources online where we share the Judging Rubric for both:

Now, get to work!

-Mission Control


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