Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Questions drive both science and engineering. In science, questions are inspired by curiosity or the desire to better explain a natural phenomenon. Questions in engineering are used to elicit and define problems, design criteria, and constraints. Scientists who study salt- and freshwater systems may ask questions like these:

  • When will a tsunami generated in Japan arrive in Hawai‘i?
  • How much iron is dissolved in the equatorial undercurrent?
  • Do tiger sharks have predictable patterns of movement? (Fig. 1)
  • What determines patterns of marine biodiversity?


Image caption

Fig. 1. A tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is implanted with a transmitter.

Image copyright and source

Image courtesy of Luiz Rocha

Image caption

Fig. 2. Hydrothermal vents on the Kawio Barat volcano.

Image copyright and source

Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAl 2010

Ocean engineers may ask questions like these:

  • What is needed to better study deep sea vents? (Fig. 2)
  • How can the energy of ocean waves be converted to electricity?
  • Both scientists and engineers also ask questions about how best to communicate evidence, explanations, and design solutions to each other and the public.


According to the framework, learning science and engineering should develop K–12 students’ ability to identify and ask answerable questions. Students should be able to ask questions related to their observations, conclusions, and readings. In science and engineering classes, students should be encouraged to ask questions, respect good questions, and critically consider their own and others’ questions. Teachers should both model and directly teach questioning strategies. As students progress through school, they should be able to ask more relevant and more sophisticated questions.


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Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawai?i, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.