Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions


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Fig. 1. Ocean engineers Amy Kukulya and Tom Austin prepare to launch an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), which conducts rapid environmental surveys and can detect underwater mines.

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Image courtesy of John F. Williams from Wikipedia

One of the primary endeavors of science is constructing explanations of the natural world. Scientific explanations link observation and theory, and suggest a reason for observed relationships between variables. Scientists have specific ways of classifying scientific understanding. These classifications are often misinterpreted by non-scientists. For example, the word “theory” is used by scientists to describe an explanation of a natural phenomenon that is supported by a significant body of knowledge and evidence and has withstood significant scientific scrutiny. This is often very different from how the general public uses the word “theory.” Another example is the word “hypothesis.” A scientific “hypothesis” describes an expectation about what will happen in a specific situation, based on previous evidence, a model, or a theoretical understanding. Knowing the language used by scientists to describe scientific knowledge and the scientific process is necessary to understanding how scientists classify knowledge.


The goal of engineering is not constructing explanations, rather designing solutions. The engineering process is iterative and aims to optimize a design solution. After a process of specifying constraints and criteria, developing a design plan, producing and testing models or prototypes, choosing optimal design features, and refining the design, engineers should achieve a design solution to the engineering problem.


Marine and aquatic scientists use a variety of scientific theories to make predictions and hypotheses. Examples of scientific theories include the theory of evolution, the theory of plate tectonics, and atomic theory. Scientists continually collect new evidence to refine explanations and add to the theoretical understanding of how the natural world works. Ocean engineers work to develop solutions that allow people to live and work in the marine environment. Examples of their work includes creating sources of renewable energy and designing solutions to address the problems associated with large numbers of people living near the world’s coasts. Engineers also work with the scientific community to help create the kinds of tools scientists need to explore and study the ocean. These may include things as simple as trawl nets for collecting plankton or as complex as submersible vehicles for exploring the ocean depths (Fig. 1).


According to the framework, students should be able to construct scientific explanations using evidence, models, and their knowledge of scientific theories. Students should also be able to analyze explanations for gaps or weaknesses in theories, and refute insufficient explanations. In engineering, students should be able to undertake design projects, solve design problems, implement design solutions, and evaluate and critique competing design solutions. In the classroom, students should have the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of natural phenomena by constructing and critiquing scientific explanations. As students progress through the grades, they should be able to indentify and isolate variables and develop increasingly sophisticated explanations of causal relationships. Students should incorporate models into their scientific explanations, both using models to develop explanations and creating models based on their scientific understanding. Students’ scientific explanations should include mathematics and computation.


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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.