Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Explanation

Table of Contents

Cause and effect are important concepts in both science and engineering as science seeks to create explanations, and engineering seeks to reach design solutions. In some cases, cause and effect are straightforward; in other cases, cause and effect relationships are more complex and less apparent. Scientists attempt to uncover and understand cause and effect relationships through well-designed experiments and investigations. Engineers, on the other hand, often use the design process to achieve a desired effect. In order to do so, engineers must understand other cause and effect relationships, including how particular elements will affect the functionality and cost of a design. Part of understanding cause and effect relationships is seeking an answer to the questions “how does it work?”—the mechanism of the relationship—and also “what happens and why does it happen?”—the explanation of the relationship.


Ocean scientists and engineers explore and utilize many different cause and effect relationships. For example, climate scientists seek to understand the causes of global climate change and their effects on the chemistry of the ocean. Marine biologists may study what causes organisms such as fish or whales to suddenly and unexpectedly die (Fig. 1). In order for ocean engineers to be able to design a new submarine, they must apply their understanding of the effect of depth on pressure.


Image caption

Fig. 1. Veterinarians in Alaska examine the body of a humpback whale calf to determine what caused its stranding.

Image copyright and source

Image courtesy of Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC

As students’ understanding of patterns develops, so too does their understanding of cause and effect relationships, according to the framework. Students should ask themselves what causes the patterns they observe, including how and why phenomena occur, and if the occurrences of these patterns are conditional. The practice of argumentation is key to the teaching and learning of cause and effect relationships. In the classroom, students should be asked to argue from evidence when describing the causes of natural phenomena.


Related Conversations

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.