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Scientific Inquiry vs. Technological & Engineering Design

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will describe the similarities and differences between the scientific inquiry process and the technological and engineering design process.

Background and Definitions

Gordon Lindsay Glegg, a mechanical engineer from Scotland who is best known as an author of books about science and religion, said, ''A scientist can discover a new star but he cannot make one. He would have to ask an engineer to do it for him.''

Scientific inquiry is the process that scientists use to gain insights about the natural world. Technological and engineering design is the way that science, mathematical, and design principals are applied to create solutions to problems or products.

Let's examine the processes uses by scientists and engineers before comparing and contrasting the two.

Scientific Inquiry Process

The scientific method is taught in school and demonstrated in science fair projects but in reality, scientists move back and forth between the phases and sometimes even skip over parts to efficiently gather the information they are seeking. Still, it is important to know, understand, and be able to use the steps of the scientific inquiry process.

These are the steps of the scientific inquiry process:

  • Ask a question.
  • Research the problem.
  • Develop a hypothesis.
  • Perform an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  • Record and analyze the data.
  • Draw a conclusion.

Technological and Engineering Design Process

The technological and engineering design process is similar to the scientific method, but there are subtle differences. The steps of the technological and engineering design process are as follows:

  • Write a problem statement.
  • Research existing solutions.
  • Determine criteria of a solution.
  • Brainstorm, design, and develop solutions.
  • Build a prototype.
  • Test and redesign as needed.

Compare/Contrast

While the first step of the technological and engineering design process is similar to the scientific inquiry process, the focus is on solving a specific problem rather than finding out more information.

During both processes, research happens in the second steps, but the research is broader with the scientific method. A scientist may explore measurement techniques, existing data, and background information about the groups to be tested. Engineers will primarily explore existing solutions to learn from other engineers who have solved similar problems.

In the scientific method, the third step of developing a hypothesis follows research to help scientists focus the experiment more exactly. Similarly, determining the criteria of a solution in the engineering process provides focus by determining what an acceptable solution will be able to accomplish and to what degree.

The fourth step is development. Scientists develop an experiment to test their hypothesis, while engineers develop solutions to solve a problem.

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