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Design and Science:
What are the similarities and differences
when we compare their
Objectives & Process?

I recommend first reading the summary` of this page.

Comparing Objectives

In a design project, the objective is to design (to find, invent, or improve) a product, strategy, activity, or theory.

The essential objective of science is to improve our understanding of nature by designing experiments (in special activities that increase our knowledge about “what happens”) and designing theories (to explain “how-and-why things happen”), so science is a special type of design.

We can distinguish between two types of main objectives within design, in our designing of a product, strategy, or activity (in general design) or an experiment and/or theory (in science):

splitting Design into General Design & Science-Design 

Here is another way to view these objectives, by describing their similarities and differences:

In both types of problem-solving design you Recognize an Opportunity because "a problem is any situation where you have an opportunity to make things better."

In general design you try to solve problems — you want to make things better, to meet human needs & wants — by defining problems and seeking solutions.

In science you try to solve a special type of problem — you want to make your knowledge better, to understand more thoroughly-and-accurately — by asking questions and seeking answers.


Comparing Process

similarities:  Despite these differences in objectives, general design and science are just different types of design, so both use the same basic process of design* — in goal-directed thinking that uses a creative generation of ideas and critical evaluation of ideas — which in Design Process is described three ways, as a Two-Step Cycle of Design, and also 3 Elements (Goals, Predictions, Observations) in the 3 Comparisons (two Quality Checks, one Reality Check) that you see below, and 10 Modes of Thinking-and-Action (to Define, Generate, Evaluate, Coordinate).

3 Comparisons: 2 Quality Checks for Design, and 1 Reality Check for Science

differences:  The same basic process is used in general design and in science, but with variations that include a different use of Quality Checks for evaluations.  General Design emphasizes Quality Checks (to determine how closely an option’s predicted properties or observed properties match the desired properties defined by your Goals), but also uses Reality Checks.  Science emphasizes a special kind of Quality Check — a Reality Check (aka Theory Check or Prediction Check) to determine how closely reality-based Observations are matched by theory-based Predictions — to evaluate theories, but also uses other kinds of Quality Checks for designing theories & experiments.

visual representations:  These process-differences (in the use of Quality Checks and Reality Checks) are visually symbolized by color-differences in the diagrams (2a-2b, 3, 4a-4b`) used for Stages 3 & 4 in An Overview of Design Process* where the two Quality Checks (used for General Design & Science) are dark blue, and a Reality Check (used mainly for Science) is yellow-green.  Using this same color symbolism, Stage 4 (using Diagrams 4a-4b) explains how you Generate Solution-Options (in General Design) or Generate Theory-Options (in Science) by using creative-and-critical Retroduction.  Similarly, Diagram 4b shows that when you Design an Experiment (Mental or Physical) you can Choose an Option-and-Situation (in General Design) and/or Choose a Theory-Situation (in Science) after you have generated-and-evaluated options for Experimental Systems;  the "and/or" is a reminder that during General Design you often are “learning how things work” by using science, in an overlap/similarity because sometimes designers do science.   /   * If you don't have a strong understanding of Stages 3 & 4 in An Overview of Design Process, I suggest that you review them now` and then return here by using your Back-Button.

differences:  Quality Checks (in General Design) define quality by humanly-defined Goals, but Reality Checks (in Science-Design) do not, although some human-defined Goals are included in the goal-criteria used to evaluate theories.

similarities:  In both Conventional-Design and Science-Design, Preparation (by finding old information that already exists) and Designing Experiments (which then are “run” in mental experiments and/or physical experiments to generate new information) are very important.  Both use Creative-and-Critical Thinking although typically the generation of options is less divergent in Science (with options for theories) than in General Design (with options for products, activities, strategies) or with options for experiment-activities in either Science or General Design.

similarities:  * Science is a type of Design, so Science Process "is a type of Design Process" and we can "describe Science Process in terms of Design Process, or (if you prefer) independent from it," as explained in Science Process.


Here is an application of "objectives and process" principles:


Comparing Cousins  —  Engineering and Science

The Scope of Design is Wide because "creativity and critical thinking are useful... in a wide range of ‘design’ fields, such as engineering, architecture, mathematics, music, art, literature, education, philosophy, history, business, athletics, medicine, law, and science."  But the most widely recognized type of General Design is Engineering, which is the closest cousin of Science, so let’s compare them.

objectives:  science tries to understand nature, while engineering tries to improve technology.  Notice the two differences: understanding versus improvement, and nature versus technology.  But there are many similarities, interactions, and overlaps.  Science often uses technology, especially for doing experiments and making observations, but also for making predictions with computer simulations, and in other ways.  And the understanding gained by science is often applied in technology.  Engineers do try to understand nature, but usually they want to learn more about nature in the context of technology — for example, by studying the chemistry-and-physics of combustion in car engines, or of semiconductors in computer chips — and their main motivations are practical, because they think understanding nature will help them improve technology. 

process:  The same process of design is used for engineering and science.  Typically there is a difference in emphasis, but with exceptions and overlaps:  although engineering usually emphasizes Quality Checks (to evaluate the quality of options for a solution) it also uses Reality Checks (to improve predictions, and understand nature in the context of technology);  science usually emphasizes Reality Checks (for Theory Design) but (especially for Experimental Design) also uses Quality Checks.

crossovers in objectives-and-process:  Sometimes science is loosely defined as “whatever a scientist does,” and engineering is “whatever an engineer does.”  This can be an interesting perspective to use occasionally.  But if we want to help students learn thinking skills and problem-solving process, and understand the flexibility in thinking, actions, and careers for scientists & engineers, it seems more useful to define science and engineering (and other types of general design) on the basis of objectives-and-process.  When we do this, we see “crossover thinking-and-actions” for both objectives & process, because a scientist sometimes does engineering, and an engineer sometimes does science.

internal variations:  We see similarities & differences between science and engineering, and also within science and within engineering, in the various sub-fields of each.  These variations can be understood and taught by using a strategy of Framework + Elaborations.


Science, Technology, and Society — STS

In our modern world, science and engineering/technology are important, exerting major influences on how we live and think.  An objectives-and-process approach, using Design Process, can serve a useful function by supplementing other approaches. We can help students improve their understandings of science and general design (in engineering and other fields of design), and the many variations of each, and the wide variety of interactions among science(s), technology(s), and society(s).

* Scholars in a wide range of fields, including education, have developed sophisticated views of STS (and the Nature of Science & Design);  summaries are in the National Science Education Standards (1996, pages 190-204), and Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011, pages 78-79 & 201-214), and two papers (Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science & The Nature of Science) accompanying the first draft of Next Generation Science Standards in May 2012.


Educational Applications — Relationships between Science & Design

When we compare science and general design, it's useful to understand both similarities and differences.  The similarities call attention to opportunities for transfer.  The differences help us appreciate the special characteristics of each.

Many educational possibilities, spanning a wide range of important topics, are available when we examine the fascinating interactive systems of STS and the Nature of Science-and-Design.

Science is Design, so there is a close relationship between Science Process and Design Process which helps us build Educational Bridges between Design and Science that will increase Transfers of Learning (especially from design to science, but also from science to design) and improve students' Motivations to Learn Science.  These bridges are one of the reasons that using Design Process can help students achieve the objectives for learning Scientific and Engineering Practices in the new K-12 Science Education Standards for 2012.