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Five science capabilities

Support students to develop their scientific capabilities.

A nautilus shell representing the expansion of knowledge through science.


  • AudienceKaiakoSchool leaders
  • Learning AreaScience
  • Resource LanguageEnglish
  • Resource typeCollection/Curriculum Guide

About this resource

These five science capabilities include gather and interpret data, use evidence, critique evidence, interpret representations, and engage with science. 


Five science capabilities

Introducing the science capabilities 

These five capabilities in the science learning area contribute to a functional knowledge of science: gather and interpret data, use evidence, critique evidence, interpret representations, and engage with science.   

While there are other capabilities that contribute to a functional knowledge of science, these five capabilities help students to develop and build on an understanding of what it is to engage in the practices of science. 

Of course, the boundaries between these five capabilities are blurry. Any learning activity could provide opportunities to strengthen more than one of them, but for planning, teaching, and assessment purposes, it is useful to foreground one specific capability.  

Learn more about each capability, and use the examples to help you to see what these capabilities look like for students at different ages and what you might expect to see them do and say.  


Focusing on ‘gather and interpret data’ supports students to learn to make careful observations, systematically collect and record data, and differentiate between observation and inference. 

This capability is important because science knowledge is based on data derived from direct, or indirect, observations of the natural physical world and often includes measuring something. An inference is a conclusion you draw from observations – the meaning you make from observations.  

Understanding the difference between observations and inferences is an important step towards being scientifically literate. 

To help students differentiate between observation and inference, ask: 

  • Is it something we can see, hear, smell, touch, or taste? Is it measurable? 
  • What did you see? (observation) What might that mean? (inference). 

Scientists try to ensure that their explanations are robust, that is, that their inferences are valid, by doing things like:  

  • asking questions like, “Could there be another explanation for the data?” 
  • collecting more data, perhaps using a different method; they might also test alternative explanations 
  • communicating and discussing their ideas with other scientists. 

Resources to develop students’ ability to gather and interpret data 

Science Learning Hub - Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao 

Focusing on ‘use evidence’ supports students to learn to support their ideas with evidence and look for evidence supporting others' explanations. 

This capability is important because science is a way of explaining the world. Science is empirical (i.e., verifiable) and measurable. This means that in science, explanations need to be supported by evidence that is based on, or derived from, observations of the natural world. 

Students should be encouraged to ask and answer questions such as: 

  • How do you know that? 
  • What makes you think so? 
  • How could you check that? 
  • So an example of this would be ... 
  • Can you think of an example when this wouldn’t work? 

Scientifically literate citizens understand the importance of a sceptical disposition towards all empirical evidence and the role of argument (in science) and critique in the construction of knowledge in science. 

Resources to develop students’ ability to use evidence 

Levels 1-4 

Level 5 

Science Learning Hub - Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao

Focusing on ‘critique evidence’ supports students to learn to evaluate the trustworthiness of data. To do this, students need to know quite a lot about the qualities of scientific investigations: they need both methodological knowledge and statistical knowledge to know what sorts of questions to ask.  

Students should be encouraged to ask and answer questions such as: 

  • How sure are you of your results? 
  • How did you get the data? What were the possible shortcomings of this method? 
  • How could you check your findings? 
  • How many times was the experiment repeated? 
  • How were the measurements taken and recorded? How confident are you that the measurements are accurate? 
  • Did these results surprise you? What were you expecting to find out? 
  • Would these results always be true? 

This capability is important because being able to critique evidence data is an important aspect of scientific literacy.  

In addition to the questions above, scientifically literate citizens need to think about who benefits from any particular findings and the level of the researchers’ impartiality. They also need to be clear about the limits of science. Not all questions can be answered by science. 

Resources to develop students’ ability to critique evidence

Levels 1-4

Level 5

Scientists represent their ideas in a variety of ways, including models, graphs, charts, diagrams, and written texts.  

A model is a representation of an idea, an object, a process, or a system. It could be something concrete, for example, a model heart in a doctor’s office, or simply an idea expressed as a metaphor, for example, “the heart is like a pump”. Models are often used when the idea/object/process/system scientists want to talk or think about is not directly observable. Models enable scientists to develop and work on science ideas but are often limited representations of the “thing” itself. Using models when teaching science does have possible challenges . 

Reading and writing and argument are “central to any conception of science as it is currently constituted” (Osborne, 2002, Science without literacy - a ship without a sail?).  

Understanding and using the literacy practices of science supports students to think in new ways. For example, language used in science usually focuses on things and processes (the empirical nature of science) rather than on people’s feelings and opinions. In a similar way, the use of the passive voice focuses attention on the action, rather than on who did it.  

Being familiar with the literacy practices of science also provides a foundation to critically interact with articles about science in the media. 

It is important that students think about how data is presented and ask questions such as: 

  • What does this representation tell us? 
  • What is left out? 
  • How does this representation get the message across? 
  • Why is it presented in this particular way? 

When scientists write about their research for other academics, they include enough detail of what they have done for others to be able to thoroughly critique their work. Public critique is essential for finding flaws in arguments which is, in turn, central to the dynamic self-correcting nature of science.  

Resources to develop students’ ability to critique evidence

Levels 1-4

Level 5

This capability requires students to use the other capabilities to engage with science in “real life” contexts. It involves students taking an interest in science issues, participating in discussions about science and at times taking action. 

The dimensions of this capability can be demonstrated when students engage in discussions about science issues, including those in the media. If these discussions attend to, and build on the ideas of others; emphasise logical connections and the drawing of reasonable conclusions; and the speakers endeavour to make explicit the evidence behind their claims, then students have the opportunity to practise playing the “game of science” (Resnick, Michaels, & O’Connor, 2010 - How (well-structured) talk builds the mind). This allows them to deepen their understanding of what science is. 

Students also need opportunities to be actively engaged in exploring real-life science issues that are relevant to them and their communities. This could involve building new knowledge with others, and taking action to address local and global concerns. 

Resources to develop students’ ability to critique evidence

Levels 1-4

Levels 5-6

Within the science learning area of The New Zealand Curriculum, the nature of science strand explores how science knowledge is created and used in the world. The five science capabilities are linked to the four nature of science sub-strands. 

Understanding about science

The focus is on scientists' investigations. Three capabilities often relate to this sub-strand:

  • gather & interpret data
  • use evidence
  • critique evidence

Investigating in science

The focus is on students' investigations. Three capabilities often relate to this sub-strand:

  • gather & interpret data
  • use evidence
  • critique evidence

Communicating in science

The capability “interpret representation” often relates to this sub-strand.

Participating and contributing

The capability "engage with science" often relates to this sub-strand.

Opportunities to learn at different curriculum levels
In order to continue to make progress in their development of the five science capabilities, students need to encounter tasks that stretch them, yet are achievable.  

A mix of the aspects in the task design will determine its overall difficulty level for students. The table below contrasts features more typical of Level 1 and 2 tasks with those students might encounter at level 5. Level 3 and 4 tasks/contexts will combine some easier and some more demanding features. 

See Materials that come with this resource to download Science in The New Zealand Curriculum: Understanding progress from Levels 2 to 4 (Ministry of Education, 2019) (pdf).
For a more detailed presentation of what progress might look like, based on data from the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA).

Aspect of task at level 1/2 

Aspect of task at level 5 

Framing of task 

The task draws on everyday representations (photos, drawings, everyday speech and words etc.) 

The task involves use of simple familiar language to talk about how the intended meaning is being conveyed: e.g. The wobbly lines show how... A good word for this is ... I put those together because.... 


Framing of task 

The task provides opportunities to compare and contrast everyday representations of ideas and scientific ways of representing those same ideas. 

The task may require students to make and justify choices about the most appropriate representation to use in a specific context.   

The task allows students to explore and discuss  the conventions of science, and what these conventions convey about the cultural practices of science. 

Students have opportunities to practise using conventions appropriately as they construct their own representations.  

Choice of context 

The context is likely to be familiar or easily associated with something that is already familiar to many students. 

The context can be readily accessed. 

Choice of context 

A wider range of contexts will be used: some familiar, some less so. 

The context might present an unexpected or surprising aspect of something so familiar that it tends to be taken for granted. 

Prior science knowledge 

The task uses everyday ideas and language, or very simple and familiar science ideas to explore and practise ways of making meaning. 

Prior science knowledge 

The task uses students’ prior science knowledge of relevant concepts to explore and practise ways of making meaning. 

The disciplinary knowledge also acts as a guide to the selection of relevant conventions for purposes of comparing and contrasting. 

Metacognitive awareness 

Tasks encourage students to talk about their thinking about how different representations can show different things. 

Metacognitive awareness 

The task provides opportunities for students to demonstrate their awareness of their meaning-making choices and of differences between scientific and everyday meaning-making practices. 


Research informing the development of the five science capabilities

In 2011-2013 the Ministry of Education funded three research projects to focus on: 

  • science curriculum implementation 
  • science community engagement 
  • e-learning opportunities in science - see Materials that come with this resource to download Digital technologies and future-oriented science education: A discussion document for schools (2013) (.pdf).

The conceptualisation and design of "five science capabilities for citizenship" was a significant output. 

Capabilities for living and lifelong learning: What's science got to do with it? (NZCER, 2016) explores what student progress in developing capabilities might look like. It draws on student responses from a small research project with students from Years 1-10 in a range of New Zealand schools. The appendix includes a number of thinking objects developed from the student responses. 

Unlocking the idea of ‘capabilities’ in science (NZ Science Teacher, 2014) - Dr Rosemary Hipkins explains why the capabilities were developed (what they are supposed to "do" in terms of teaching and learning), why they were called that, and how they fit in with our curriculum’s key competencies. 

Developing science capabilities for citizenship through participation in online citizen science (OCS) projects (Set 2020: no.1) reports on a 12-month inquiry focused on the potential of: 

  • participation in online citizen science projects to support development of science capabilities for citizenship 
  • teacher practices in embedding this new paradigm in their science units 
  • student behaviour when participating using different digital device setups.  

The findings also helped to develop professional development resources that are shared on the Science Learning Hub - Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao. The report provides insights into best practices for purposeful digital device use in classroom settings. 

How the science community and schools can work more closely together 

The four summary pamphlets that come with this resource outline the main findings from a project that identified how science community programmes can support and enhance your local school science curriculum.

See Materials that come with this resource to download: 

  • Summary 1 – Schools & the science community: A rationale for future-oriented engagements (.pdf).
  • Summary 2 – Schools & the science community: Schools' guide to getting connected (.pdf).
  • Summary 3 – Schools & the science community: Key elements for partnership (.pdf).
  • Summary 4 – Schools & the science community: Strengthening engagements across the system (.pdf).

Other influential documents 

Important reports that have influenced (and continue to influence) science education in New Zealand include: 

The science capabilities are a set of competencies that are foundational to a scientific disposition. Within te ao Māori, the competencies will have similarities but also differences. What is valued in mātauranga Māori and any knowledge system, including science, is shaped by the system and the cultural values inherent within it.  

Some helpful resources include: