Science is more than just a body of knowledge; it is the process of discovering new knowledge. Therefore, science education needs to involve more than just memorizing what scientists have already figured out. Students also need to learn about the processes that scientists use to generate new understandings about the universe. In other words, it involves understanding the Nature of Science.
The Nature of Science is what distinguishes science from other methods of knowing such as art, philosophy, or social science. The Nature of Science includes understanding that while scientific knowledge is based on empirical evidence, it is also subject to change based on new evidence. Science is a human endeavor that requires creativity, but also objectivity.
The importance of the Nature of Science is reflected in state science standards. For example, in Florida, the science standards have the Nature of Science as one of the bodies of knowledge alongside Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth and Space Science. The Nature of Science is further delineated into three big ideas: the Practice of Science, the Characteristics of Scientific Knowledge, and the Roles of Theories, Laws, Hypotheses, and Models.
Scientists engage in activities to learn about the universe. While many of us have learned about “the scientific method,” that is not an accurate description of the way that most scientists engage in their work. Instead, the practice of science tends to involve a variety of activities. Scientists formulate questions and construct ways to investigate those questions. They collect and evaluate data, engage in argumentation, and develop explanations and communicate their findings. Rather than there being a set sequence to these activities, scientists engage in them on an “as needed” basis. One way to think of these activities is as a set of tools in a scientist’s toolbox that they pull out and use when appropriate.
There are many ways that students can learn about the Nature of Science, but research on student learning has shown that students develop this understanding best by actually “doing science” in the same way scientists do. This approach to science learning helps students understand the Nature of Science and is particularly useful in developing an understanding of scientific concepts themselves.
For example, traditional instruction usually involves a teacher telling students about a particular science principle, and then showing examples to provide evidence that the principle is true. When learning about gravity and other forces, a teacher could tell students about the force of gravity and the force of air resistance, and then the explain to students that the reason a feather floats to the ground is that the pull of gravity on the feather is countered by the force of air resistance on the feather. While this approach would help students learn about gravity, it would not help them learn about the Nature of Science.
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