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.
Now consider a different approach—one that lets students take the lead in figuring out the phenomenon of the feather falling in a vacuum. Students could be shown a feather and a steel block dropped two times in a chamber. In the first instance, there is air in the chamber and the block falls quickly while the feather slowly floats to the bottom of the chamber. However, in the second instance, the air has been pumped out of the chamber, and this time, both objects fall quickly to the bottom of the chamber. Students are asked to make observations and ask questions, just the way a scientist would. They now wonder why the feather fell so quickly in one case and not the other. Rather than the teacher just telling the students why it happened, students now need to figure it out for themselves.
With their questions in hand, students are ready to plan and carry out investigations of how gravity pulls on objects and how objects move when forces are applied to them. Digital resources are a tremendous tool for these types of explorations. Not every classroom has a vacuum chamber to conduct this experiment, but students can observe a video of the feather falling. Other digital tools can allow students to conduct virtual interactive investigations where forces can be easier to visualize with vectors superimposed on diagrams.
These investigations will produce data that needs to be organized and interpreted. Students may also analyze information about force and motion. Here too, digital tools can facilitate the process of collecting and making sense of the evidence. Ultimately, all of this work will lead students to develop their own explanation for why the feather fell slowly when there was air in the chamber and quickly when there was no air. They can then compare their explanations to the work of Isaac Newton, who developed three laws of motion and the law of gravity. Their exploration of Newton’s work also provides an opportunity to understand the distinction between theories, laws, hypotheses and models, another aspect of the Nature of Science.
Thus, a process of having students engage in these hands-on activities and figure out things for themselves not only provides an opportunity to help students develop a deep understanding of the extensive ideas in physical science, life science, and Earth and space science, but also provides an opportunity to learn about the Nature of Science. Furthermore, having students engage in the practice of science in the way that real scientists do also empowers them to be life-long learners.
For too long, students have passively sat in their seats and received information either through a book or a lecture. Some students learn to play the “game” of school, where they figure out what to say or do to get a good grade but retain little actual knowledge. Other students disengage because they have little reason to care. There are decades of evidence that this approach has not worked. A student-centered approach to learning provides a better way.
In Florida, the state standards have been designed to encourage students to engage in the Nature of Science. As educators, it is our job to figure out how to help make this important topic matter to students. By letting them take control of their learning, we can help them learn both the knowledge and the practice of science. Challenging students to be active learners will make science much more fun, engaging, and relevant for all.
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