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Schools should teach kids more about how science is done

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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WASHINGTON—Is a "mystery tube" the key to improving science education in the United States? The prop, a cylinder with two pieces of string running through it, briefly took center stage here at a packed symposium on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Mark Stefanski, a high school biology teacher from Marin Academy in San Rafael, Calif., called up two volunteers from the audience and asked them to figure out the internal structure of the opaque tube, made of about 10 inches of PVC pipe. They began shaking the tube and pulling on the strings, just as Stefanski’s high school students do in class.

"Are they doing science?" he asked the audience.

The audience overwhelmingly voted "yes."

His point, echoed by many of his fellow panelists, was that teachers at the high school and undergraduate university level aren’t giving students a broad enough understanding of how scientists go about their research. While scientific literacy in the United States is increasing, thanks to the requirement that college students take at least one year of science, the general public is relatively ignorant about the process of scientific inquiry and the nature of science. The importance of clearly defining the field and explaining the methodology behind it are paramount at a time when debates among policy-makers about addressing climate change and among educators about teaching evolution are blurring the public’s understanding of the difference between science and ideology, said the panelists at the talk, "Aiming for Scientific Literacy by Teaching the Process, Nature and Limits of Science."

Too often, school instructors describe the scientific process as linear and conclusive, said many of the panelists, when in fact scientific inquiry is open-ended. In typical high school curricula, teachers present the scientific method as consisting of a sequence of steps. For example: Step 1, develop a hypothesis; Step 2, test it; Step 3, draw a conclusion. At the end of the mystery tube exercise, teachers are supposed to not reveal what’s inside. The point of the lesson is to show students that results are rarely decisive.

"We are teaching the scientific method too simplistically," says Judy Scotchmoor, of the University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley, where she develops tools for training STEM teachers. An overemphasis on rote learning and an under-emphasis on critical thinking yield students who lack an interest in science. She quoted surprising statistics showing that the longer students study science, the more negatively they view it.

To replace the linear approach to teaching the scientific method, Scotchmoor designed a flow chart, which Stefanski has implemented in his classes, that shows the messiness of scientific inquiry, with arrows running in multiple directions among several steps: exploration and discovery, testing ideas, benefits and outcomes, community analysis and feedback. She’s had a number of working scientists diagram their own discoveries on her flow chart and post them on the Web as examples. Her goal is to show that "science is dynamic and creative and far from linear."

The White House also has recently embraced a more broad-based approach to improving middle school students’ STEM performance as part of its Educate to Innovate program. In September, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended that any new educational standards "transcend the emphasis on low-level factual recall found in many science classes today to include the skills needed to solve complex problems, work in teams, and interpret and communicate scientific information."

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a Friday speech at AAAS, highlighted many of the administration’s education goals, including recruiting 100,000 new science and math teachers in the next decade and creating a new advanced research projects agency for education, ARPA-ED. Along these lines, President Obama hosted a White House science fair in October, celebrating the winners of numerous middle-school and high-school competitions. Holdren said Obama’s staff had booked him for just 15 minutes with the kids, but the president ended up staying for nearly an hour. "He loves this stuff," said Holdren, who showed a slide of Obama speaking with two young inventors of a steering wheel that could detect if its driver were drunk.

The panelists at the "mystery tube" talk questioned the effectiveness of science fairs in general. "They have a relatively small effect," said Jon D. Miller, a scientific literacy and education expert at Michigan State University. "They help people with a strong interest in science, so they’re not a conversion process but a reinforcement process." Still, it’s a good start.

Photo: Obama and students from Blue Bell, Pa. at the White House Science Fair, via Pete Souza White House Blog

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  1. 1. basecamp 6:52 pm 02/22/2011

    Students really need those top notch field trips to get that serious spark going. You know,"wow!" Trade in those graduation trips and parties for something this side of the equator

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  2. 2. JamesDavis 6:48 am 02/23/2011

    Humans are natural born explorers until something stifles them into not being. A creative mind need stimulation, something America hasn’t done in decades. I think the starting point where America ended its effort for stimulating creative scientific and engineering minds can point to the Regan administration when that administration stripped the solar panels off the White House. There is nothing more discouraging than to see your best work destroyed.

    Maybe President Obama can restimulate our young people’s minds again and turn them back to doing incredible things like we did when we landed on the moon. Maybe this time we can discover how to power vehicles and take us forever out of the fossil age and into a new beginning.

    Keep your fingers crossed that the Republicans never catch onto what we are doing or they will try their best to stifle us again and set us back centuries in scientific discoveries.

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  3. 3. robert schmidt 11:04 am 02/23/2011

    It always amazes me that an american president has to constantly reaffirm his faith to the american people. Essentially he is claiming to be irrational and immune to evidence. And the american people demand this of him! Perhaps the US should teach their children how to think rationally early in the public school system instead of allowing Sunday schools to teach children to stop thinking and surrender their wills to a religious dictatorship.

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  4. 4. HowardB 12:33 pm 02/23/2011

    Excellent point Robert. The bizarre and irrational contradiction between the elevation of ‘Faith’ above rational thinking and the promotion of Science.

    Back to the topic ….

    No quality Science teacher should be giving a single Class, or discussing or introducing a single topic in their Science Class without relating it to the real world via some kind of experiment or prop or visual example that is discussed among the students.

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  5. 5. Globular 12:40 pm 02/23/2011

    Speaking from a students point of view, I whole-heartedly agree with this article. Classroom theory does not equate to real life practice and experience. Granted, science isn’t for everyone, but the basic concepts should never faulter. It basically boils down to administrative policies and ciriculum, instructors can’t do everything…

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  6. 6. TTLG 12:44 pm 02/23/2011

    I have mixed feelings about this. The scientific method itself is linear. The nonlinear, creative parts are in coming up with the hypothesis and figuring out ways to verify it (especially in the social sciences where observation rather than experiment are often what is necessary).

    The other parts describes are necessary, but are not, strictly speaking, part of the scientific method. Debates within the scientific community come about because scientists have human faults and make mistakes just like everyone else. Public relations are needed primarily to deal with those who have a vested interest in keeping people from knowing the truth. These are good things for any prospective scientist to be aware of, but should not be confused with the scientific method itself.

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  7. 7. oldfartfox 5:21 pm 02/23/2011

    I think we really need a better class of science teachers. My daughter once got a poor grade on a science project because she disproved her own hypothesis. Although she learned a lot in the process, including the fact that things are not always the way you think they are, the teacher felt that an any experiment that didn’t prove the hypothesis was a priori a failure!

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  8. 8. jack.123 6:35 pm 02/23/2011

    The scientific method as I was taught to put it simple, means that a test can be done by two different groups following the same rules,and then come up with the same results.If the rules of each test are not followed then the same results will not happen.I believe this is what is called a peer review,and is what needs to be taught to students.I am wondering why it is so hard to teach these concepts to today students?Maybe I am missing something here?

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  9. 9. HarryKeller 10:35 am 02/24/2011

    A very simply critical thinking exercise helps students to understand science. Notice that not a single bit of science content, the stuff of standards, is involved here.

    Decades after non-majors have taken their science classes, they’ll have forgotten the stages of mitosis and the types of rocks, but they’ll remember how to think scientifically IF they learned in the first place.

    This single exercise will not instill scientific thinking and the nature of science in students but WILL begin the process. Every possible opportunity in every science class throughout K-12 education should do the same. Few do today.

    Experimental investigations are key to learning science. Simulations, often touted by their vendors, only help to learn concepts and tend to distort the nature of science. Too many "hands-on" labs, also promoted by many, give students an answer and ask them to verify it and so lose the opportunity to learn science.

    Too many labs focus on procedure, important only for science majors, rather than on process. Some labs automate data capture, a valid means for sophisticated students but not for beginners. Students should take their own data point by point until they are fully ready to comprehend the ambiguity of their data and the complexities involved in its interpretation.

    Labs must be designed well. When hands-on won’t work due to cost, safety, or time, use prerecorded real experiments with highly interactive software that meets the above criteria.

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  10. 10. DrTony 1:39 pm 02/24/2011

    I wanted to add that this type of "mystery tube" was proposed and used back in 1970s. I even built a proto-typical "black box" as part of a problem solving situation. These ideas have developed from the teaching process because the answers to the questions are not always in the back of the book or easily quantified.

    As we became more oriented towards textbook learning and accountability by test, such examples as this were eliminated. It is going to be very hard for many teachers to incorporate such ideas in their classes because the students will want to know if it is going to be on the test and the parents are going to complain that the teachers are wasting their time and not teaching what’s in the book.

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  11. 11. mo98 10:27 am 02/28/2011

    When I studied linear algebra in the 80′s there wasn’t a single practical example in the ridiculously expensive textbooks why I should need to know about all of those matrix operations. Since then, I have built up an arsenal of my own command line software tools to crunch and parse algebraic expressions in any order I wish to experiment with rows and columns of data. I easily forget what transposing, obtaining determinants, cofactors, adjuncts and inverses from 2×2 to 5×5 would need to be all about. We get buried in notation almost immediately. Don’t look at Wikipedia when googling for a simple demonstration of matrix application. I leave the search as an exercise.

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  12. 12. dschrom 10:45 pm 03/10/2011

    Like many who appreciate the power of science as means to qualify lessons of experience I applaud emphasis upon science as process over science as corpus.

    I see parallels between evolution in meaning of "scientific literacy" and in meaning of "literacy." In early usage people used both to denote familiarity with a canon. Now most think of literacy less as having read Shakespeare than as being able to en- and decode text. Similarly we’re shifting from measures of scientific literacy based upon factual knowledge to those evidencing competence to "read" the world around us and make successful predictions based upon pattern discernible there.

    In this shift I see an important step towards "democratization" of science, in the sense that we acknowledge all humans as scientists, each challenged to hone practice so that we become more competent in divers aspects of our lives.

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  13. 13. memf1 1:35 pm 11/4/2011

    I’m definitely out of my comfort zone when it comes to science, which is why I’m commenting on this blog.

    Comment #9 by HarryKeller, “This single exercise will not instill scientific thinking and the nature of science in students but WILL begin the process. Every possible opportunity in every science class throughout K-12 education should do the same. Few do today,” has stuck in my mind.
    As a former elementary school teacher and reading specialist, I’m now a stay at home mom of a 5 and 2 year old. I’m very concerned about the lack of science not only taught in our public school, but also the lack of scientific training elementary school teachers receive. In some schools, any teacher can teach science regardless of educational background. Parents don’t realize this and often don’t care. The push in school is reading and now, thankfully, a little math.

    I have very little training in science and I want to know what I should do to open the world of science to my young children. Any thoughts?
    Thank you.

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