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How to Teach Students to Think Like Scientists

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh
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Halloween is a magical time of year. Ghosts and goblins wander the streets in search of candy and mischief. Halloween revelers celebrate the supernatural. School children color pictures of witches, gross each other out with mystery boxes containing brains made from noodles and boiled-egg-eyes, and play mad scientists creating bubbling beakers of goo. It is great fun...and my goal with this post is not to kill that fun!

Credit: *L*U*Z*A*'s Flickr photostream

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a commercial science supply company with a list of neat Halloween "experiments." I couldn't help but be irritated as I read through the directions. Sure, they were fun activities, but experiments? Nothing was being tested. The explanations claimed that the reactions were "magical." They are shallow activities that horribly misrepresent the process of science. I should let it slide because it is Halloween. However, the reality is that I run across these types of "experiments" from commercial vendors and web-based lesson collections almost daily. Textbooks portray the "scientific method" as the one way that all scientists explore the world -- moving cleanly from asking a question, to experimentation, to making a conclusion.

Teaching Students to Think Like Scientists

If we want our students to think like scientists, we need to explicitly teach the nature of science. Jerrid Kruse, a science educator and Drake University, states:

The Nature of Science (NOS) is not something teachers should teach, it is something teachers DO teach.  Teachers who are not actively trying to teach nature of science concepts accurately are not simply ignoring NOS, they are likely implicitly teaching inaccuracies about NOS. For example, a teacher who uses cookbook laboratory procedures is teaching students that science is a step-by-step process.  Or, consider a teacher who consistently uses the phrase "the data tells."  This teacher is painting a deterministic picture of science in which scientists are objective arbitrators between data and truth. Instead, we ought be having students developing their own procedures whenever possible and carefully considering how our language in the classroom sends powerful messages about what science is and how science works.

Teaching the nature of science moves beyond the simplistic scientific method and seeks to portray science more authentically as a creative, social process of understanding the natural world.

Science Seeks to Explain the Natural World

The movie, The Gods Must be Crazy, opens in a documentary style describing the culture of a tribe that has remained isolated from "civilization." They explain the sound of airplanes as the rumbling of the gods' stomachs, complete with evidence of the gods' passing gas.

Credit: Source: Zi-Dan's Flickr Photostream

Tom Clark, Director of the Center for Naturalism writes, "As scientific understandings have matured, many features of the natural world that were thought to be explainable only by some supernatural agency have lost that attribute. Thunder is no longer considered as the sound of galloping stallions ridden by the gods of the Pantheon."

This aspect is central to understanding science and separates science from other ways that we seek to understand our world.

The Simplified, Linear Scientific Method vs. Reality

Almost every science textbook starts with a chapter on "The Scientific Method." The scientific method is usually defined as a series of steps - Problem, Hypothesis, Experimentation, Observation, Conclusion - that grossly simplify the scientific process. Berkeley's Understanding Science website explains:

  • The simplified, linear scientific method implies that scientific studies follow an unvarying, linear recipe. ?But in reality, in their work, scientists engage in many different activities in many different sequences. Scientific investigations often involve repeating the same steps many times to account for new information and ideas.
  • The simplified, linear scientific method implies that science is done by individual scientists working through these steps in isolation. ?But in reality, science depends on interactions within the scientific community. Different parts of the process of science may be carried out by different people at different times.
  • ?The simplified, linear scientific method implies that science has little room for creativity. ?But in reality, the process of science is exciting, dynamic, and unpredictable. Science relies on creative people thinking outside the box!
  • The simplified, linear scientific method implies that science concludes. ?But in reality, scientific conclusions are always revisable if warranted by the evidence. Scientific investigations are often ongoing, raising new questions even as old ones are answered.
  • An experiment is one specific way that scientists seek to test ideas, but it is not the only way. An experiment seeks to uncover the relationship between variables by observing the affect of manipulating one aspect of a system while keeping the others constant. Other ways of testing ideas include identifying patterns, classifying, longitudinal observations, and modeling.

    Science is a Social Endeavor

    Science is not done in isolation from society. It is an activity that is impacted by and has an impact on society. Many textbooks and popular accounts of science discoveries simplify the process by highlighting an individual instead of the group. The perception of a lone scientist working in isolation is rarely accurate and damaging to students' attitudes towards science.

    Earlier in this post, I quoted Kruse cautioning against portraying scientists as arbiters between data and truth. Instead, the scientific process requires creativity and intuition. Project 2061's groundbreaking book, Science for All Americans, states:

    The use of logic and the close examination of evidence are necessary but not usually sufficient for the advancement of science. Scientific concepts do not emerge automatically from data or from any amount of analysis alone. Inventing hypotheses or theories to imagine how the world works and then figuring out how they can be put to the test of reality is as creative as writing poetry, composing music, or designing skyscrapers. Sometimes discoveries in science are made unexpectedly, even by accident. But knowledge and creative insight are usually required to recognize the meaning of the unexpected.

    Teaching the Nature of Science

    There are many resources available for helping students deepen their understanding of the process of science. It is important to make these aspects of science explicit to our students. Kruse suggests:

    Black-box activities are a great way to introduce NOS ideas.  When solving puzzles, students don't have to be concerned with difficult science content, so they are better able to reflect on their process.  Importantly, we must encourage our students to reflect on their process.  Asking questions like "How did you use creativity to solve this puzzle?" and "How do you think scientists use creativity?" are necessary to focus student thinking on NOS ideas.

    Our consideration of NOS cannot end with black-box activities.  When students conduct their own investigations (inquiry-based instruction), they should be encouraged to link their process to the strategies used with the puzzles.  By reflecting on their own investigations of the natural world, students are more likely to internalize NOS ideas rather than dismiss them as not reflecting real science.

    To push students a bit further, have students read or hear about real scientists.  When students read about how real scientists do/did their work, they are provided evidence that real science works in ways they discussed earlier when solving puzzles and conducting investigations.


    By scaffolding students from puzzles to their own investigation to learning about the investigations of real scientists, we can help them deepen their understanding of NOS and help them see science as a highly creative, dynamic, social and human endeavor.

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

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Richard's picture

Sounds like he has had linear science least in my school our students read articles on how real research is done, they are exposed to failures in science and have many "black box" experiences......and, our teachers all engage in their own real experiments and do not hesitate to discuss their failures with the students and then what they did to revise their hypothesis and so forth.......we teach critical thinking here, and that DOES include using the Scientific Method and logic as well as a good dose of common sense..........NCIS said it well the other night: "Science is poetry; it creates order out of chaos."

My 2 cents....

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

I always look for articles on learning science. It's my life now. This one is much better than any I've read from recent years. Some from 100 or so years ago are also equally sage, but no one reads them these days.

Carl Sagan clearly had linear science teachers as is evidenced in "The Demon-Haunted World" when he talks about his science classes in high school.

We're facing some serious challenges today (seems always to be true). A well-educated citizenry is necessary to solving them. Learning NOS helps to choose among confusing choices as does critical thinking. You'll find few scientists who follow demagogues.

So, our education system, the science part anyway, should have as a motto, "Be a scientist." While a simplification, I like to say, "Inquire, Explore, Discover." Clearly, that order is a broad generalization and these three items ignore much such as explaining that improves learning.

Young people enjoy creating and discovering (so do I, and I'm very much not young). Our schools should emphasize these activities and the critical nature of analyzing what we have created and discovered.

I've been working for over a decade on ways to make the opportunities for learning science from real-world investigation easier for the teacher and student as well as less expensive and faster.

Let's say you analyze a hydrate in your chemistry class. You find out first-hand that some compounds have water of crystallization. You figure out about heating them to drive off the water, hopefully not as a cookbook procedure. You come up with a molar ratio (and begin to understand stoichiometry better) and find that it's 6.87. What does that mean? You might have expected an integer. But, science isn't like that. Here's where you begin to understand NOS.

Unfortunately, you've only had time to explore one compound and one amount. If you did more analyses, you would get a number of values and would begin to understand systematic and random error.

My approach allows students to explore many more masses and many more compounds than you can in a classroom, and it's all real -- no simulations. We put 100 hydrate analyses into our system for students to explore: ten compounds with ten different masses each. What happens if you plot final vs. initial mass for one compound? What do the slope and intercept of this graph mean? It's a great way to follow up a classroom determination of one hydrate.

Harry Keller

Mark's picture
Science Teacher in MN

We owe it to our students to do science. The medium is the message. How we teach is more important than what we teach. Instant access to information frees students to "do science".

Ryan Collay's picture

Interests, questions, observations, wonderings have driven doing science and seem to form the foundation for doing "real" science. First, there's a context that matters, a reason, a need (curiosity is a need in my book)that we have to understand the why and how--its drives the reason, the methods and the meaning for doing science. The one clear need for education is an understanding for the difference between a scientific understanding and an opinion. A better way to share what's scientific and what's not. That we can all think and observe but to be science we have to have a higher standard, rigor, and that the process matters, has taken a long time to develop, and it itself is a work in progress--another issue in science education is the dogma that the process is fully established while, in truth, the process of defining what is necessary to make it science isn't always clear--and from a human interest lens, part of the fun! We can see this is the misunderstanding of evolution as an observed process and the desire to better understand the mechanisms that support this process. I really like simple examples for students-where the not apparently obvious is brought to light in a careful way--put a stick in the ground and watch the shadow over time, mark your finger nail and note the change over a couple of months, and then come up with an understanding, an explanation that supports the observation. Oh and the need to understand that some of the best "science" happens in libraries and through reading and sharing with others at conferences.

John P. Rouse's picture

I agree with Eric's comments/observations about some "experiments" which are nothing more than exercises in following directions.

Henry Halff's picture

This post makes some good points, particularly about the social aspects of science. One element that also deserves mention is knowledge. Many creative leaps that seem huge from the outside are actually quite natural because the discoverer knows her stuff. She has acquired rich networks of concepts that, as they grow, come into proximity with each other and make inspired conclusions perfectly obvious.

When I was in graduate school, where scientists are made, we spent much, maybe most of our time reading, and a good deal of our time writing and futzing around with equations. We did not go the lab until we knew what we were doing. Sometimes things did not work out in the lab. That was all right. It was only because we had well formed expectations that we could realize that something unexpected had occurred and could make something of it.

As a practicing scientist I was able to spend less time reading, because by that time I knew my field and because I became a skilled reader of scientific literature. But I still spent time writing, futzing around with equations, and exercising great thoroughness in the design of experiments.

So, my recipe for project-based learning in this non-linear world is this.

1. Find a phenomenon of scientific interest. There are oodles of them out there.

2. Find out everything you can about the phenomenon.

3. Locate or formulate one or more open issues or important questions.

4. Design and run and experiment, or better yet, a series of experiments to address the issue.

I've judged a number of science projects over the years and the best of them follow a recipe that is something like the above. And, respecting the social nature of science, they are informed by the advice of skilled scientists.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

For sure, experimentation does not proceed linearly - as pointed out. For sure, there are many failures - again as pointed out (often very important to eventual understanding). I'd add a few things to this discussion. First, I believe the scientific method is better understood if thought of as a problem solving method; that is, learning the with of a hypothesis is one type of problem to be solved. Another characteristic of such problems is that we must acknowledge the inherent uncertainty in our efforts AND that we don't know what the correct answer is - hence we must limit our expectations of outcomes to their being useful in addressing the problem at hand. Finally, these investigations will be messy for many reasons. BOTTOM LINE: there is a requirement for creativity if one seeks the best, useful understanding.

Rees Midgley's picture
Rees Midgley
Developing serious, educational games; our future depends on educ of kids

As someone who spent decades as a successful scientist, developing and receiving many grants to explore new ideas as to how something works, and now developing new ways to teach science, I could not agree more. Rather than retire, I developed a small non-profit company that is developing browser-based programs aimed at motivating youth and asking them to think deeply, read, inquire in a provided virtual library, develop ideas (hypotheses), and use discovered evidence as the basis for reasoning and problem-solving. While the resulting process requires students to read and "work" with notes, a facilitated approach eases what might otherwise be viewed as a burden. Students not only loved the program (words like "awesome"), they learned a great deal and showed a striking increase in wanting to be or work with a scientist (p<0.00001; We have also discovered that the approach engaged a subset of students who, in spite of grades of C or below and a need for free lunches, wound up doing the most work and learning the most. The results suggest that creative, innovative and motivating approaches have the potential to make a real difference in science education. This fits since science is all about creativity and innovation.

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