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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:

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.

  • 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.
  • ?

    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.

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Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

Comments (18) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

I enjoyed reading this post - it raises such a fundamental question for educators - how do scientists think, and what are the implications for the classroom. Of course we can next expand the question to how do practitioners in other disciplines think - historians, mathematicians, artists, etc.

My reflections on this post led me to write a post of my own which readers may enjoy. "Watch Problem Based Learning in Action: Apollo 13"

Vickie Weiss's picture
Vickie Weiss
Multiage teacher (4th-5th) from Grand Blanc, Michigan

I loved what you had to say. Two years ago, I was a particpant in the
Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy.It was one of the best experiences I have ever had. To select "stuff" and design our own experiments to prove a particular concept was very challenging, indeed. And, when we weren't successful...we tried again. All of this time, we were writing our notes, observations and conclusions in our science journals.

That Fall, I went back to school to find out that I had inherited the SEAPUPS program. Everything is spelled to write everything on the piece of paper. What exactly has to be tested. I am so unhappy as I was eager to engage my students in the 5 E's of a good science lesson or program.

The lessons are too sophisticated for my 5th graders; unfortunately they mostly learn not to like science very much. I long for the opportunity to allow them to be creative and critical thinkers. I adored the inquiry approach that we learned in our academy work.

Toni Krasnic's picture
Toni Krasnic
I help students learn and succeed in school and life with mind maps.

Thanks for the great post Eric! Deficiencies of linear thinking are easily observed in other subjects as well, not only in science. The alternative approach, non-linear thinking, enables one to jump around ideas and explore connections between ideas in pursuit of a big picture that is personally meaningful. Non-linear thinking not only helps make sense of existing ideas by finding the missing connections between them, but also helps identify gaps in understanding, and just as importantly, triggers new connections to seemingly unrelated ideas and helps generate new ideas altogether. With non-linear thinking, one can see possibilities that totally elude the linear thinkers.

A great tool that encourages and facilitates non-linear thinking is mind mapping, a non-linear information and knowledge management tool increasingly used to replace linear notes.

Eric Brunsell's picture
Eric Brunsell
Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

It sounds like the teachers at your school are doing a fantastic job. I do think there are many science teachers that do present an authentic view of scientists. However, it isn't the norm. Misperceptions of science are just as much of a societal issue as it is an education issue.

[quote]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....[/quote]

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

I see the role of teachers as creating learning experiences that provoke student reflection. Unfortunately we don't do nearly enough of that in school. I've created some reflective prompts your readers might find useful. "A Taxonomy of Reflection: Critical Thinking For Students, Teachers, and Principals"

Dennis Pack's picture

Henry has suggested a method that I have used for years with great results. Recently someone "researched" it, and formalized it into the 5 E's ... this website explains it well:
It seems to be the first step that is lacking so much in American education ... we don't let the kids "discover". I remember a recent blog about using inquiry with younger kids. The majority of teachers said they didn't use it with younger kids because the kids didn't have enough content knowledge. Do they need it to discover? No ... they'll go get it if they discover something interesting. And then it is theirs. They've become empowered. The knowledge becomes internalized and (providing you made sure it was correct) you'll have a hard time changing it!

Rees made another important point ... the value of creativity. As Sir Ken Robinson has spoke about often, our education system kills creativity. Wonder if that could contribute to the difficulty of getting kids to study science? Bet it does. (If you don't know who Sir Ken is .... you better go to his website ( have a listen. Should be required listening for every educator.

Eric Brunsell's picture
Eric Brunsell
Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

I think both Henry and Harry provided very good instructional models in earlier comments. However, it is also important to include a "connection" phase --- After students have explored a phenomena and tried to explain it, they need to connect what they have learned to what others' (like scientists) have learned about the phenomena.

Dennis mentioned the 5E model. This instructional model is great for science (and other subjects) and was developed out of the learning cycle approaches in the 1970's. It was created by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) nearly 30 years ago. Here is a link for more information:

Patricia's picture
Elementary Gifted Science Teacher

As a Master's Student and Teacher of Elementary Gifted Science students I have found that teaching science to this population it is critical to not only teach the nature of science basic concepts but reinforce this learning through hands on science experiments related to the specific concepts. Teachers must be willing to try and let students "discover" science through their own developed science experiment knowing that some will not succeed. Classroom discussions for the failed experiments are crucial to the learning process. Students follow the scientific method, however as stated above, it is a method used to "problem solve" the question at hand. I enjoyed watching Problem based learning in action Apollo 13. Great lead into creative thinking!

Rice's picture

That is a very good question, especially nowadays when kids don't want to learn to become someone and they just dream of becoming rock super stars or marry someone of that kind. I usually try to entertain them while studying, for example create crossword with the help of crossword maker in order to add a little bit of fun to my classes.

Chaneice H.'s picture

As a student striving to become a teacher I can fully understand how viewing experiments with cookbook instructions could be annoying. While I was in school all of the hands-on activities were cookbook experiments. We were not encouraged to think like scientists or to even think creatively to find another solution. We had to perform experiments and get the same end results as everyone else in class. I wish the teaching style of inquiry was introduced to teachers while I was in school. Science class may have been more interesting and exciting.
I do think that we should challenge our students to learn by every means necessary. Students are not challenged to become a better student rather we make excuses and change our lessons to conform to the students due to them not striving to become better students. While completing my field experience hours I encourage the students to think creatively and to think about questions that have not been asked by anyone else. Great post I enjoyed reading every part of it.

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