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Engage your students with inquiry-based lessons that help them think like scientists!
”[This] book…has made such a difference in my teaching of science this school year. I have had some of the most amazing science lessons and activities with my students and I attribute this to what I learned from…[this] book… I have watched my 5th grade students go from being casual observers in science to making some amazing observations that I even missed. We enjoy our class investigations and the students ask for more!”
--Alyce F. Surmann, Sembach Middle School
"Teachers will relate well to the author's personal stories and specific examples given in the text, especially the ones about events in his own classroom.... like having the grasshoppers escape into the classroom!"
--Andrea S. Martine, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Warrior Run School District
With Teaching the Nature of Science through Process Skills, author and science educator Randy Bell uses process skills you’ll recognize, such as inference and observation, to promote an understanding of the characteristics of science knowledge. His personal stories, taken from years of teaching, set the stage for a friendly narrative that illuminates these characteristics of scientific knowledge and provides step-by-step guidance for implementing inquiry activities that help children understand such important, yet abstract, concepts. With Randy as your guide, you can better adhere to current science education standards that urge teachers to go beyond teaching science content to teach children about the practice and the nature of science in a way that engages all learners in grades three through eight.
Chapter 1: What is Science?
Consider how you define science as a discipline. You may find that it is easier to describe than to define. Science is not simply the “study of the world,” but is an endeavor consisting of three interrelated aspects, including (a) a body of knowledge, (b) a set of methods and processes through which this knowledge is produced, and (c) a way of knowing or understanding reality.
SECTION 1: OBSERVATION, INFERENCE, AND THE NATURE OF SCIENCE
Chapter 2: Observation in Science–More Than Just Seeing Things!
Students participate in several activities designed to emphasize the critical role that observation and empirical evidence play in the development of scientific knowledge. In addition to defining observations and practicing their observation skills, students are challenged to consider how science ultimately depends on evidence to support its claims.
Chapter 3: Observation or Inference: A “Burning” Question
In this discrepant event activity, students record observations of a burning “candle,” many of which turn out to be inferences when the teacher eats the candle, revealing it to be something other than what it appears! The point of this lesson is to emphasize the role inferences play in constructing knowledge, in general, and scientific knowledge, in particular.
Chapter 4: Humor is in the Mind of the Beholder
In this activity students construct lists of observations and inferences from comic strips. In the process, they hone their skills in distinguishing observations from inferences. Additionally, they further refine their understanding of the role of observation and inference in the construction of scientific knowledge. Next, students apply their understanding of observation and inference to the development of scientific knowledge as they explore the question “How do we know…?” for a set of key science concepts and discoveries.
Chapter 5: The “Proof” is in the Cookie
Everyone likes to eat, so this activity will appeal to both elementary and middle school students. The teacher presents students with spherical “mystery cookies” and challenges them to determine what secret ingredient lies at the center of each one. Students are given “probes” (toothpicks) to explore the shape, hardness, and other physical characteristics of the cookies and of the mystery objects contained within. Later, they are permitted to eat the cookies and can add taste and texture to their observations. At no time are they allowed to “open up” the cookie to see directly what’s inside. The activity gives students excellent opportunities to practice making observations and inferences and can be used to teach that observations may be based on senses other than sight.
Chapter 6: Trailing Fossil Tracks
Students develop a story to explain patterns of fossil footprints revealed on an overhead projector. Their stories change as the teacher reveals more of the footprint-containing strata. This inquiry activity provides further practice making observations and inferences and helps students distinguish between the two process skills. The nature of science is addressed as students relate the changes they make to their inferences and the way scientists change their explanations as new data become available.
Chapter 7: Fragmented Fossil Tales
In this activity, students are challenged to reconsider “the scientific method” after they complete an inquiry activity involving pieces of fossils. In the process, they practice their observation and inference skills as they attempt to reconstruct prehistoric organisms from fossil fragments. In regard to the nature of science, the lesson focuses on the roles of creativity and background knowledge in the development of scientific knowledge. Additionally, students revisit the concept that scientific knowledge is never absolute as they consider whether they (or scientists) can ever know that the organisms they reconstruct are 100% accurate.
Chapter 8: Of Cannon Balls and Tissue Paper
This web-based, black-box activity focuses on the roles of observation and inference in the development of our understanding of the internal structure of the atom. As part of the lesson, students attempt to discern hidden shapes within a box by observing the flight pattern of projectiles that rebound off the hidden object. After completing the activity, students will discuss how observation and inference permitted them to develop a model of the internal structure of the black box, the characteristics of this model, and the way it relates to the work of scientists and the models that they develop.
Chapter 9: Laying Down the Law*
In this activity, students learn about scientific laws, in general, and the Law of Superposition, in particular. They examine books placed on a desk and are challenged to devise an inferred chronological list of when the books were read by the teacher, who placed them there one at a time after reading them. After students list the books in terms of when they were probably read, the teacher announces that earlier someone disrupted the pile, thus changing the order. This activity reinforces the idea that scientific laws are not absolute.
Chapter 10: Scientific Theories and the Mystery Tube
In this activity, students observe the behavior of strings that are pulled through holes in a tube and infer the internal arrangement of the strings that best explains their behavior. In addition to providing another engaging way to practice observing and inferring, students learn the differences between facts, hypotheses, theories, and laws by creating their own “string theory” and “law of strings.”
SECTION 2: CLASSIFICATION AND THE NATURE OF SCIENCE
Chapter 11: Patterns, Patterns, Everywhere
The activities in this chapter use engaging pattern-seeking games to help students improve their skills at recognizing patterns, while they come to see that pattern-seeking is a goal of science. Students will be challenged to consider the issue of whether patterns in nature are invented or discovered by scientists. This chapter will serve as an introduction to the process skill of classification, since recognizing and applying patterns is at the heart of classification in science.
Chapter 12: Creativity and Constellations
Students will create their own constellations from star maps and compare their creations with the patterns created by diverse peoples throughout history. They will see how cultural perspective influences the star patterns people have seen in the sky. This activity will lead to the understanding that creativity and culture, as well as our perspective in time and space, all affect the patterns we see in the sky.
Chapter 13: Classified Information
Students will use their observation skills to develop classification schemes for sets of common household objects. Next, they will discuss whether these schemes are based primarily on physical characteristics of the objects (known in taxonomy circles as “artificial” classification), or whether they reflect functional relationships between objects (known as “natural” classification). This discussion will lead to the concepts that inferences (in this case, implied relationships in a classification system) may tell us more about the classifier than the classified.
SECTION 3: INQUIRY AND THE NATURE OF SCIENCE
Chapter 14: Experiencing Experiments
In this activity, students develop deeper understandings of experiments and scientific inquiry. Not all science activities are inquiry-based, and not all inquiry is experimental, but each type has value in science. In completing the activities in this chapter, students will participate in scientific inquiry by designing and conducting a real experiment on an event that is as easy to do as it is spectacular. In so doing, they will gain a greater appreciation of the role of experimentation in science.
Chapter 15: Subjectivity and the Boiling Point of Water
Working in small groups, students are challenged to determine the boiling point of water as accurately as possible. Students will wind up producing a variety of results, typically ranging from about 95oC to 105oC. The teacher then leads a discussion challenging students to explain the wide range of boiling points, given that these results were all based on careful observational data. Finally, students are asked to consider how scientists arrive at a single accepted value for the boiling point of water, despite having to deal with similarly disparate results.
SECTION 4: INTERPRETIVE FRAMEWORKS AND THE NATURE OF SCIENCE
Chapter 16: Perception and Conception: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Students observe confusing pictures of familiar objects and read ambiguous descriptions of familiar experiences. Students can make little sense of these objects and descriptions until the teacher provides some key hints. These hints provide interpretive frameworks (paradigms) that make the identification of the images and meaning of the passages clear. Students then learn that theories play a similar role in interpreting scientific data–there is seldom a direct line from observation to scientific concept–and that theories provide the context in which much of science is done.
Chapter 17: Of Mice, Men and Scientists
In this activity, students learn that observations can be influenced by the context in which they are made. Students in separate classes are asked to observe one of two series of line drawings and then are asked to identify a final, somewhat ambiguous image that could be seen as a man or a rat. Students will find that the theme of the prior images strongly influences their perception of the final image. This effect is known among psychologists as “perceptual set” and refers to the predisposition to perceive a thing in relation to prior perceptual experiences. When broadly applied to science, students learn that scientists’ educational background, training, and prior experience can influence their observations and interpretations of the results of investigations.
Chapter 18: Science as A Way of Knowing
Students continue to explore the meaning of science by taking a closer look at what is meant by “science as a way of knowing.” Additionally, they compare science to other ways of understanding reality and the human condition. In completing the activity, students learn that we all view the world through a variety of perspectives and that each perspective contributes something unique to our perception of reality. Thus, while science has proven to be one of the most powerful ways we have of understanding the world and learning to manipulate the world for our own purposes, it is not the only lens available for making sense of reality. In fact, there are many critical questions in life that science alone cannot address.
SECTION 5: WRAPPING UP
Chapter 19: Assessing Student Understandings of the Nature of Science
This chapter describes several approaches to assessing student understandings of the nature of science, including formative, summative, informal, and formal. Traditional multiple-choice tests, open-ended questionnaires, and alternative assessments are also addressed. The chapter provides a wide variety of examples of previously developed nature of science assessments to serve as guides for developing your own assessment tools specifically tailored to the needs of your students.
Chapter 20: Conclusion
The concluding chapter summarizes what the activities described in this book teach about process skills and the nature of science and discusses a variety of strategies for addressing process skills and the nature of science throughout the school year. It concludes with two cautionary notes. The first concerns the developmental appropriateness of teaching abstract ideas to school-aged children, and the second deals with the consequences of choosing to avoid instruction about the nature of science.
An annotated bibliography of nature of science-related books, manuscripts, and websites will be provided as a resource for teachers who wish to expand on their nature of science understandings and instructional activities.