Activities to Teach the Nature of SciencePosted: March 10, 2011
Chad Orzel from the Uncertain Principles blog recently posted a trifecta of posts discussing scientific thinking. Among other things these posts reminded me of the persistent misconception (in the media, the population at large and even among undergraduate science majors) that scientific hypotheses and theories can be proven, and of the confusion between the common usage of the word theory (“it’s just a theory”) and the scientific use of the word. Here are a couple of activities that can be used (from higher K-12 grades straight through to undergraduates) to help your class learn about the nature of science by modeling scientific inquiry at a very easy to understand level. A conversation on twitter (with @polarisdotca) reminded me that I had intended to write a quick post on these activities since I seem to talk about them fairly often.
The Game of Science
I first encountered this at a Summer AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) workshop run by David Maloney and Mark Masters, the authors of the Physics Teacher article “Learning the Game of Formulating and Testing Hypotheses and Theories” (The Physics Teacher, Jan. 2010, Vol. 48, Issue 1, pp. 22). You give each group in your class a “list of the moves made by two novice, but reasonably intelligent players” from when they played an abstract strategy boardgame (think games like checkers or go but way simpler in this case). The group plays out the moves of the two novice players and tries to deduce the rules of the game. The students are able to generate hypotheses (propose rules) which can be disproven by data (moves which break the rules). Further sets of rules can be given to test the students theories (the sets of rules which have survived the hypothesis testing). The links between what they are doing and hypothesis testing and theories is discussed explicitly. This activity also leads to discussions of if it is possible to prove a hypothesis or theory and how a theory, once accepted by the classroom, is quite robust. If a future list of moves for a subsequent game ended up showing that one of the small rules was wrong, it wouldn’t mean that the entire set of rules was incorrect, but instead would just mean that the set of deduced rules (the theory) would need to be slightly revised. You are also able to discuss ideas like scientific consensus, with all the groups in the room agreeing on the deduced rules and confidence in theories which withstand many tests (sets of moves lists).
It is worth noting that I am an extra big sucker for the Game of Science because I am an avid boardgamer.
A preprint of the paper and sample materials for the Game of Science are available here.
Learning About Science from Cereal Boxes
The paper “Learning About Science and Spectra from Cereal Boxes” (The Physics Teacher, Oct. 2009, Vol. 47, Issue 7, pp. 450), whose authors include Bob Beichner of SCALE-UP fame, describes an activity that is very much in the same spirit as the Game of Science. They provided students with the barcodes (with UPC) for four boxes of cereal. The students then developed some hypotheses based on the UPC codes that they had. Due to the specific codes that they were supplied they were able to hypothesize that the first set of 5 numbers in the UPC represented the manufacturer. They also hypothesized that all the UPC codes started with a 0, but were able to later disprove this hypothesis when they discovered that their textbook had a UPC code which started with a 9, prompting them to revise their hypothesis to UPC codes for food start with a 0. This activity leads to the same types of discussions surrounding the process of scientific inquiry and the development of scientific knowledge that are highlighted in the above discussion of the Game of Science.
They also did further activities with matching the barcodes to the UPC codes. In the post-activity discussion several groups called the UPC/barcode the product’s thumbprint and the instructors drew a parallel to spectra being unique identifiers for elements: “a way to recognize each using nothing but a set of lines in specific patterns.” Although this activity can be used to teach about the nature of science, in the authors’ implementation it also served to set up a unit on spectra.