Activities to Teach the Nature of Science

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

gameI 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 paperbarcodes “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.

7 Comments on “Activities to Teach the Nature of Science”

  1. Bret Benesh says:

    First, Joss, this is exactly the kind of post that I wish that I would write more. It is concrete, has very helpful ideas, and was interesting. Thanks.

    Second, here is a third game in the same spirit (although it is a bit different): Eleusis. Roughly, it is a card game where a “dealer” comes up with a pattern, and the other players try to lay down cards that keep with the pattern. The dealer says whether a player’s move is “legal” or not.

    I think that it might be less good, since the “scientific law” is created by the student; having a mysterious third party create the law (like with cereal boxes and The Game of Science) seems to mirror actual science better. But the game would still have some use, though.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Brett. I hope to be able to write more concrete+helpful+interesting posts in the future. My series of posts on things that I use in my courses (“course components”) aims to be these types of posts with some evidence that the course component in question has some sort of effectiveness in terms of learning or affect. I have a bunch in the works, but so far have only posted ones on quiz corrections assignments and how I use clickers. My main issue is that they do tend to be quite long-winded (=good + bad).

      To the topic at hand…

      Eleusis seems to have the same appeal as Zendo, a game which I have played quite a bit of. Zendo uses pyramids of different sizes and colours and you make sets of them (using number, orientation, proximity and other features in addition to colour and size) that either follow or don’t follow the master’s (= Eleusis’s god) rule. In addition to the logic aspect, the game has some nice kinesthetic and asthetic appeal.

      But my favorite aspect of the game is how it handles when a player guesses the master’s rule. If the player guesses incorrectly, the master has to make an additional set which either (A) follows the master’s rule but does not follow the player’s guessed rule, or (B) follows the player’s guessed rule but does not follow the master rule (and these two options are marked accordingly). Like Eleusis the players do hypothesis testing by having the master/god judge their sets/cards correct or incorrect when they are played, but the way that the game deals with player’s guesses resonates with me, perhaps because the master has all these little problem solving moments throughout the game where he/she has to come up with a set that meets either the (A) or (B) criteria listed above. I’m not sure what aspect of scientific inquiry this part of the game could be used to model, but I think it is a very elegant way to provide feedback.

  2. In the summer I teach cohorts of teachers who want their physics license. This year I used the game of science in the first lab and really enjoyed the conversation with it. For the second group of the summer I did something a little different. I was dying to get some exercise so I decided to invite the class to watch me and a friend play SocCourt, which is a weird combination of racquetball and soccer. After each short game I’d go out and ask if they’d figured out the rules yet.

    The cool part came afterwards when we all sat around and compared and contrasted the game of science, watching soccourt, and several other activities they had tried in their own classes to get at the nature of science with their students. I learned a ton from them about what works and what doesn’t in situations like that. It was also a lot of fun talking with them about how good the analogies to doing science were.

    One idea they shared with me was a sort of black box pulley system with various ropes hanging out. The students could pull on the exterior ropes and had to discern how they were connected inside.

    They said they liked the soccourt thing and the game of science a lot but it didn’t necessarily sound like they were sold enough on them to change what they had been doing. Interesting.

  3. Keri Smith says:

    I am a political science grad student and I have to teach a class on theory and thought that the game of science would be a great way to start out. I was just wondering is there anything besides the paper and sample materials that you have posted that I need?

  4. Very nice set of activities! You might be interested in my similar post on Nature of Science activities for the first week of class:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s