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.


Summary of talk: 6 Things Scientists Can Learn From Science Journalists

“Never Say Diagonal of the Covariance Matrix: 6 Things Scientists Can Learn From Science Journalists” is a an excellent one-hour thirty-five minute talk given by Maggie Koerth-Baker (science editor for Boing Boing). As I mentioned in my most recent Weekly I took some notes that I am happy to share because not everybody will make the time to sit down and watch this talk.

Please note that these are the notes that I took as I watched (and paused) the talk and they are meant to summarize her talk as best as I could. Things in quotes were copied down verbatim and everything else is some delightful combination of what she said and what I thought she meant. If I missed any important points or misrepresented any of her points, please let me know, I am more than happy to fix my mistakes.

The main points where a reference to “you” refers to the scientist being interviewed by a journalist or otherwise trying to communicate with the public about science:

1. “Show, don’t tell.”

  • Turn it into a story.
  • Anecdotes aren’t data, but they do make data memorable.
  • Give the journalist good analogies because your analogies are going to be far more accurate than ones that the journalist would make up.
  • Use show don’t tell with the general public to counteract the pseudoscientists who are already doing this to connect memory and emotion.

2. “Don’t just talk…ask.”

  • Three questions scientists should always ask journalists:
    • “Can I see the story before you print it?”
    • “Can you send me questions ahead of time?”
    • This is actually three questions meant to probe how technical you should be and tips you off to mistakes that the journalist might make. These questions are (3a) “What got you interested in my work?”, (3b) “What have you read so far”, and (3c) “Who else have you spoken with?”
  • You should also talk to the general public and ask them questions. Good places to do this are to blog about science, and to have more interactions between scientists and the general public at public presentations (instead of scientists on one side of the room and lay people on the other side after the talk).

3. Lay people know more (and less) than you think.

  • Scientists will learn that lay people know more than you think and are each an expert in their own thing, which sometimes can end up complimenting your research.
  • Scientists will also learn that lay people know less than you think with what you consider “elementary concepts” never having been covered in typical schooling. She stresses the importance of communicating ideas like what exactly does peer review mean or the scientific definition of a theory every time you are communicating with the public about science instead of just when discussing publicly controversial contexts such as climate change and vaccination. Otherwise the public will “think that those basic scientific ideas are just about ass-covering,” (very well-put in my opinion).

4. Not everything is news.

  • Not every discovery or every paper needs to end up in the newspaper because what is important to you and what is important to the general public are not necessarily the same. People want to know about really important discoveries, but don’t need to know every tiny thing that happens.
  • What can you do to write about your research if you don’t have something that is “news”?  You can make it “evergreen”, which means make it timeless and not tied to any specific event and you need to “find an angle”, which is connecting a simple fact to a bigger picture .
  • No matter what your field, there are topics of interest to the general public.
  • Fantastic line: “Science is bigger than single discoveries and if we can make people understand that they are going to trust scientists a lot more and are going to be a lot more interested in science.”

5. Nobody is critical enough of their own work.

  • Hey, this is why peer review exists. She gives an example of being overenthusiastic about your own work in a press release. She also talks about how poorly understood the time-frame is for a discovery to make it from basic science to the public sector (and often they never make it to the public sector).
  • She suggests to attend public talks given by people outside your field and to apply the questions that you might ask and the skepticism that you might have to your own research to help filter what you communicate to the public.
  • “Don’t just pontificate, curate” – don’t just talk about your own work, talk about how the cool work of others (including those not at your institution) is related to your work. This will help build your credibility and help people better understand how your work fits into the bigger picture.
  • You can contribute to making science journalism better by being the first one to critique yourself when talking to a journalist: anticipate the response of other scientists and respond to those potential critiques. She reminds us that in the current economic climate that many journalists writing about science are not science journalists and have no scientific background at all and they don’t have the background to know that they should be looking for other scientists in that field to question or comment on that paper

6. Mistakes are lasting, but pedantry kills.

  • It’s ok to dumb it down
    • “Sacrificing storytelling and understandability for extreme accuracy is often just as bad as sacrificing accuracy for the sake of storytelling.”
    • “If you are not writing about your science to the general public at a 6th grade reading level, you are probably doing something wrong and not enough people are understanding what you are talking about.”
  • It helps us to use more understandable analogies. Sacrifice some of the nuances to make it more understandable. If you are being too pedantic, you are going to miss out on opportunities to get people excited and get them to want to find out more.

Her summary: know your audience, know your message and make sure to match those up so that people understand what you are saying.

Other notes

  • Early on she mentions book “The Matchbox that ate the a Forty-Ton Truck” which is a Physics for lay people book by Marcus Chown. I had not previously heard of this book, but am always on the lookout for this type of book.