Ask a kid what science is. I bet the answers will sound something like “explosions,” “rocks n’ stuff,” or “animals.” Generally, kids liken science to a list of topics that they have studied recently. They know that those topics are science because on the board the teacher has written something like, “Science 1–1:45.” Sometimes kids will give a more sophisticated answer, like “studying nature” or “answering questions.” When you get an answer like that you suspect the child has had a teacher who goes beyond the facts to help the students organize their knowledge into a bigger picture.
Why should teachers emphasize the nature of science? There are many reasons, but they fall generally into three categories. First, it helps students think and solve problems like scientists. If taught to use process skills, students can become better at developing investigations and answering questions. Second, students will learn how knowledge is developed in science. What types of questions can science answer? What can science not answer? When students become active citizens, this distinction can help them make better personal and public decisions. Third, when science classroom mimics what scientists do, it is more likely to have an impact and be remembered.
A famous example is the learning cycle that approximated how scientists work. We know that the learning cycle facilitates learning and retention. Yet we also know that students do not learn what they are not taught. Thus, the nature of science has to be taught explicitly—and can be done so engagingly—as the articles in this issue attest:
- In The Early Years (page 20), children explore through play with magnets to discover that ideas in science change as we learn more. That is a big idea that can lead to a view of science as dynamic and changing.
- “The Human Side of Butterflies” (page 24) brings out a number of issues in the nature of science. Students often develop ideas that science is impersonal and mechanical. In a unit on butterflies with the traditional content about butterflies and life cycles, the authors add a human dimension. Humans create science knowledge, and humans, like Henri Fabre, can be fascinating and provide a lens into the working of science.
- The human dimension in science is extended in “Scientist of the Day” (page 28). First graders see that science is something they can do—even mom and dad can help!
- When students study the history of science, they experience science as a field that changes and even has personality. “Webbing Through Science History” (page 37) combines technology with science and history in a rich integration of content with process. Students’ enthusiasm rose along with their knowledge as science came alive for them.
The nature of science doesn’t have to be a dull, dusty, academic experience. As these—and the other articles and departments in this issue show—the nature of science is human and dynamic. In the October Calendar (page 76), Barbara McClintock is featured. One only need read her biography, A Feeling for the organism: The life and work of Barbara McClintock (Keller 1993), to dispel stereotypes of not only of how science works but also who scientists are.
Let’s hear it for the nature of science!
Keller, E.F. (1993). A feeling for the organism: The life and work of Barbara McClintock. New York: W.H. Freeman.