Understanding Science lessons Introducing the Understanding Science Flowchart

Author: Deb Farkas, Stan Hitomi, Judy Scotchmoor

Overview: Students begin with a simple "warm up" activity that introduces them to the process of science. The class discusses whether or not they were "doing" science. Students then read a story about the geoscientist, Walter Alvarez, and identify phrases within the story that indicate that Alvarez was doing science (alternatively, you may use a story from biology on the discovery of the structure of DNA or a story from chemistry and the atmospheric sciences on the discovery that CFCs deplete the ozone layer). Students are introduced to the Science Flowchart and are asked to plot the scientific journey of Walter Alvarez. Students find that science is seldom a linear story, but instead involves unanswered questions, surprising leaps, reinterpretation of data, and the unexpected.

Lesson concepts:

Grade span: 9-16


Time: One 90-minute class period

Grouping: Pairs and large group discussion

Teaching tips:


  1. Have students respond to the question "What is science?" by writing their response on a 3x5-inch card. Cards should then be set aside.
  2. Students participate in a warm-up activity such as Mystery tubes, Mystery boxes, or the Checks lab. At the close of the activity, students are asked: Were you doing science? Encourage discussion before proceeding.
  3. Select the appropriate version of the Walter Alvarez story (see Teaching Tips) for your students, ask students to read Asteroids and dinosaurs: Unexpected twists and an unfinished story.
  4. Discuss: Was he doing science? How do you know?
  5. Advise students: With a partner, go through and highlight all of the words or phrases that indicate Alvarez was doing science. For instance, you might begin by highlighting "looking for independent verification."
  6. Hand out the simple version of the Science Flowchart (see Teaching Tips). Explain to students that this is one way to depict the process of science. Discuss briefly their first impressions. Ask students to identify at least one thing that they highlighted in the Alvarez story that might fit in Explorations and Discovery. Repeat for Testing Ideas, Community Analysis and Feedback, and Benefits and Outcomes.
  7. Suggest that they highlighted quite a number of phrases within the story and that obviously science is quite complex. Remove the Science Flowchart from its casing to reveal the more complex version, or pass out a copy of the complex Science Flowchart to each student. Go through each section with the students.
  8. Now let's return to the Walter Alvarez story. Let's go around the room and number all of the things that you highlighted. I will start. The first thing I saw was: "looking for independent verification." Put a number 1 in the margin of your story at that point. I will also put them up on the board as you list them for me. We will go in the order that they occur in the story. Note: Continue around the room and number them on the board and on their sheets in order. The idea is to keep it in order so you might tell them that if someone missed something they highlighted, not to worry. Obviously not everyone highlighted the same things.
  9. Ask students to place each of the numbers in the correct circle. You may want to start them off. For instance, you may put #1 down in Community Analysis and Feedback. Let students know that others might interpret that differently.
  10. Once students have placed all of the numbers where they think they belong, have them connect the dots. The resulting pathway reflects the scientific journey of Walter Alvarez. Ask the students if all of the pathways were the same. Why not?
    Do you think that the pathway of all scientists would be the same? Why not?
  11. Ask students if investigations that involve more "bubbles" are better than those that involve fewer. Clarify that the flowchart represents the scientific endeavor as a whole and that an individual investigation is unlikely to involve every single activity listed on the chart. Science doesn't work by "checking off" steps. It is a flexible, dynamic process in which each next step is influenced by what has already been learned and by the individuals engaged in the investigation.
  12. If students have used the more complete version of the Alvarez story (www.understandingscience.org/lessons/pdfs/alvarez_woflow.pdf), you may want to ask them to follow this up by comparing the pathway they have charted with the path charted in this version of the story (www.understandingscience.org/lessons/pdfs/alvarez_wflow.pdf). Emphasize to students that there is no single "correct" path through science or a single "correct" way to chart a path. However, it might be illuminating for them to see how someone else has charted the same story.

Reflection: Discuss with your students how this differs from the Scientific Method that we tend to see in most textbooks.
Consider having students trace their pathways from the opening warm-up activity.

Extension (optional): Ask students to return to their original definitions of science. Would they now make any changes? Discuss.

An Understanding Science lesson
© 2010 The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, and The Regents of the University of California