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Getting started: Sample starting activities

The following introductory activities can set the tone for the semester by presenting an accurate and engaging perspective on what science is really about. Some are appropriate for lecture, some for discussion, and some for labs. If you have not used the Thinking about science survey (Word document), it may be helpful to ask students to "Define" or "Describe Science" before beginning these activities. Their ideas can be written on a 3x5 card and collected to identify student perceptions about science that you hope to reinforce or change during the year. Follow with one of the activities below to introduce nature of science concepts. Umbrellaology works especially well in conjunction with eliciting students' views on the "definition" of science.

  • Mystery boxes: Uncertainty and collaboration — Students manipulate sealed "mystery" boxes and attempt to determine the inner structure of the boxes, which contain a moving ball and a fixed barrier or two. The nature and sources of uncertainty inherent in the process of problem-solving are experienced. The uncertainty of the conclusions is reduced by student collaboration.

  • How scientific is it? — Students are given six knowledge statements and asked to rank them according to how scientific they feel the statements are. A group discussion ensues. This activity is adapted from Scharmann et al. 2005.1

  • Umbrellaology — Based on a classic philosophical exercise (Somerville, 1941), students are asked to read a letter that describes detailed data collected on umbrellas. Their task is to determine whether or not umbrellaology represents science.

  • An introduction to the Understanding Science Flowchart — Prior to visiting the Understanding Science website, students participate in an introductory activity and discuss whether or not they were doing science. They then read a story about Walter Alvarez and discuss what aspects of the story reflect the process of science. They are introduced to the Science Flowchart and provided the opportunity to trace Alvarez’s scientific journey.

  • Amazon fly — This short activity quickly engages the participants in the process of developing testable hypotheses. Students come up with multiple hypotheses to explain a set of observations and figure out how to test these hypotheses. The activity is appropriate for small or large group discussion that could take place during a lecture.

  • How science works: Scientific inquiry in everyday life — In this very simple starting activity, students make observations of phenomena in their everyday lives and recognize that they can and do reason about such phenomena scientifically. A summative class discussion of this take-home activity can be used to make this point explicit.

  • Number patterns — In this activity, students are challenged to discover the relationship among six numbers. In the process, they engage in observation, collaboration, questioning, formulating explanations, developing expectations/predictions, and testing and modifying their ideas. Students are then asked to reflect on whether they were doing science.


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1 Scharmann, L.C., M.U. Smith, M.C. James, and M. Jenson. 2005. Explicit reflective nature of science instruction: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and umbrellaology. Journal of Science Teacher Education 16:27–41.

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