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Getting started: Tips for the teacher

The start of the school year or semester is a good time to consider the general approaches and practices you will use to communicate the nature and process of science. You may want to kick off the class with a starting activity that focuses student attention on how science works. Use the following suggestions to further orient your teaching throughout the year:

Be explicit and reflective about how your classroom activities and content relate to the nature and process of science.

  • Familiarize yourself with the Science Flowchart. Remember that not all science lessons that you teach need to include all of the components of science depicted in the flowchart, but where there is a good fit, it is important to point them out and be explicit. Also note that students may have a tendency to want to "check off" all the bubbles in the flowchart. If this is happening, be sure to emphasize that the flowchart represents the scientific endeavor as a whole and that an individual investigation is unlikely to involve every single activity on the chart.
  • Apply the Science Checklist to different situations. Be explicit about the characteristics that make investigations more or less scientific.
  • Consider having students keep a journal with personal reflections about their work. During laboratory investigations the journals can be used to help students keep track of their ideas and the evidence supporting and contradicting different ideas, but they can also be used in conjunction with other learning activities. Introduce the journals at the start of the school year.
  • Use activities in which students apply/develop scientific processes themselves (i.e., How do I do science?) and activities in which students examine the workings of science from the outside in (i.e., How do they do science?). Be explicit about the differences and similarities between the two.

Prepare for misconceptions.

  • Review common student misconceptions about the nature and process of science, as well as common misconceptions about teaching these topics. Avoid reinforcing these misconceptions and be explicit about examples that help refute them.
  • Review this article from Science Scope and use word lists to combat misconceptions about science that stem from vocabulary mix-ups.
  • Use assessments to monitor students' understandings of the nature and process of science. For example, the Science Knowledge Survey, from the Evolution and the Nature of Science Institutes, should take less than 10 minutes, can be implemented in Scantron, and will help you gain an understanding of how your students perceive and relate to science. Being aware of inaccurate preconceptions will help you develop instructional materials and strategies that help students build more accurate views of science in target areas.

Encourage student investigations that model the true process of science.

  • Instead of cookbook labs, incorporate student-designed investigations with available lab equipment.
  • Take advantage of labs and activities that "go wrong." De-emphasize the idea of the "right" answer and allow students to wrestle with ambiguity. Instead of giving the "right" answer, direct student skepticism back at methods, evidence, and interpretation.
  • Consider varying the format of labs and lab reports. Not all scientific investigations begin with a hypothesis and neither should all student labs. Some labs may be appropriately designed as more exploratory studies, perhaps resulting in hypotheses for further investigation. Also, remember to contrast the process that students use in their investigations with the way in which lab reports are typically written up. Using the standard format for lab reports without helping students understand the difference between the process of science and how findings are formally presented can encourage student misconceptions. You may want to have students write up lab results in the form of a scientific paper, but if so, be explicit about the fact that this format is for communicative purposes and likely differs from the process of their investigation.
  • The collaborative nature of science should be reinforced by including frequent group activity in the classroom. Have students present their evidence and interpretation to each other and discuss their ideas. Encourage debate and be willing to accept a temporary stalemate pending more evidence, as scientists often do.

Model the behaviors, strategies, and scientific language that you want from your students.

  • Set the tone at the start of the year that science is creative, dynamic, and fun!
  • Wherever possible, get students to ask and answer the question "how do we know this?"
  • Avoid overemphasizing the term experiment. Many scientific tests do not take the form of experiments. When discussing evidence garnered through these other sorts of scientific tests, be sure to make this explicit.

Bring real science and scientists into the classroom.

  • Use examples from the history of science. Incorporate popular accounts of scientific discoveries that emphasize the nature and process of science.
  • Take advantage of current research and breakthroughs (especially when they challenge something in your textbook) and bring this material into your classroom.
  • Look for collaborative opportunities with local research institutions that might provide structures for interactions between your students and scientists.
  • Use photos and video to emphasize that science is done in many different ways by many different people.

Reinforce the message

  • Throughout the year, re-emphasize the same ideas in multiple contexts so that students can see the general applicability of these ideas to all of science.
  • Consider creating bulletin boards that reinforce major concepts regarding how science works. For instance, a board entitled "Boy, were we wrong about …" could focus on the ideas that science is ongoing and that scientific ideas are inherently tentative. Students could post news clippings and articles regarding new scientific findings that modify, call into question, or overturn previously accepted ideas.
  • Talk to other science teachers in your department, school, or district. How do they approach teaching about the nature and process of science? Try to coordinate efforts so that students receive a consistent and reinforced message.

Implications for student learning about the nature and process of science
Sample starting activities

Teacher's lounges

K-16 Resources

Guide to Understanding Science 101

Conceptual framework

Teaching tools

Resource database

Image library

How Understanding Science is being used

Correcting misconceptions

Educational research

Alignment with science standards

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