Incorporating the Nature of Science into the Class

by: Angeliki Grundy, M.Sc., B.Ed.

Our lives are changed so dramatically by new discoveries and technologies, it is important that anyone wishing to flourish in our society possesses the “scientific knowledge, skills and habits of mind required to thrive in the science-based word of the twenty-first century." (The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9 and 10 Science, 2008, p. 3) The new Ontario Curriculum for high school Science changes the focus from an emphasis on the acquisition of understanding of the basic concepts of science, to more emphasis on relating science to technology, society and the environment (STSE). Teachers are therefore focussing on creating a scientifically literate individual. In order to facilitate the change, the idea of the Nature of Science (NOS) needs to be incorporated into the classroom.

Unfortunately, often through science textbooks and classroom discussion, misconceptions about science are often established in the minds of students. They may come away with many erroneous ideas; for example, that science is dry and procedural, without a creative component; that scientific laws and other such ideas are absolute; that a general and universal scientific method exists. If students see science as too dry and clinical, there is a risk that they may become disengaged. In order to eliminate these myths of science, teachers must include in their lessons ways of highlighting the true nature of science, not only its virtues but also its limits.

One way that the nature of science could be incorporated into the classroom is by looking at the scientists who have made these discoveries. Often the students may simply learn the name of a scientist because a particular concept, experiment or process is linked to them (Newton's Laws or Watson-Crick model of DNA). Occasionally, there may be a brief biography, or a detailed description of a crucial experiment. By encouraging a deeper look at these scientists, teachers can add extra dimensions to the teaching of science and show:

Science is a highly creative endeavour. Only the creativity of the individual scientist leads to the discovery of laws and the invention of theories. If science were only procedural, then two individuals with the same expertise could review the same facts and reach identical conclusions. Einstein predicted the impact of massive objects on the path of light, although it was not until 1919 that his prediction was observed and thus was confirmed with evidence. Emphasizing this creative element may broaden the appeal of science for some students.

  • Science has a subjective element. An individual will bring their own personal insights and biases into every situation, and the study of science is no exception. This subjectivity can have a role in the scientific process by allowing a scientist to use previous experience and prior insights in order to make a scientific breakthrough; however, it does provide a challenge which may need to be overcome when personal bias blinds the scientist. The story of Charles Walcott and the Burgess Shale fossils is a great example of subjectivity delaying a significant scientific discovery. Stories like these can encourage students to try to take a fresh look at a previous discovery and see if they can find something new in it from their own perspective.
  • Science can have historical, cultural and social influences. Scientists are products of their times, and often the significance of their work and discoveries should be seen within the context of the society around them. Even the basic question of what research is popular or desired and what is discouraged or even prohibited is best understood by considering historical, religious, cultural and social priorities. The delay in the acceptance of the heliocentric model of the solar system can be directly correlated to the influences in society at the time of Copernicus. Even today, the debate regarding stem cell research shows the interplay between science and cultural forces and can make for interesting classroom discussion.
  • Another way to incorporate the study of the nature of science into the classroom is to look at scientific knowledge itself. Throughout their academic exposure to science, students are encouraged to associate science with experimentation. Many of these laboratory exercises, however, are more accurately labelled as verification activities or ¡°cookbook science". They are well-established protocols for obtaining a particular answer. Students therefore can receive a false impression about how science is conducted and so, along with information itself, teachers should also try to show some of the true nature of scientific knowledge:
  • There is no single universal scientific method. While students are often taught a scientific method involving a series of steps such as defining the problem, forming a hypothesis, making observations, and so forth, no research method can be applied universally. Perhaps observations may have been made, and then the scientist pondered the implications. A scientist could come up with a possible hypothesis, but leave the testing of the prediction to others. There are common features and shared habits of mind in the production of knowledge in science, but these tend to be methods used by all effective problem-solvers. Students can therefore see that they can try to find a method that works for them.
  • Absolute proof is not always possible. Science is often performed through the use of induction, where data relating to a problem is collected until a general trend, principle or law emerges. Prediction and deduction are then used to evaluate the conclusion. Induction, however, makes it impossible to guarantee that a law or theory holds true in all places and for all time. However, accumulated evidence can provide support and validation. This is especially true when dealing with vast timescales, such as in geology or biology. Teachers can show students that there is empirical evidence for every law or theory that they are taught.
  • Science and its methods cannot answer all questions. It is important for students to understand that limits exist to the questions that science can answer. These are often questions associated with morality, ethics and faith. For example, while science and technology have provided us a means for cloning mammals, only society can decide whether such cloning is moral and ethical. Various STSE topics such as the use of stem cells or use of nuclear power are excellent starting points for stretching the students' thinking outside the boundaries of science.

By broadening the horizon of students with respect to science, teachers will have a wider variety of tools available for engaging their class in the subject, while at the same time clearing away misconceptions, and revealing science with both its strengths and limitations.