The Nature and Process of Science

Like many science teachers, I start the year with a quick review of what is science and how science works.  Many of my students think they know science when they see it yet many lack a sophisticated, conceptual understanding of these topics and often mistake pseudoscience as “real” science.  This can often lead to some perceived conflict between science and faith.  In addition, since we do several projects throughout the year, being able to work through the process of science including forming writing testable questions is an essential learning goal for my science class.  Students also need to be able to identify patterns and trends in their data and observations to help them support (or not support their hypotheses).  There are several key lessons I use to help address these essential science process standards.

– Student Objectives –

Students will…

…define science.

…identify topics that are NOT science.

…describe the relationship between amount of evidence and strength of an idea.

…create testable questions/ideas that can be reliably answered with evidence and data.

So we can…

… use problem-solving and decision-making benefits from a scientific approach to life.

We will know we have it when…

… we can formulate testable questions and use the process of science to answer them.

We begin with a visit to Understanding Science, how science really works from University of California, Berkeley.  Students complete a guided reading page that begins to outline what science is and what it is not.  They record their notes and answers into their science notebook to be used later.  I also have the students create a diagram page to discuss the role technology and faith play in the process of science as well as the idea of testable questions.

Science is limited to investigations of the observable and measureable natural world.  Faith is a belief in something that is hidden from view and is not measureable.  These are like opposite ends of a line.  Technology is moving on that line as new technology makes things that were once hidden, visible.  The example I like to use is cells and infectious diseases since this is a 7th grade science standard that my 8th graders know from last year.  Prior to the invention of the microscope, cell theory and germ theory, there were many superstitions about the cause of illness.  Ideas like voodoo spells, witchcraft, punishment from a wrathful god were common explanations for disease.  We now understand that microscopic bacteria and viruses are the cause of infectious diseases.  An idea that was once based on faith or hidden explanations of the supernatural were now science explanations built on observations and data from the natural world.  I share with students my excitement about our future and new technologies like the CERN Large Hadron Collider and future NASA missions the Mars that might help us answer questions of the origin of the universe or how life started on Earth.

I share my “science checklist” to help summarize what is real-science:

  • Knowledge and process to explain the natural universe (observable and measureable)
  • Uses testable ideas and questions
  • Relies on evidence
  • Involves scientific community
  • Leads to ongoing research

We then begin practicing writing testable questions.  A good testable, scientific question is “why is the sky blue?” or “how do rocks form?”  Questions that science will never be able to answer are “why am I here?” or “is there a God?”  This leads us right into our PBL project on testing various product claims.  We diagram the differences between objective/subjective and quantitative/qualitative observations.  

Like with the “science checklist”, I provide students a “checklist for testable questions” to help them begin to investigate product claims:

  • Has variables that can be observed and measured
  • Can be answered with materials and time available
  • Cannot be completely answered by a book or internet search
  • Does not contain opinion words (like best or better)
  • Can help you understand how or why something works

These lessons and examples help students move from looking at science as something they learn to looking as science as something they do.  Science is more than just a subject.  Science is something we practice.  Science is a noun AND a verb.  We are North and we do science!


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