By Emily Podlipski
Curriculum Connection: All grades and subjects.
In our schools and educational institutions across the world, many teachers treat science as a noun — a subject containing content to be learned by students. During my own high school years and into my undergraduate degree, I would have agreed with this. Science was filled with many interesting facts, pathways, and processes. Following my undergrad, I decided to pursue my Master’s degree in Science. This is where my experience changed drastically. For the first time in my life, I was in control of science — I was doing science. When I first started the program and was getting my project off the ground, my supervisor kept saying things like “we are here to do good science” — I thought, gee, that doesn’t sound grammatically correct! Gradually I learned the importance of the process of science.
The first important step in doing science is asking questions. Our students should not be afraid to ask questions. Think for a moment about the most inquisitive three year old you know. They ask questions about everything… “What is this? Who’s that? Why does this happen? How come?” We don’t necessarily need to have the answers for their countless questions, but we should cultivate their curiosity and encourage them to continue to ask questions as they grow older (although most parents could do without the question, “Are we there yet?”). At what point do our students stop asking questions? As educators, we should harness our students’ creativity and curiosity and encourage them to take a central role in the process of learning.
Another important step in the process of science is making observations. When “doing” science, making observations and interpreting results can depend on the perspective of the scientist. If observations are made through the senses, then each individual might observe something different when faced with the same event; observations, therefore, can be quite personal and can depend on previous experiences. As educators, we should design lessons so that students take an active role in their own learning. Rather than marking their observations right or wrong, and noting if they have missed some, allow them to simply be observant and take note of the things that they hear, see, smell, and feel during the experiment. After all, who are we to say if they did or didn’t experience something? When students are able to make their own observations, this stimulates discussion between them and routes them back to my first point — generating curiosity and asking questions. Student interpretation might also be somewhat different from what we expect. If we are to focus on science, the verb, then wouldn’t the process be the goal? If their interpretation — based on personal observations and questioning — brings them to a somewhat different conclusion than others, it is still good training in the process of doing science. Many scientists who have made significant discoveries have encountered incorrect interpretations or conclusions of their results along the way. This is all part of science.
One last thing that I have recognized throughout my academic career is the human urge to categorize just about everything. We categorize edible plants into fruits and vegetables; we categorize animals into various levels of taxonomy; we compartmentalize the sciences into tidy disciplines — biology, chemistry, and physics. It is important for students to recognize and identify connections between disciplines — especially in the sciences. If observations are being made in an experiment in the chemistry class that have to do with physics or biology, allow your students to make those connections. Too often, students, and even teachers, are inclined to place topics into these categories and leave the chemistry to the chemistry teacher, the physics to the physics teacher, and the biology to the biology teacher. In the “real world”, are these all not part of the same science? Even though we have compartmentalized the content into these disciplines for ease of understanding, let us not build walls between subject matter. Students should be encouraged to ask questions, make connections, and build on previous knowledge, both within the realm of science and beyond, to other areas of their lives. After all, if we treat science as a verb, students will make the decisions and take an active role in the process of learning.
A few years ago, Sir Ken Robinson presented a wonderful series of talks about the current state of our education system. He makes a compelling argument for how our education system has killed creativity; but has it also killed curiosity? In his TED talk, Sir Robinson says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.” If we want to raise our students to be curious, creative thinkers who take an active role in their own learning, we must allow them the freedom to ask questions, make personal observations, and interpret results based on their experiences. If we are to treat and teach science as a verb, we must also allow them some freedom in being wrong. After all, is the journey not more important than the destination?