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Science: Hands-On Discovery

Science is the process of discovery.  So getting hands-on is simply the best way to learn science!  All the great scientists became great by setting out to discover.  (Can you think of any that didn’t?)

There are lots of reasons why this is true:

  1.  Young people love science.  But they don’t love science from a textbook.  “It looks as though there is a pretty big mismatch between the activities that teens find most interesting when it comes to science and the way teaching happens in the classroom. Teens want to do hands-on experiments and take field trips to learn more about how the world works, but the most common teaching activities for science are class discussion and teaching straight out of the textbook. Those in charge of the survey recommend moving toward ‘inquiry-based STEM curricula.'”  (From “STEM Crisis: Teens Love Science, Just Not Their Science Classes,” by Stefanie Cox.)

    STEM Crisis: Teens Love Science, Just Not Their Science Classes.


    “Inquiry-based curricula” essentially means: let them do projects they care about.  The ‘curricula’ portion of this refers to making sure students have or develop the tools they need to be successful in finding answers to their questions.  A key learning: students don’t want to study things they don’t care about.

    The simple fact is that learning science is a process of doing.  Yes, we still need books, but it should look like the debriefing before sailing off into the sunset.  It shouldn’t take the place of actual sailing.  So why don’t we teach science while using and reinforcing the skills they’ll need to actually participate in science?

    Case in point: to carry out a science experiment, students need to be able to do the following:

    a. formulate a question (hypothesis),
    b. create a meaningful experiment (methodology),
    c. discuss the results, and
    d. draw a conclusion.

    *Add a literature review and an abstract, and you have the basics for any research paper.

    The hardest part, most scientists will tell you, is defining and describing the methods used.  The reason is simple: because you have to actually create an experiment that is both meaningful and scientifically accurate.  The process requires using skills: what information will matter here?  How can I test it?  How can I be sure the test is accurate?  Does what I tested actually mean what I thought it would?

    Finally, the simple truth is this: people always learn more when they care about what they are learning.

    2.  Technology has created the opportunity to do real science as soon as a kid can interact with a device.

“Citizen science enables thousands of scientists—or nonqualified individuals who are often globally dispersed—to participate in the gathering of information and knowledge on a range of scales: Galaxy Zoo ( classifies galaxies, Qcumber ( allows international users to upload sites of environmental hazards, Project FeederWatch ( counts birds in North America, and the California Roadkill Observation System ( reports animals killed by vehicles. These programs enable data sampling on a scale finer than could be achieved by any other means.”  

(From “Citizen Science Is Stimulating a Wealth of Innovative Projects,” by Steven Bishop, Scientific American, Oct. 2014.)

It is not enough to simply look at maps, identify elements, and see what the air pressure in Boise, Idaho was on a given day.  Zeroing in on the key point, while we gather single points of data, a scientific story is no more a single piece of data than music is a single note on a page.  Science is a living process, and the single best way to learn it is to experience it in a living manner.

Advances in technology allow us to take part in and understand science, but technology also now provides students (and citizen scientists) with tools to access, gather, and analyze data that was out of reach in the 20th century.  Now we have measurement tools that measure, store, and present all kinds of data: we can place instruments that measure conditions in the Sierra Nevada, which provides about a third of California’s water supply, report what is happening there every day, and organize it so it can be understood.  A classroom in Oakland can directly study its own water supply for less than $100.

3.  We know that students learn best by doing something they care about, so the next natural step is for learners to become not just participants in citizen science, but designers of science.

It’s pretty simple when you think about it, because of the tools a scientist needs: thinking; questioning; creating a meaningful, testable hypothesis; gathering data; and analyzing the results.  All those tools are built by getting out and asking the student to figure out what is important, and what to ignore.  Asking students to cope with ambiguity is what builds science process skills.

There are many ways to become a designer of science, but one of the best is to be able to design and carry out your own experiments.  In truth, that is education: to empower students to solve problems, acquire knowledge, and become self-correcting.  The sooner we get students asking real questions, gathering real data, and solving real problems, the sooner science stops being a textbook and starts becoming an adventure.

The definition of “good education” is slippery and very difficult to pin down, but a short working from the recent book by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, A New Culture of Learning: “a desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.”



Candace • July 26, 2016

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