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1 Building a better way of Understanding Science on Sat Sep 11, 2010 9:19 am

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By John Timmer | Last updated March 19, 2009 7:15 PM
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Anyone who has gone through the US public school system has undoubtedly been exposed to the textbook version of science as a linear process that takes researchers straight from a hypothesis through gathering data and on to reaching conclusions. Anyone who has actually taken part in science, however, knows that this presentation bears almost no resemblance to reality, where science is a community endeavor, anything but linear, and, as a result, much more exciting. A newly developed website called Understanding Science is intended to capture a bit of that excitement and, in doing so, change how the US public learns science.

Judy Scotchmoor of UC Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology described the site in a talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, and Ars talked separately to MIT's Natalie Kuldell, one of the people involved in its design. Scotchmoor said the effort grew out of Berkeley's excellent Understanding Evolution site. When doing some audience testing of that site, she said that it became clear that the public's issues went way beyond the primary topic. "It wasn't an evolution problem," she said, "it was a science problem." With that in mind, she obtained money from the National Science Foundation to tackle this problem.
Giving science a facelift



Scotchmoor showed the evolution of how science is typically presented. Back in 1986, it was introduced as a five-step program: identify the problem, gather information, form a hypothesis, test it, and reach conclusions. (I can personally confirm that this presentation significantly predates 1986.) As she moved to more recent textbooks, this definition picked up color and pictures, but remained essentially unchanged. Unfortunately, it's nearly unrelated to science as it is practiced. The centerpiece of Understanding Science is a new diagram of the scientific process that emphasizes its non-linearity and dynamic, iterative nature. [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
The Scientific Process (click for a larger version)



The Exploration and Discovery section emphasizes that research topics don't simply drop out of the sky. Luck, new instrumentation, and unexpected results all play a role, as does personal motivation—lots of scientists are in their current field because of the equivalent of "I think dinosaurs are neat." Once motivated, the process of getting to the point where you can actually test ideas involves everything from initial observations to talking to other people in the field. It's anything but a dry "gather information" bullet point and Understanding Science brings that out.
Testing ideas remains central to the new presentation, but it's no longer a one-pass, thumbs up or down on a hypothesis. Instead, the data need to be interpreted, and researchers are often forced to go back and either revise their hypothesis, or the assumptions on which the hypothesis is based. No matter what happens, the arrows in the diagram make it clear that this isn't a one-shot deal, as multiple rounds of testing and revision are needed to refine ideas.
The traditional presentation of science might lead students to believe that it is a solitary activity, conducted by researchers acting in isolation. But it's not simply enough to convince yourself; to achieve anything significant in science, you have to build a consensus and convince your field (see: Mendel, Gregor for an example of what happens when you don't). Kuldell emphasized the importance of ensuring that Understanding Science captures this social aspect, and it does, noting that everything from discussions with the guy down the hall to the peer review of grants and publications play critical roles in developing scientific ideas, and that the community feeds back into all parts of the process.
Finally, Understanding Science recognizes that the process doesn't simply end with a body of knowledge. Instead, scientific results help foster new technology, solve societal problems, and inform public policy. These factors also feed back into the basics of the scientific process—researchers are as likely to be motivated by the thought that they can develop a treatment for a disease as they are by the fact that dinosaurs are neat.
Integrating the improvements into education


This new presentation of science was a joint effort of everyone from high school teachers to philosophers of science, as well as a few practicing scientists, so it shouldn't be a surprise that it gets so much right about the scientific process. But, as the example of Mendel shows, it's one thing to be right, and another thing entirely to be useful. Fortunately, the site is about far more than simply the scientific process, as a quick trip through some of the additional material there should make clear.
There are sections about various aspects of science—why science matters, what constitutes scientific evidence, science as a human endeavor, etc.—and each of these are interlinked. For example, the What is Science page links to both a page on Misconceptions about Science and a checklist that helps students identify whether a process is scientific or not. The interconnections among these topics are intended to help reinforce the basic aspects of science, as a one-off mention may not really bring home how important many of these things are.
Also available on most pages are links to teaching material relevant to that topic. These include lesson plans targeted at different grade levels, as well as advice on how to integrate the material within a larger course. All of the graphics and PDFs are provided with a license that allows their noncommercial use, so teachers can grab pretty much anything on the site. [You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
The path taken during the development of the impact/extinction theory demonstrates the iterative and nonlinear nature of science




My favorite aspect, though, is its description of some major scientific discoveries, all of which also link back to teaching material and on-site resources. Its section on the discovery of the structure of DNA makes it clear that this was truly a community effort. It also doesn't shy away from noting that some parts of the community were dragged into the process through behavior that's widely seen as unethical. Its section on how the father-son team of Alvarezes developed the impact theory for the dinosaur extinction is truly excellent, and ends with an animation showing their path through the scientific process diagram that's central to the site. As Scotchmoor put it, "it's messy, it's complicated, but that's science."
MIT's Kuldell argued that it's the messiness that makes science compelling. "If you presented it in its truthful form, it's so fun and so exciting, and yet it's presented in this simplified, stripped down version," she said, "It's not that it's out and out wrong, it just doesn't adequately reflect what's really exciting about it. I do have to believe that if you teach people how fun science is, you will get more people interested in science. Kids love science and at some point they stop liking it and I think it's because they are told there's a right answer, and they either get it or they don't. They lose the query, the 'I wonder what would happen if.' And that's a pity."
The last part of being useful, however, is making sure people know this resource is out there. Scotchmoor ended her talk at AAAS by saying that, although the NSF funded putting the site together, that money did not include any way of informing the wider educational community. Which is where her talk at AAAS, which led to this article, may come in. If you find the content at Understanding Science compelling, then it would be great to make any educators you know aware of its presence.]

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