Saturday, November 22, 2008
Science is really the activity of finding out about the world.
Other disciplines have finding out as their goals. For example, mathematics finds out about numbers and mathematical relationships. Psychology finds out about the way people think. Sociology finds out about human relationships.
Science seeks the find out about the world, and the world doesn't yield readily to inquiries. If it did, anyone might have made Galileo and Newton's discoveries. For that reason, science has developed methods of making these inquiries that involve provable hypotheses and reproducible results.
Scientists employ a different way of thinking than most other people do. Of course, it's not their sole thinking tool. Like others, they use hunches, instinct, and emotion. Unlike many others, they check their thoughts against reality in specific ways. Science requires both creativity and rational thought to explore the world and make new discoveries.
Carl Sagan used the phrase "baloney detection kit" to explain what makes the scientific approach different. Scientists must infer conclusions from uncertain data. They must avoid allowing their own personal bias to influence the results while allowing their imaginations to seek out different and unexpected conclusions.
I'd like to see all science students complete each science class with a step up in their "baloney detection kit" capabilities. This understanding of the nature of science, of scientific thinking, and of the complexity and ambiguity inherent in data from the real world is an important outcome of science courses. In too many courses, it gets lost as students struggle to memorize new vocabulary words, learn new laws with their equations, and manipulate formulas.
The science lab should be the time-out period from the words, laws, and formulas. It should be the time when students confront the complexity of extracting data from the real world and finding explanations for those data. Teachers should prepare students for this experience not by telling the answer that they're expected to find, but by explaining about concepts such as inference. Give them the foundation they require, not the edifice itself.
Online courses cannot lose this aspect of science courses. Of course, many science courses handle labs poorly. That's absolutely no excuse for online science courses to use those poor lab experiences as their standard -- easily exceeded. The standard must be the best science courses.
The best science courses, as indicated in America's Lab Report, routinely have students collect their own real data from the real world, analyze those data, and discuss their conclusions with the rest of their class. They don't collect data from simulations.
Online science courses can have real experiments with interactive, personal data collection. A number of means exist for that purpose among which is the Smart Science® system's integrated instructional lab units (www.smartscience.net). There's no excuse for settling for simulations instead of real labs in online courses. Combining real virtual labs with hands-on, at-home labs works very well to provide a full science learning opportunity to students. Do not substitute fake labs and fake science for the real thing.
© 2008 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.