Linking Research and Practice in Science Teaching

For many years I was fortunate to conduct seminars for the Bureau of Research in Education (BER), an organization that provides staff development and training resources for educators in North America.  One of the principles that provided the framework for the seminars that I did, and others that the BER offers is the link between research and practice.  That is to say, the seminars needed to show how current research in science education could be used to improve science teaching and student learning.  The seminars needed to be practical, but they also needed to be based on research.

I learned that science teachers were eager to not only be introduced to active learning science activities, but also were open to exploring the research forming the foundation for these activities.  The seminars were based on an adult active learning model, and an inquiry and humanistic approach to science teaching and learning.

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST), the official journal of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST), Dr. Julie A. Luft, of Arizona State University, Tempe, introduced the first virtual issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching which included nine articles focused on the thematic focus of scientific inquiry.  As Dr. Luft indicated, this an effort by two communities (science education researchers and science teachers) to bridge the research and practice gap.  The two communities she is writing about include the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST).  One important point that is made in her introductory article is that a recent research study conducted by NSTA indicated clearly that science teachers wanted to explore with their colleagues emerging issues in science education, and to participate in science education research.

That said, the issue is important, especially since we are beginning a new school year, and this is the time that courses begin, and attitudes about science learning begin to develop.  The issue explores a variety of topics related to inquiry in the science teaching.  Here is a list of the articles in the virtual journal:

  1. Embracing the essence of inquiry: New roles for science teachers Barbara A. Crawford
  2. Progressive inquiry in a computer-supported biology class Kai Hakkarainen
  3. Folk theories of inquiry: How preservice teachers reproduce the discourse and practices of an atheoretical scientific method Mark Windschitl
  4. Developing students’ ability to ask more and better questions resulting from inquiry-type chemistry laboratories Avi Hofstein, Oshrit Navon, Mira Kipnis, Rachel Mamlok-Naaman
  5. Characteristics of professional development that effect change in secondary science teachers’ classroom practices Bobby Jeanpierre, Karen Oberhauser, Carol Freeman
  6. Science inquiry and student diversity: Enhanced abilities and continuing difficulties after an instructional intervention Okhee Lee, Cory Buxton, Scott Lewis, Kathryn LeRoy
  7. Inscriptional practices in two inquiry-based classrooms: A case study of seventh graders’ use of data tables and graphs Hsin-Kai Wu, Joseph S. Krajcik
  8. Exploring teachers’ informal formative assessment practices and students’ understanding in the context of scientific inquiry Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo, Erin Marie Furtak
  9. The development of dynamic inquiry performances within an open inquiry setting: A comparison to guided inquiry setting Irit Sadeh, Michal Zion
Luft, J. (2010). Building a bridge between research and practice Journal of Research in Science Teaching DOI: 10.1002/tea.20392

Science Literacy in Letters to the Editor

There has recently been a flurry of letters to editor in the Marietta Daily Journal (Georgia) that were promted by a editorial two weeks ago by a Rev. Price concerning intelligent design. There has also been another subset of letters prompted by a Jeffrey Selman who has for years challenged Cobb County officials (schools and government) on First Amendment issues. For instance, he organized a legal fight against the school district which had authorized placing “evolution is only a theory” stickers on all middle and high school life science and biology texts. The district was ordered by a Federal Judge to remove the stickers, which they did. Writers to the paper have made their arguments using personal reasons, as well as making claims about various concepts in science, and other topics.

For example, a writer today, who claimed that “Selman is not as tolerant as he thinks he is,” expressed his anger about Selman’s views on several topics. In fact the writer stated: “…And then Mr. Selman’s friend, Dr. Benjamin Freeed, has the nerve to insinuate that parents who don’t agree with him and Mr. Selman are not good parents, his belief being that they are ignorant.”

In the same writer’s letter, I also found a couple of interesting references to science. I am not trying to claim that this writer is ignorant, but his statements shed some light on level of science literacy that exists in our culture. Here are the two points he made that I think are revealing:

1. “Of course, there are many scientists who believe that evolution is a fact, even though no one was there at the time to verify, it cannot be duplicated scientifically and no one has ever seen one kind of animal evolve into another kind. There are also many scientists who believe otherwise.”

2. “If he (Selman) will check carefully, the sticker that he was successful in getting yanked out of the textbooks only stated the truth: Evolution is a theory that cannot now, nor can it ever, be tested scientifically, just a no other theory of the beginnings of the world can be tested scientifically.”

I think the writer has hit the nail on the head about what and how we can know in science. Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University says this about this issue:

“Science, the argument goes, is based on experiment and direct, testable observation. Therefore, science can address only phenomena that are brought into the laboratory and examined under controlled condtions…but this argument would deny scientific inquiry to any situation that does not lend itself to laboratory science. The natural history of the earth is just a situation. Since there were no human witnesses to the earth’s past, the argument goes, all statements about the past, including evolution, are pure speculation.”

Then he raises the question, “Is scientific inquiry restricted to what we can actually bring into the laboratory and see happening right in front of us? Is there really any scientific way that we can know anything about the past at all?”

And of course, as he shows in his book, the answer is yes. Let me explore a few examples.

1. Here is one example from the news of a week ago.A few days ago, NASA scientists announced new results from the WMAP Mission (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe). WMAP has produced a new, more detailed picture of the infant universe (shown below).

This new information helps to pinpoint when the first stars formed and provides new clues about events that transpired in the first trillionth of a second of the universe. Here is a beautiful example of using scientific methodology to probe into the past, and answer questions about about what was the universe like at the moment after the Big Bang.

2. Another example the geological time scale, which has over time gone through many revisions, and improvements detailing events (geological and biological) in the earth’s history. You can view some graphical geological timelines to get an idea of how geologists have divided geological time into EONs, ERAs and PERIODs.

3. A third example, closely related to the geological time scale, is the fossil record (paleontology), which is a record of the histoy of life on the earth.

All three of these examples are part of K-12 science curriculum. Students in an earth science class or a physics course would find out about the Big Bang Theory, Students in earth science (elementary and middle school) would create geological time scales in their course, and geology, earth science and biology classes would help students learn about the fossil record. In all of these cases, students would learn something about the nature of science, and how we can know about what the universe was like in the past, and the history of the earth. Apparently, these lessons were lost on the writer to the Marietta Daily Journal.