Sunday, January 30, 2011

Science: A Search for Understanding

Science is not simply about facts and information, but it includes a way of thinking, a set of ideas, and is an ever evolving process. Science is a way of understanding and making sense of the natural world around us, and engaging in exploration. However, understanding how science is correctly taught to students is often a puzzling challenge.

First, science needs to be understood as a process, or a scientific method. Asking good questions is usually a good start to begin thinking scientifically. Making careful observations, coming up with an idea or ideas that may explain these observations (hypothesis), testing the hypothesis in an experiment, analyzing the results, and repeating the experiment to support your results is the basic process behind science. This overall scientific process of ideas and discovery is referred to as inquiry.

Second, science is also a set of ideas examined through experimentation, in which understandings of the natural world will arise. For example, a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a considerable body of evidence, such as the theory of evolution.

Finally, science is a way of thinking, in which one maintains an open mind when confronted with new evidence. Since scientists often work collaboratively, the scientific attitude includes a willingness to consider other’s ideas and a desire to find evidence to support these ideas. For example, students working together on an experiment in class and sharing and comparing observations is an example of a scientific way of thinking. Some students may need to modify their way of thinking based on new evidence brought to their attention by others.

The question remains, however, concerning how to properly teach science to students? How do we, as teachers, engage students in inquiry and scientific thought? To promote this way of critical thinking and observing in classrooms, it is necessary to understand how children learn science to become a successful and motivational science teacher. According to the psychologist, Jean Piaget, children pass through different stages of cognitive development. Knowledge is constructed, meaning it is not passively received. Instead, students are actively contributing to their knowledge base by continuously expanding upon prior knowledge and experiences. Children add and accommodate new knowledge into the previous categories and concepts they have stored in their brains.

In addition to Piaget, the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, demonstrated how social contexts influence the ideas that individuals construct as they communicate and interact socially with each other. Teaching and learning must take into account a student’s social context. New ideas are built on earlier understandings, and depending on the extent of those earlier understandings, misconceptions or confusion may arise. Therefore, factual knowledge must be placed in a conceptual framework to be well understood. Newly acquired knowledge must also be followed up with reflection on these concepts to fully make sense of these ideas. This ability to understand what you know is known as, metacognition.

Therefore, to teach science to students with success, classroom lessons need to incorporate concrete experiences and meaningful experiences. A concrete experience involves interacting with objects and materials in the student’s real world. Students use “hands-on experiences” to engage in science lessons, and develop their own ideas about the natural world. Connecting new experiences to their own lives, and visible seeing and engaging in a purpose allows students to construct new ideas. These experiences also need to be meaningful to allow students to relate the experience to their own lives, explore the scientific process, and reflect on their understanding. Students all come from various background and have different prior knowedge, therefore, we need to provide these meaningiful concrete experiences for students to accomdate information into their schemata. It is crucial for students to demonstrate what they have learned in a new context because this shows that the students have truly absorbed the information, understand the content, and can apply it to new contexts. Engaging in a search for meaning is much more crucial than simply providing worksheets to students and demanding the memorization of trite, unrelated facts.

For example, in class during the first week of school, we engaged in a hands-on lab activity to learn how to make observations, compile data, and analyze the data. This activity was very useful to see how actively engaging in the scientific process is more important than simply reading about it. We took the simple concept of density, and engaged in a higher level of learning by reflecting and interpreting what we have learned about density in a meaningful way. Activities should be both "minds on" and "hands on" to formulate connections.I will use interactive exercises and experiements like the one we did in class to teach science concepts to my students.

In addition, it is important to remember that a misconception a child might have about a concept in science, is really an alternative conception. All ideas have value, and because students come from different backgrounds and have different prior experiences, their way of thinking and way they see things may be different than others. Therefore, it is important to instill in the child that they are not wrong, but are in the process of solving the problem. For example, I can remember my alternative conception about why the sky is blue. I used to think it was because the ocean reflected its blue color in the sky, however, it is a reflection of the blue wavelength.

Using the learning cycle can aid in process of teaching for understanding in science learning. The learning cycle is comprised of: the engagement stage, where students are invited by an exciting and interesting hook, the exploration phase, where students are engaged in direct experimentation and manipulation, and explanation phase, where students analyze and interpret their observations using metacognition, the elaboration phase, where connections are made, and the evaluation phase, where teachers and students can explore what they know and have learned during the experience through various assessment techniques. To both assess what a student has learned, and help them make further connections and further his or her understandings of a concept, have the student apply what they have learned in a new context, or situation. This allows the student to apply the idea they have learned to other natural phenomena, and see the wide applications of a concept, such as density. If a student has a full understanding of a concept, they will be able to successfully extend connections to other situations.

 An important aspect of learning science is addressing misconceptions; however, although students may not bring correct ideas to a lesson, they should not be ridiculed or seen as if their ideas have no value. In science, all ideas contain value because they are part of the scientific process of inquiry and the search for understanding. Ideas in science are continuously being reexamined and refined due to new evidence or conflicting experiments. In the science classes I am taking today, such as chemistry, I am continuously refining my ideas about my physical surroundings and how molecules interact. Student’s ideas about the world around them are no different, because these ideas are part of a process that eventually can lead to a better understanding of the concept. It is important that students feel the freedom to express their ideas in a community of learners in order to see their own value and ability to be scientists. The experiences I have had with science in my elementary school years were not motivational or engaging concerning the subject of science. We were often given worksheets, and told to read textbooks and study for tests. Therefore, I showed no interest in science or any desire to engage in a higher level of thinking because my teachers showed no interest, as well. It is crucial to remember that teachers play a major role in influencing students to develop an interest in any subject, and it is their duty to provide opportunities for these concrete and meaningful experiences, and time to reflect on these experiences.

Using technology in classrooms is also an important part to furthering learning science, as well as any subject, for that matter. Technology is extremely important to me for learning in general. I continuously utilize the Internet to research new topics, explore new ideas, research subjects for school, and provide additional help for subjects I may need help in. In addition, technology can provide videos, visuals, and simulations that can bring real-world phenomena into the classroom. Interactive websites can also be utilized by students that present them with a problem and allow them to manipulate stimuli to provide solutions to help create a full understanding of a concept. Natural phenomena from all over the world that would usually be out of reach can be in your classroom with one simple click of a mouse. In a way, it truly is similar to having the world at your fingertips. Therefore, using technology in the classroom can certainly be an immense help in playing the role of teaching science to students. For example, while working on a concept such as global warming, together as a class you can research weather data showing trends over a period of time in different areas of the world. Data collected from experiments, observations, or research conducted in the classroom can be compiled into charts and graphs on computer programs to visualize and analyze trends over time. These experiments and conclusions can be compiled and presented using multimedia presentations, or even shared with other students around the world using online discussions. Technology is not just a great asset to one’s classroom, it is, in my opinion, a necessary asset.

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