Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Scientist-Science Educator Collaborations: Do They Improve Students' Understanding of the Nature of Science?

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Scientist-Science Educator Collaborations: Do They Improve Students' Understanding of the Nature of Science?

Article excerpt

Learning about "the nature of science" rarely appears as a topic in a typical science course syllabus. Yet understanding the nature of science has been an education goal for close to 100 years (Lederman 1992), and it remains a primary objective in the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996). The nature of science encompasses the field of epistemology, an area of study that involves how scientific knowledge is generated and the character of science itself (Lederman 1992; Lederman et al. 2002; Schwartz, Lederman, and Crawford 2004). Other science education researchers refer to the nature of science simply as the "social studies of science" (Aikenhead and Ryan 1992) or the "history and philosophy of science" (Matthews 1994).


Even when college students take one or more science courses, they often have misconceptions about how science is conducted in laboratories or field settings and how science is used in professional jobs outside purely scientific careers. At California State University-Long Beach (CSULB), we have tried to improve understandings of the nature of science in a laboratory course for prospective elementary teachers by creating a scientist -science educator partnership. Normally, a combination of five to seven part-time and full-time science educators, all with considerable K-12 teaching experience, teach the course called A Process Approach to Science (SCED 401) to about 200 students every semester. Class size is small and ranges from 14 to 32 students, with an average of 24.5 students during the four semesters when data were collected for this study.

Course description

SCED 401 is taught in a laboratory/ seminar hybrid classroom in which a divergent approach to investigations is used. It is not a science methods course focusing on pedagogy, but instead it reinforces basic scientific concepts and principles from the physical, life, and Earth sciences. Three laboratory science courses (that tend to be more "traditional") serve as prerequisites for SCED 401. Science educators model hands-on, minds-on teaching strategies in which guided inquiry (Colburn 2000), risk taking, creativity, and small-group cooperative learning provide the framework during activities. Instructors use a combination of explicit and implicit approaches during activities and class discussions to help students learn and understand the nature of science, one of the primary goals of the course.

Courses specifically designed for elementary education and non-science majors seem to be increasing in response to "reform" efforts across the country. Hohman et al. (2006) were part of a scientist- science educator development team for a course for future middle school teachers at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. Their resulting course uses inquiry-based activities and an extended investigation in an upper--division, cross-disciplinary course that sounds very similar to SCED 401. Hohman et al. promote understanding of the nature of science in their course by making explicit connections between mathematics and science. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, a team of science and education faculty recently developed four science courses for preservice elementary school teachers and other nonscience majors (Varelas et al. 2008). The first three courses integrate all science disciplines as well as discuss the sociocultural practice of science, an important aspect of the nature of science. The fourth course is a project-based seminar that is team-taught by a scientist and a science educator, in which students must apply their knowledge gained from the previous three courses in order to do an extended scientific research project.

SCED 401 follows a similar instructional model as the Hohman et al. (2006) course in that our course also has a culminating, independent research project. Unfortunately, in past semesters, instructors were disappointed to discover that by the end of the 15-week course, many students still had not grasped the nuances of experimental design and seemed not to understand how actual scientific work is conducted, how scientists make decisions, or how they engage in theoretical reasoning during the process of an investigation (concerns also echoed by Lawson 1999). …

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