Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Exploring the Unknown: Fostering Critical Thinking in Earth and Space Science

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Exploring the Unknown: Fostering Critical Thinking in Earth and Space Science

Article excerpt

Ask your students a question that doesn't have a right or wrong answer, and what happens? Usually, silence. Not even your most eager pupils raise a hand. Why? Students are conditioned, especially in science, to come up with a definitive answer. Plug force and acceleration into Newton's second law, and you'll get mass. But what if you ask: "What will Earth's average temperature be in 2100?" No one equation will provide the answer.

Scientists get excited about what they don't know. They regard questions without answers as great unsolved mysteries. They look critically at data and evidence, make observations, formulate ideas, and ask new questions. Can we generate similar enthusiasm among students, encouraging them to think critically about the data and evidence and arrive at answers even when 100% certainty isn't possible?

This article describes The Concord Consortium's "HighAdventure Science" project. The project's goal is to bring frontier science into the classroom, allowing students to explore questions in Earth and space science that scientists are currently investigating. We don't expect students to solve the problems but rather to experience doing science like real scientists. What matters is the approach-based on thinking critically about evidence, making predictions, formulating explanations, and drawing and qualifying the certainty level of conclusions.

A new approach

The High-Adventure Science project offers three free on-line investigations (see "On the web") that focus on cur-rent, compelling, unanswered questions in Earth and space science and develop students' scientific reasoning and argumentation skills. The project provides tools that help students evaluate scientists' claims--and their own--while considering the level of certainty behind those claims. The investigations raise these questions:

* What will Earth's climate be in the future? (Students investigate past climate and predict future climate based on feedback mechanisms on global temperature.)

* Is there life in space? (Students learn how scientists use modern tools to locate planets around distant stars as they consider the probability of finding extraterrestrial life.)

* Will there be enough freshwater? (Students evaluate whether underground stores of water will support the world's growing human population.)

Each investigation includes interactive, computer-based models; real-world data; and a video of scientists working on the same unanswered questions. Students use the models, interpret the data, and draw conclusions-just as scientists would. The embedded tools that require students to think critically to explore evidence, make claims based on evidence, and discuss issues of certainty (i.e., the level of confidence, ranging from "not at all certain" to "very certain") make these investigations unique.

Fostering critical thinking

The online computational models and simulations cultivate critical thinking by allowing students to examine the behavior of complex systems that are otherwise difficult to understand (Feurzeig and Roberts 1999; Horwitz 1999; White and Frederiksen 1998, 2000). Students manipulate tools and models--trying different parameters, arrangements, and initial conditions--then run experiments and quickly see the results of their choices.

For example, in the five-day "Will there be enough fresh-water?" investigation, students use a dynamic computer model and real data to study the water cycle and then evaluate the supply and demand for freshwater in various areas of the world. They explore the relationships between groundwater levels, sediment permeability, rainfall, and human impact on stream levels by changing properties and interpreting the results of their experiments (Figure 1). Students learn how water flows through sediments, how rates of recharge compare to rates of withdrawal, and how to assess the sustainability of water usage locally and globally. …

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