Academic journal article Science Scope

The Controversy over Pluto: Planet or Astronomic Oddball?

Academic journal article Science Scope

The Controversy over Pluto: Planet or Astronomic Oddball?

Article excerpt

Mrs. Seaver poses a question to her sixth graders: "How many planets are there in our solar system? Eight? Nine? Fourteen? More than 14?" The question seems to astound most of the students. They have just started studying the solar system and their science book from 2006 shows nine planets: four rocky, inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars); four gas outer giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune); and the farthest outer planet, and most popular of all, Pluto.

Mrs. Seaver knows her middle school students are naturally curious about our solar system and that this question is a great way to introduce the new astronomy unit. She also knows that when given the opportunity, her students will use their creativity, imagination, and prior knowledge to discuss the solar system, just as astronomers use their creativity, imagination, and prior knowledge when they explore the universe.

One way for Mrs. Seaver to tap into this natural curiosity about our solar system is to have students investigate the controversy regarding the reclassification of Pluto, as well as study scientific controversies that increase students' knowledge about space, engage them in the nature of science, and develop their analysis and argumentation skills.

According to Clary and Wandersee (2013), a scientific controversy is "a legitimate and extended argument, in which scientists marshal data and evidence to support a particular consensus on an important issue" (p. 40). There are various ways to include science controversies and argumentation in a middle level science class; however, in this article, we have adopted Clary and Wandersee's Historical Controversy Case Study (HCCS) model, in which students are provided a controversy and given opportunities to investigate it, engage in argumentation about it, and reach a conclusion based on sound evidence. Just as scientists need to convince other scientists that their evidence is reliable, high quality, and relevant (Sampson, Enderle, and Grooms 2013), it is important to include activities in class that will foster students' ability to use reliable and appropriate evidence to support their claims and conclusions. In this article, we will show how studying scientific controversies can support scientific argumentation and increased science literacy.

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Scientific argumentation as fostered by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Argumentation plays a dominant role in the CCSS for English/Language Arts (NGAC and CCSSO 2010) and the NGSS (NGSS Lead States 2013). The CCSS reading standards for literacy in science for grades 6-8 state that, by the end of middle school, students should be able to

* gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources;

* determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text and provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions;

* determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6--8 texts and topics; and

* integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a chart, diagram, model, graph, or table) (NGAC and CCSSO 2010).

Similarly, the CCSS writing standards for literacy in science for grades 6-8 state that by the end of middle school, students should be able to

* write arguments focused on discipline-specific content;

* introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically;

* support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources;

* use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence;

* provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented; and

* draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research (NGAC and CCSSO 2010). …

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