Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Scientific Argumentation in Earth System Science Education

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Scientific Argumentation in Earth System Science Education

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

We investigate the merit of including deliberate instruction on argumentation and debate in an undergraduate Earth system science course. We examine sample student evaluations of arguments constructed by their peers during a classroom debate on Earth's climate system. Students participating in this exercise had, at a minimum, a baseline understanding of both global climate change and scientific argumentation. Three weeks of instruction were dedicated to global climate change and included an introduction to scientific argumentation. The objective of this exercise was to obtain a deeper understanding of how students use critical reasoning skills when assessing claims related to the global climate. Under the conditions studied, we found that while students invoked critical reasoning skills when assessing the relative strengths of opposing arguments, they often favored presentation style over content in their overall evaluation of the debate. Our finding suggests students be given ongoing practice in critically evaluating claims related to the global environment.

INTRODUCTION

The ability to pose and evaluate evidence-based arguments, to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it, and to express scientifically informed positions on socioscientific issues are important skills for citizens facing an increasing number of scientificallycomplex global change issues (NRC, 1996). Argument is an integral part of scientific practice and has been viewed as a pedagogically innovative way for engaging students in scientifically-based discussions on topics of societal importance such as global climate change (Driver et al., 2000; Geddis, 1991; Osborne et al., 2004). Nevertheless, the decision to include instruction on argument in an undergraduate Earth system science course must be weighed against the need to address a number of other topics deemed appropriate and necessary for the discipline. In Earth system science, these include, but are not limited to systems thinking, cycles and feedbacks, and any number of specific global change issues (e.g. global climate change, El Niño, etc.) (Earth System Science Overview, Bretherton et al., 1986; Johnson & KaIb, 1994; Johnson et al., 1994). In brief, teaching Earth system science entails making choices not only of content knowledge, but also on scientific approaches that provide students with the tools necessary to explore the domain on their own.

A common objective among many Earth system science instructors is to prepare their students to participate in global change discussions and social decision-making processes in a meaningful way, whether or not they have background content knowledge. While there is no substitute for content knowledge in the decision-making process, it is not possible for any one individual to be fully versed in the diverse range of global change issues currently facing society. The nature of our understanding of the dynamics of the Earth system further compounds the issue of subject matter knowledge. As educators our job is to teach students how to critically evaluate claims related to the global environment. This involves, among others, helping them distinguish between scientific knowledge and personal opinion, helping them understand what quantitative evidence can and cannot tell us and teaching them how to assess the validity of claims. It also requires a thoughtful balance between content-based and skills-based instruction. While the educational community recognizes the importance of constructing and assessing scientific arguments (Jimenez-Aleixandre, M. P. et al., 7000; Kelly & Takao, 2002; Newton et al., 1999), professors rarely find the time with their tightly-packed syllabi to include explicit instruction on argumentation. The prevailing thought may be that students' argumentation and critical reasoning skills naturally develop and mature as they learn the science and that by learning the content one becomes competent to pose and evaluate arguments on the subject. …

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