Magazine article Science News

Think like a Scientist: A Class of Curious Sixth-Graders Arguing over Moist, Mucky Jars May Represent the Future of Science Education

Magazine article Science News

Think like a Scientist: A Class of Curious Sixth-Graders Arguing over Moist, Mucky Jars May Represent the Future of Science Education

Article excerpt

Fresh-faced researchers swarm around Deborah Lucas, buzzing with enthusiasm and frustration. They have gathered to appraise terrarium-style models of a local pond ecosystem that groups of two or three have painstakingly assembled in large jars. Lucas leads a discussion that includes how to determine the causes of unanticipated die-offs of plants and animals in some jars, what hypotheses to test in sustainable models, the usefulness of quantitative measures of plant growth devised by some teams, and the extent to which each model corresponds to an actual pond ecosystem.

Despite having launched ambitious projects, none of the assembled investigators will publish research papers or present posters at scientific meetings. Cut them some slack--they're sixth-graders. Deborah Lucas is their teacher.

These 11- and 12-year-olds are getting anything but a typical grade school science education. And that suits them just fine. Lucas' class vividly illustrates how research exploring links between everyday thinking and scientific reasoning is inspiring novel efforts to teach young people how to think like scientists.

From this perspective, kids don't truly grasp how science works by carrying out prefabricated science experiments that come packaged in kits, a common practice in U.S. science classes. It's certainly important to learn scientific formulas and principles by heart. But a deeper mode of learning depends on kids getting their hands dirty and their minds engaged in original research projects. General reasoning skills, such as switching one's point of view, and science-specific strategies, such as testing a hypothesis about one variable by holding other variables constant, blossom together in this atmosphere.

"Scientific reasoning skills lie on a continuum with mundane abilities, including making analogies, reasoning visually and mentally simulating an unseen process," says cognitive scientist Nancy Nersessian of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Nersessian studies how teams of scientists achieve technical advances and theoretical insights in disciplines such as engineering and neuroscience.

Make no mistake, original research isn't easy--ask any scientist. But it's not boring, either. Neither ecological disasters nor dead-end hypotheses can deter sixth-graders who have a personal stake in a science project.


Lucas, a public school teacher and education researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, collaborates with Vanderbilt psychologists Richard Lehrer and Leona Schauble. The three study ways to teach young students how to reason about science and mathematics by constructing models of real-world physical and biological systems. Lucas and her colleagues also train teachers in this approach to science education.

"When kids have a hand in inventing scientific practice, they get more knowledge out of the classroom experience," Lehrer says.

Process servers

A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report echoed that point. It called for innovative methods to teach children about the process of science, as well as its content. Current educational approaches have yielded depressingly poor scores for U.S. students on international assessments of science knowledge.

A report in the Jan. 30 Science upped the urgency of the NAS recommendation to focus on process. It found that although Chinese college freshmen knew substantially more about physics laws and principles than their U.S. peers, both groups performed poorly on a test of scientific reasoning skills.

Even rigorous science education as practiced in China gets lost in details, according to physicist Lei Bao of Ohio State University in Columbus and his colleagues. Like their U.S. counterparts, most Chinese students entering college can't generate compelling research ideas, devise appropriate experiments, evaluate evidence in light of prior hypotheses and argue collaboratively about how to revise investigations, Bao's team concluded. …

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