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Explaining the Scientific Process

ByRachel ConnollyNOVA EducationNOVA Education
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One teacher on our Facebook page asked, “Could you explain the scientific process? There seems to be tremendous difficulty for my 3rd graders to grasp it.”

So I went to Dr. William McComas, who holds the Parks Family Endowed Professorship in Science Education at the University of Arkansas. When it comes to the history and philosophy of science in science education, he literally wrote the book. At the heart of “doing science” are questions. Here is what Dr. McComas has to say about explaining and exploring the scientific process for younger students:

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Perhaps one reason why some students think that the scientific process is hard to grasp is that they believe that scientific thinking is somehow different from other kinds of normal organized thinking. Scientists are not any smarter then other folks but they do have curiosity that inspires them enough to spend time and effort to ask questions about the world.

So, scientists start to ask questions that other folks might not have been so curious about. To answer these questions scientists make observations, do experiments and review the work of others printed in books. They also take notes about what they have discovered and try to put all the information together in a way that makes sense based on the evidence. There isn’t any special order to these tasks. Science use all of these tools to try to answer the question.

Some textbooks include a six or more step process called the scientific method, but scientists don’t all use this same step-by-step technique. Some scientists start to answer the question by going to the library, some start with observations, some start with experiments, some start with hypotheses to guide their thinking and some have a much more open-ended approach. The steps in the “scientific method” are all useful and used by most scientists at least some of the time, but the scientific process is really just the careful, organized way that scientists look for information to try to answer questions. The most important thing to know is that anyone can use the scientific process to solve problems as long as they look at all the evidence and make conclusions carefully when there is enough evidence to do so.

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Core Nature of Science Ideas to Inform K-12 Science Teaching

The Tools and Products of Science

  1. Science produces, demands and relies on empirical evidence
  2. Knowledge production in science shares many common factors and shared habits of mind, norms, logical thinking and methods such as careful observation and data recording, truth­fulness in reporting, etc. The shared aspects of scientific methodology include the following:
  • Experiments are not the only route to knowledge
  • Science uses both inductive reasoning and hypothetico-deductive testing
  • Scientists make observations and produce inferences
  • there is no single step-wise scientific method by which all science is done.
  1. Laws and theories are related but distinct kinds of scientific knowledge. Hypotheses are special, but general kinds of scientific knowledge.
  2. There are two types of scientific questions. Questions of the relationship type are “laws” and question of why such relationships exist are “theory type” question.

Science and the Human Aspects of Science

  1. Science has a creative component
  2. Observations, ideas and conclusions in science are not entirely objective. This subjective (sometimes called ‘‘theory-laden”) aspect of science plays both positive and negative roles in scientific investigation
  3. Historical, cultural and social influences impact the practice and direction of science

Scientific Knowledge and its Limitations

  1. Science and technology impact each other, but they are not the same
  2. Scientific knowledge is tentative, durable and self-correcting. (This means that science cannot prove anything but scientific conclusions are valuable and long lasting because of the way in which they are developed; errors will be discovered and corrected as standard part of the scientific process)
  3. Science and its methods cannot answer all questions. In other words, there are limits on the kinds of questions that can and should be asked within a scientific framework

McComas, W. F. (2008). Proposals for Core Nature of Science Content in Popular Books on the History and Philosophy of Science: Lessons for Science Education. In Lee, Y. J. & Tan, A. L. (Eds.) Science education at the nexus of theory and practice. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

About Dr. McComas:

William F. McComas, Ph.D. is the inaugural holder of the Parks Family Endowed Professorship in Science Education at the University of Arkansas following a career as a biology teacher in suburban Philadelphia and professor at the University of Southern California. He is involved in many areas of science education research and policy development. He has served on the boards of directors of the National Science Teachers Association, the International History, Philosophy and Science Teaching Group, the Association for Science Teacher Education (ASTE) and the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT). Dr. McComas is widely published in the areas of the history and philosophy of science. He is a recipient of the Outstanding Evolution Educator award from NABT, the Ohaus award for innovations in College Science Teaching and the Outstanding Science Teacher Educator award from ASTE. He is interested in the improvement of laboratory instruction, evolution education, the interaction of the philosophy of science and science teaching, science for gifted students, and science instruction in museums and field sites.