Science = Curiosity + Skepticism

Okay, so there is more to science than just curiosity & skepticism- but if my young students leave my class with that understanding, I'd be a happy human.

I've been grappling for awhile now with how to introduce my 14-15 year old freshmen to what it means to be a scientist. Science is too often presented in our schools as static: Here are the facts; this is the way the world works.

Our state standards push us towards teaching science as sets of information. Even the "inquiry" standards provide a fairly rigid framework for what it means to "do" science1. This is a gross misrepresentation of what it's actually like to be a scientist2.

In all reality, the official science schooling students receive is 12-16 years of scientific background knowledge that they might be able to use later. Background knowledge is important. It forms the framework for new investigations and observations. However, I've heard several research scientists note the hardest thing for them once they started their own investigations was switching from focusing on that which is known to that which isn't. Interesting and exciting scientific research happens on the border between the known and the unknown3.

I can remember a couple events from my childhood that helped foster my current insatiable curiosity for the world around me:

  • Cross-country skiing. There were literally miles of open fields behind my childhood home. I would go out skiing for several hours- out to the creek, the river, the field of tall grasses, and small forested areas- often causing my mother to worry I'd fallen into the river or been picked up by the police for trespassing. I can remember following animal tracks, sitting still listening to the snow-muffled sounds surrounding a small creek, and the shock when I encountered others out in what I considered "my wilderness." Above all, I learned how to observe.
  • Playing with fire. I was a first class pyro back in the day4. When I found some rare time alone at home I often took to burning things in the garage or shed. I was fascinated by how different materials burn in often weird and amazing ways. Did you know burning plastic drips from a milk jug make an amazing whistling sound as they fall? Or that a burning charcoal briquette is nearly impossible to stomp out? Amazingly, I never burned myself or cause serious property damage in my investigations. Looking back, I can see that what I was doing were essentially scientific investigations. They'd start with, "I wonder..." and conclude with an experiment (or quickly trying to hide what I'd been doing as my parent's car pulled in the driveway. "Smoke? I don't smell smoke!").

Michael Doyle does an amazing job on his blog communicating what's important in science education: "A few children chasing butterflies, mucking in the pond mud, and otherwise doing their best to confound our educational system." I'm giving a more investigative learning environment a go this semester. I'm not saying we equip every freshman with skis or hand them each of box of matches, but we need to do more than simply get through the standards. I was lucky to have a supportive home environment for exploration and learning (other than playing with fire, that wasn't supported much). Not all students have those opportunities at home. We can't expect a schooling system where students have to learn to be curious and investigative outside of school to be successful. We need to build it into the system.

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Image credit: Myself. That's Mom & Dad skiing in the Huron National Forest near East Tawas, MI

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  1. i.e. CS 9.0 INQ3: Formulate a testable hypothesis and demonstrate logical connections between the scientific concepts guiding the hypothesis and the design of the experiment.     (back)
  2. If you are a scientist, I'd love to hear your agreement or disagreement with this statement.     (back)
  3. I can't remember exactly where I heard these platitudes from research scientists, though I'm pretty sure it was a podcast: most likely Science Friday, Quirks and Quarks, or RadioLab. They're all good. Check them out.     (back)
  4. Sorry, Mom. Not that you didn't know about this already. I never did burn down the shed.     (back)