Ideas for the first week of class: Teaching the nature of science (and evolution)

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 8, 2011

At the start of the school year, a lot of science classes start by trying to answer — what is science?  What is this endeavor and what makes it special?  One way to do that is by the dull-and-deadening pedantic introduction to the scientific method, emphasizing the formation of hypotheses and testing of those hypotheses using observations and data.

There are two problems with this.  The first is that that’s really not how science works (I mean, who actually formulates a hypothesis in the lab?)  Here’s a nice article about the myth of the scientific method that discusses this issue.  Science, rather, is an iterative process between curiosity and experiment and possible mechanism and more experiment),using a variety of methods.

The second problem with using the scientific method to get students interested in science is that it’s not a great way to actually get kids enthralled with science.  How about, instead, introducing science as a way to understand the world — i.e., the “nature of science”?   Or, even better, starting out with examples of bad science and talking about why they’re bad.

Below are a variety of activities to teach the nature of science, as well as evolution.   They’re twixt and twain the same thing, after all — many anti-evolution claims are based on a poor understanding (or outright attack) of the scientific method.

I really like Doug Duncan’s set of activities on Teaching the Nature of Science using Pseudoscience.  These are developed for an intro college level astro or physics course, and includes a set of activities that can be woven throughout the curriculum, to help support students’ developing understanding of what science is and how it develops our understanding of the world.  I used this in my non-majors course this summer, and it was a little depressing how difficult it was for students to identify just what a valid test of ESP would be.

I’ve heard one person suggest the astronomy book currently being written by Joe Haefner.  See his downloads page for PDFs of several activities on teaching the nature of science, including some presentations he’s done.  Apparently astronomy professors tend to develop these kinds of curricular materials more than physics professors — they teach this topic more often.  Why’s that?

You can find some more helpful resources about what science is (and isn’t) at the skeptic’s reading room.

For various topic model courses, you might want to try SENCER. They have topics such as Science, Society, & Global Catastrophes; Energy and the Environment; and Global Warming.

The new Understanding Science website has a lot of information for the public on the nature of science, as well as teaching activities for teachers of different levels to help students understand the nature of science.

Also, ENSI (Evolution and Nature of Science institutes) have several papers and resources on teaching the nature of science (also downloadable as a PDF on that page).

The New York Academy of Sciences organized a symposium on teaching evolution and the nature of science. Check the website for readings, videos etc, you may found something useful for your course.

The National Science Digital Library has put together a nice compendium of digital resources for teaching evolution — the list includes a role-playing game, evidence for evolution, lesson plans, and misconceptions and how to address them.  Very nice!

For non-science people the book “The Five Biggest Ideas in Science” by Charles M. Wynn and Arthur W. Wiggins seems to work well. An instructor’s colleague used it and the students enjoyed it.

Why is Science Important?
It features a variety of scientists answering the question. Kind of a scientists’ “This I believe.”

What’s the Harm?
Skeptics are often waved off with this question. Why does it matter if people don’t understand what science is about?  Badmouth astrology, homeopathy, etc., by citing their lack of evidence, and adherents and sympathizers will say, “Well, what’s the harm? Belief X doesn’t hurt anybody!” Turns out, it actually does. This website provides the often-sad details.

National Academies Press puts out three books which are reported to be useful.  You can read them for free online, or buy them:

Other ideas?  Post them!




Andy Rundquist August 8, 2011 at 11:41 am

I’ve had some success using the “Game of Science” activity ( Students are given the results of a fictional board game and are asked to determine the rules. Last summer I did this activity with in-service science teachers and then we discussed the value of it. Most felt it was pretty useful and they had some other similar ideas (a ‘black box’ with unknown connections inside and ropes coming out etc).

Carrie Fitzgerald August 9, 2011 at 8:59 am

Thank you for this great post and all the ideas. I will be trying out some of Doug Duncan’s activities next semester in my astronomy class. 🙂 Nice to see some pseudoscience / nature of science activities that really involve the students. I imagine that just lecturing on the evils of pseudoscience could sound patronizing to students. The active engagement is definitely the way to go here. Thanks again.

Dr. Jatila van der Veen January 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Another great resource for taking a look at the nature of science from the view of a scientist is to read Einstein’s 1936 article Physics and Reality which, in spite of its dated language, is really what doing physics is all about. It is the article from which comes his famous saying, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” The article is available in the paperback of Einstein’s essays,
Ideas and Opinions, published by Three Rivers Press, and also from the magazine Deadalus, Fall 2005, American Academy of Arts & Sciences, available from JSTOR.

Adam West December 9, 2012 at 4:44 am

I’m creating a unit plan for my internship and first week of full time teaching, so this was a helpful inspiration!

“Apparently astronomy professors tend to develop these kinds of curricular materials more than physics professors — they teach this topic more often. Why’s that?”

Probably because astronomy has more to do with perspective. Physics can easily be viewed as another math class, but when teaching astronomy, the teacher has to be able to show the students how to look at the sky (e.g. movement of the earth vs. movement of the visible sky). The history of astronomy is filled with opposition relative to human conceptualization and acceptance.

On that note, it seems appropriate that all (at least most) lessons should include a historical context.

The charm of the heavens has inspired humans since the dawn of time to question their place in what they know as existence.

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