What is Science?

Mountain Connection, September 12, 2022

By Jed Donnel, Upper School English Faculty

Last week, Gina’s 9th graders embarked on a two-fold process of discovery based within the continual association of two questions: ‘what is science?’, and ‘what is Science class?’ For the first, they are coming to terms with the scientific process, which helps to explain the methods by which the discipline continuously strives to solve the riddles of the universe (no small task). For the second, they are experiencing and experimenting with all the normal nervous and quirky wonderings of the first weeks of 9th grade, including how to make sense of the specific idiosyncrasies of their different teachers. To assist them in both capacities, Gina has merged the two processes by using the class, itself, as an analogue for the scientific process. Very ‘meta’. What does that mean? Well, the scientific process rests on the following modes: question, research, formulate hypothesis, experiment, and publish. By thinking about and articulating how those same steps apply to Science class, too, the students are bringing tangible, relatable steps regarding themselves to the abstract idea of imagining scientists in the field. For instance, last Friday’s class began with a ‘low stakes quiz’ in reaction to a reading on the scientific process, and Gina made clear that the results would formulate a round of data collection (students’ results in comprehending the reading) that would help her to modify her own experiments (lesson plans). The four questions were based in comprehension of the reading assignment, and then students added a self-evaluation by applying a short key per answer: star for “I certainly knew that”, and ? for “maybe I knew; not sure.” The results, therefore, became two different sets of data – what students actually knew and what they thought they knew – and each can now be measured and cross referenced to assess how well they prepared. Moreover, the students had been pre-assigned to two different control groups: both read the same assignment, but one was merely given the reading, whereas the other was also given time to write, reflect, and ask clarifying questions within a discussion prior to the quiz. Therefore, the different data sets for each group also provide evidence for which study methods resulted in higher comprehension.

Gina followed the quiz with a series of metacognitive steps by which students expressed the differences they had experienced in process and outcome. They discussed answers to prompts such as, “Let’s talk about what we just did” and completed memory-enhancement practices such as ‘brain dump’ and ‘kinesthetic association’ that Gina had picked up as experimental practices from her faculty summer reading. Together – teacher and students — are all figuring out the modes that work best for them as a group and contemplating how such processes apply to, and speak about, the time-honored methods of collecting and assessing scientific data in the field. As a logical extension, therefore, they culminated the class period by heading into the field to collect their own data. One of our new Teaching Residents, Hannah (herself experimenting with the various processes of teaching), took over in dividing the students into four groups around the pond to investigate distinct plant life: cat tail, aspen, willow, and lupin. Hannah likewise provided questions by which the students focused their empirical data. She asked, “What specific characteristics do you notice about your plant?” In attempting to produce a detailed drawing, the students trained their eyes on intricate detail. In the process, they formed their own questions. “What are those spots on the leaves of the aspens? Why does the willow appear to be a collection of different stems lumped in the same area? Why is the cat tail pointy on top?” Since their questions originate in their own observed data, the next step (which they’ll begin this week) involves devising a hypothesis and accompanying experiment to arrive at their own data sets. By imbedding the purposes of the subject matter within the content, Gina will be able to assess not only the steps of the scientific method that each student understands but the degree to which they are able to apply their learning to the course of their own discoveries.

The Connection