Thoughts on “Getting it Right” in Science Education

In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “Research is formalized curiosity.”

Her succinct observation gets to the dueling requirements at the heart of science: human inquisitiveness and the established process of the scientific method. Without curiosity, scientific research has no driving momentum, no fuel for expanding human understanding or uncovering new breakthroughs. At the same time, researching any phenomenon absent the general procedures of the scientific method results in a waste of time. No certainty is possible in our world unless a hypothesis has been tested in this specific manner.

For those who call science their profession, the scientific method is less an impediment to their work than a principle validating what they do. But for those just learning about science, students learning about gravity, or molar concentration, or evolution for the first time, the scientific method can be invisible and mysterious. For teenagers attempting to act out their part in the time-honored science lab, it may seem more the source of confusing jargon than a set of essential guidelines.

For the student engaged with HSI’s Student Driven Research (SDR), on the other hand, curiosity is a given, but the scientific method is bound to become a stumbling block at some point or another in their independent research. In fact, we’ve found that just about the best way for a student to learn the process of scientific research is by “guided trial and error.”

While many science educators want to explain the entire scientific method to students before they’ve had a need to use it, we’ve found that kids tend to intuitively grasp much of the logical flow of research simply by asking and attempting to answer their own questions about the world. But when they do inevitably arrive at the difficult parts, students are much more receptive to feedback about “getting it right” because it’s relevant to them, their questions, and their research.In our experience, this learning on the job aspect of SDR is one of its biggest advantages over traditional science education.

Consider, for a moment, the matter of of sample size in experimental design and the statistics. It’s one thing to tell students, without any particular relevance to them that more independent data points translate to a clearer the picture in their results. On the other hand, a student participating in SDR might hear from her facilitator that her sample size will be insufficient if she gathers data from the leaves of only three different trees. Or students may even come up with this themselves after measuring 3 very different leaves and they see that their data does paint a very clear picture. So, even if she doesn’t immediately understand why she needs more data, she has every incentive to ask questions until she understands principles at work–until she “gets it right.” She also has the luxury of a SDR facilitator who is prepared to take advantage of this powerful learning experience, possibly even having this student share and explain her new understanding of sample size to the rest of the group.

This is what we mean by guided trial and error. It’s channeling students’ own curiosity into the “formalized” procedures of science, usually to great effect, and it’s just one of the many great learning opportunities built into Student Driven Research.

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