On Wonder in the Science Classroom

When was the last time you felt wonder? Was it a sense of joyous discovery, a previously unopened door, a new understanding or a palpable sense of possibility? Wonder, as a positive emotion, is hard to find the modern world. While the Internet provides gripping images and videos on demand, our physical world is more often experienced from behind a camera or phone than in first person.

Wonder as a response to science is generally experienced outside the classroom. Whether it’s through the Discovery Channel, written media or a science themed podcast, the feeling is transient or escapist in nature as we dip a toe into something crafted for our busy lives.

So where is the wonder in the science classroom?

agiordano_2016_scienceclass-1-2As science educators, we must have found wonder in the fundamentals of our content. We were driven to study science, to present it and to develop future scientists. Yet when faced with the curriculum I was taught in school, it appears to be a minor miracle that I ever was captured by it.


Faced with scientific histories, one-time use equations and predetermined labs, a science student of my generation was left to discover on the margins of these content expectations. These limitations are shifting now. Science teaching standards have moved away from broad and shallow content towards deeper understandings. The Next Generation Science Standards lean heavily upon fundamental connections between scientific fields and desire to imbue students with a sense of process, inquiry, discovery and fundamental understanding.

I first came across the idea of wonder as inspired by science when I was writing a curriculum for a “current events in science” class aimed at 8th graders at Sugar Bowl Academy. The module I was building is on de-extinction, or using modern genetic methods to bring recently extinct species back to life.

I stumbled across George Monbiot’s TED talk on Rewilding. A popular science author, he speaks about the absence of wonder in our modern world, and how repopulating ecologically “missing” species and fascinating megafauna could lead to a surge in natural wonder.

The large part of Mr. Monbiot’s talk seem ecologically relevant (even amazing), such as the trophic cascade and the landscape level effects that resulted from the repopulation of the Yellowstone wolves. Even the idea of engineering and reintroducing extinct megafauna like Pleistocene elephants, hippos and top-tier predators, while considerably difficult and controversial, is fascinating.

It seems so easy to capture the wonder of our students with ideas like these. A concept like de-extinction can serve as a platform to discuss Darwin’s observations, human impact, fossil record, the history of life, coevolution and myriad other topics. Complex and worthy topics lend themselves to the support of crosscutting concepts such as patterns, cause and effect, structure and function and systems. They also support practices that are broadly accepted as crucial like scientific literacy, skepticism and the interdependence of scientific principals.agiordano_2016_scienceclass-2

Worthy concepts can unlock student’s sense of wonder by stimulating their curiosity about cutting edge science. De-extinction is just one of the possibilities for doing so. Students are enthralled by real ideas, from the very large: the size and age of the universe, the existence of the multiverse, the connection between mass and energy, life on other planets and Mass extinctions, to the very small: the nature and unity of matter, the discovery of sub-sub-atomic particles, the Serial Endosymbiotic Theory and homeobox genes to name a few. These difficult and sometimes esoteric concepts are gateways to curiosity and wonder. Still, most of these ideas are ones that students can only explore theoretically, without getting their hands dirty.


The NGSS have us covered here too. By placing inquiry at the core of the science and engineering practices, the NGSS challenges us to put discovery at the core of our teaching. Inquiry labs allow students to design, to explore process, and to fail. Labs without predetermined answers might not seem on the surface like a gateway to wonder. However, when empowered to engage in the science process, rather than to follow instructions, students flex the true skills of scientists. They observe, hypothesize and problem solve. They predict and react to failure.

Students who prove or disprove their own hypotheses are actually discovering. When we allow them to develop their own questions within a system, they have not only modeled science, they have done science. Each of these tactics is risky. It’s time consuming to develop and implement open-ended inquiries. It’s risky for students to follow their own procedure and choose experimental variables to manipulate. It’s nerve-wracking to discuss scientific concepts at the edge of our own understanding. But in each of these cases, that’s where the real learning happens. These edges in student’s proximal development are not unlike the edges of scientific knowledge. And it’s here on the edge where wonder can kick in.

Why Failure is Crucial in the Science Classroom

Failure, or fear of failure, is a hot topic in many circles these days, and has now risen to the top of the discussion in science and math education. It’s a versatile term and a buzzword we use when talking about developing tenacity in students. It’s a touch point for educators hoping to integrate inquiry and problem solving skills into classroom education, and it’s an overarching narrative in presenting an authentic scientific method. The idea is that failure is a thing to be celebrated. The challenge is multifaceted; failure means different things in all contexts, and the nuance is important, especially in education.


During the December 11th Science Friday segment titled “Why Science Needs Failure to Succeed,” author and neuroscientist Stuart Firestein talks about failure in science in a way that appealed greatly to me as a educator with a science background. Failure is a word that is clearly used differently by scientists and those not actively pursuing science, in much the same regard as the words “theory” and “truth.” In science, theories are widely tested explanations for a series of phenomena; indeed, they are as close as we ever get to truth. Of course, in common speech, theories are ideas or hunches, what a scientist would call a hypothesis. The scientific idea of truth is not fixed in place. Truth is open to revision as facts emerge or further study is completed. However, our truth is the best explanation that unifies countless observations and experiments; it is only upon provision of further evidence that we accept a shift in this truth.

The same nuance resides within the word failure. There are many different types of failure, but colloquially we accept the definition to be, that which does not succeed. However in science, we are asking questions about the natural world and testing hypotheses. True scientific study resides on the edge of knowledge. The answers to our questions are unknown, otherwise why would we take the time to study them? If an outcome differs from our expectation, the experiment may have failed to meet the expectation, but some answer or better yet, a further question, will emerge. This is the essence of scientific practice, but not generally the practice of science education.

AGiordano_2015_HSI_LR-2Until very recently the aim of science education was to build a foundation of historical knowledge and skills, so that one may know where to begin asking questions. The actual habits of mind that lead to scientific discovery were laid aside, even condescended to by cookbook labs and ever-deepening content expectations. The inertia present in the curriculum and educational patterns carved a deep path: absorb the content, read the procedure, mimic the skills, find the answer. If your answer isn’t correct, do an error analysis and see how much you failed by. Look back to the scientific method present in so many classrooms: question, hypothesize, experiment, record, analyze, share results! Teachers and scientists alike recognize that the real higher order thinking on this linear timeline exists only in the questioning and hypothesis steps, the very steps we do for students before they even begin.

In reality, the entire process needs to be broken down, as in the world we are allowed to engage the method in myriad ways. We also revise, revisit, restart, and yes, fail along the way. These failures hone our thinking and lead to revised procedures and conclusions, more precise thinking and ultimately, for some, a true “eureka!” moment. As Firestein points out in the podcast, in the absence of these moments the “arch of discovery” will never lead the eureka moment. The arch is scientific process and progress, complex and complicated. Classically we teach Lamarck as a stepping stone for Darwinian evolution, phlogiston as a stepping stone to understanding combustion, and caloric as a stepping stone to understanding thermodynamics and kinetic theory. These big ideas can be presented less as wrong, or “failed” thought, and more as building blocks to our current understanding.

So how do we coach comfort in this dynamic process? Begin at the beginning. Simple phrases like “Make a fantastic mistake today,” used often, even posted above the board go along way towards shifting students’ mindsets. Coupled with praise and context, errors that reflect inquisitiveness and creativity can be vehicles for student growth. Science education specialist Helen Snodgrass (YES Prep North Forest in Houston, Texas) is also featured in the Science Friday podcast on failure, and she gives us great tools for getting started. Posted on her wall, on the first day of AP Biology class is the phrase: “In this class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.” Coupled with a thoughtful lesson on serendipity in science (listen to the Infinite Monkey Cage podcast, episode 9, for lots of great examples of serendipitous discoveries), this launches the class into the process of redefining failure for science. She provides further strategies and justifications for learning through struggle, developing grit, and authentic learning practices in her essay in the Washington Post: “Teacher: In my class failure is not an option. It is a requirement.

DSC_6088 (Ambrose Tuscano's conflicted copy 2014-08-12)

In the big picture, our understanding of superseded theories, and serendipitous discoveries provide a base for presenting the idea of failure as a positive part of the scientific process in our classrooms. Perhaps graduate students’ struggles to achieve science in countless labs around the world by learning how to revise experiments gives a model for day-to-day lessons.

Ultimately incentivizing open-ended inquiries, creativity, and discovery activity is hard work, and can be risky. It takes time to develop the scientific habits of the mind that our students require to be scientifically literate citizens, if not scientists, in their future. This risk is worth it. When we hold up a mirror to ourselves, focused on the curiosity, drive and enthusiasm that carried us to the sciences and science education, we want to see our students reflected in it. In order to achieve this wonderful feeling, we need engagement tools, like student driven learning (see HSI blog 6/1/2015), like authentic inquiry explorations, like argumentative discourse, and above all, we need to coach them on the meaning and value of failure in science.

-This post was written by Headwaters Science Institute board member Andy Giordano. Andy is the Dean of Students and a science teacher at the Sugar Bowl Academy where he has worked for 10 years. His focus in the classroom is to continually push core understandings in science by drawing together the big ideas in science. He asks students to develop the ability to make observations, ask scientific questions, formulate hypotheses, design experiments and create a scientific argument. His goal is not only to improve students’ scientific mind, but also to build confidence and independence. He has extensive experience training adults in student support programs and outdoor education. His experience as an educator, residential life specialist, scientist and outdoorsman makes him a great member of the HSI Advisory Committee.  Andy is a member of the National Association of Biology Teachers and the Nation Science Teachers Association.