The Story Behind the Science: Bringing Science and Scientists to Life in Post-Secondary Science Education
- First Online:
- Cite this article as:
- Clough, M.P. Sci & Educ (2011) 20: 701. doi:10.1007/s11191-010-9310-7
- 665 Views
With funding from the United States National Science Foundation, 30 historical short stories designed to teach science content and draw students’ attention to the nature of science (NOS) have been created for post-secondary introductory astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and physics courses. The project rationale, story development and structure, and freely available stories at the project website are presented.
The phrase “nature of science” (NOS) has been used for some time, particularly in the science education community, in referring to what science is, how science works, the epistemological and ontological foundations underlying science, the culture of science, and how society both influences and reacts to scientific activities (Clough 2006). Accurately understanding the NOS is crucial for science literacy (AAAS 1989; Matthews 1994; McComas and Olson 1998; NRC 1996) and can perhaps play an important role in enticing students to further their science education. Matthews (1994), McComas et al. (1998) and others have argued that knowledge of scientists and how science works will enhance students’ understanding of science as a human endeavor; increase interest in science and science classes; improve student learning of science content; and promote better social decision-making. Morris Shamos (1995) claimed that understanding the NOS is the most important component of scientific literacy because that knowledge, accurate or not, is what citizens use when assessing public issues involving science and technology.
What is this game that scientists play? They tell me that if I give something a push it will just keep on going forever or until something pushes it back to me. Anybody can see that isn’t true. If you don’t keep pushing, things stop. Then they say it would be true if the world were without friction, but it isn’t, and if there weren’t any friction how could I push it in the first place? It seems like they just change the rules all the time. (Rowe and Holland, 1990, p. 87)
students to become familiar with the metaphysical assumptions and methodological process that Darwin laid out. Theoretical context and scientific practice, in this view, are not just interdependent, but really two views of a single entity. (p. 1085)
…textbooks are concerned with presenting the facts of the case (whatever the case may be) as if there can be no disputing them, as if they are fixed and immutable. And still worse, there is usually no clue given as to who claimed these are the facts of the case, or how “it” discovered these facts (there being no he or she, or I or we). There is no sense of the frailty or ambiguity of human judgment, no hint of the possibilities of error. Knowledge is presented as a commodity to be acquired, never as a human struggle to understand, to overcome falsity, to stumble toward the truth.
Textbooks, it seems to me, are enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning. They may save the teacher some trouble, but the trouble they inflict on the minds of students is a blight and a curse. (p. 116)
Recently, Eccles (2005), summarizing several previous studies, noted that we do a very bad job of accurately conveying to students what scientists do. Students imagine scientists as “eccentric old men” who work alone. In order to increase the number of women in science, she argues that we need to increase their interest in these fields “and that means making them aware that science is a social endeavor that involves working with and helping people.” Because women tend to value working with people, “we need to show them that scientists work in teams, solving problems collaboratively.”
Misconceptions regarding what science is, how science works, and the life and characteristics of scientists are damaging to general scientific literacy and result in an unacceptable loss of highly creative and frequently underrepresented individuals who opt out of science in favor of other pursuits they perceive as more humane and creative (Eccles 2005; Tobias 1990). Thus, accurately and effectively conveying the NOS in post-secondary introductory science courses is essential, not a luxury to be addressed if time permits.
Over 100 years ago William James (1907) noted “You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically.” In advocating an historical approach to teaching all subjects, Postman (1995, p. 124) wrote, “I can think of no better way to demonstrate that knowledge is not a fixed thing but a continuous struggle to overcome prejudice, authoritarianism, and even ‘common sense’.” An historical approach (e.g. Conant 1957; Klopfer and Cooley 1963; Matthews 1994; Hagen et al. 1996; Clough 1997, 2004, 2006; Abd-El-Khalick 1999; Irwin 2000; Stinner et al. 2003: Metz et al. 2007 and many others) that faithfully reflects the work of scientists illustrates the humanity of science, the enjoyment and frustrations in conducting research, and the complexities and challenges individual scientists and the scientific community experience in developing and justifying science ideas. In addition to potentially enhancing understanding of science content, these examples can exemplify important epistemological and ontological lessons that are bound up in that content and central to understanding the NOS, and place the science content in a human context. Moreover, effective NOS instruction demands that the context of scientific work be considered (Driver et al. 1996; Ryder et al. 1999; Brickhouse et al. 2000: Rudolph 2000; Clough 2006).
A key solution to this tension is the creation of historical short stories that illustrate the development and acceptance of fundamental science ideas, important NOS ideas (Metz et al. 2007), and that post-secondary science faculty can infuse when and where they deem suitable.
Finally, wherever possible the case studies should carry epistemological or methodological lessons and dangle ties to humanistic subject matter. But never should the primary purpose of the cases be the teaching of history. (p. 330)
2 Historical Science Stories
Since most students drew on the science stories for justifications of their views, the way they interpreted the science stories was crucial. Students’ peer interactions showed that most of them were not fully aware of the overall theme of the stories; instead they attended to certain aspects that appealed to them and appeared to confirm and reinforce their inadequate views. (p. 167)
Science stories should focus on important science ideas already ubiquitous in science courses. This will make more likely their use in science classrooms. Many teachers are reluctant to use history and nature of science curriculum materials that take significant amount of time away from teaching science content.
Science stories should be written so that they may be flexibly used by science teachers (e.g. choice should exist regarding which stories to use, the number of stories to implement, and where in the curriculum stories are used, etc.). Such stories are more likely to make their way into science classrooms.
Science stories should be created that address both the past and the present so that teachers and students will not dismiss accurate NOS ideas as those of a bygone era.
Science stories should incorporate where appropriate the words of scientists to accentuate the human side of science and to add authenticity to the NOS ideas being illustrated.
Science stories should incorporate comments that explicitly draw students’ attention to key NOS ideas and include questions that have students reflect on the NOS.
Science stories should be connected to other science content in and outside the classroom.
2.1 Narrative Elements and NOS Myth-Conceptions
Monumentality: portraying scientists as valiant, virtuous, solitary geniuses—nearly superhuman. This results from ignoring: (a) any character flaws of scientists; (b) errors and misinterpretations made by scientists; (c) the contributions of other scientists, and (d) the extensive time required for knowledge to be developed and established by the scientific community of which a scientist is a member.
Idealization: portraying research designs as faultless and the meaning of data as straightforward—a form of naïve empiricism. This results from emphasizing particular features of a story, downplaying other instances, and ignoring certain events in order to simplify the story. While the intent may be to ease comprehension of the story, the outcome distorts the NOS by making the research process and advancement of knowledge appear linear and uncomplicated.
Affective Drama: portraying scientists and science as prevailing, but often after some noteworthy struggle. This results from using rhetorical devices such as: using eureka events; highlighting the exoneration of a person or an idea; (c) ascribing surprising outcomes solely to chance.
Explanatory and Justificatory Narrative: portraying that accurate scientific knowledge follows logically from proper scientific methodologies. This results from reporting historical events in a manner implying that correct methods lead to correct knowledge while incorrect methods lead to incorrect knowledge.
3 The Story Behind the Science: Project Description
The remainder of this paper describes the rationale for and efforts of a United States National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project to create and disseminate science short stories that: (a) accurately reflect the history and nature of science; (b) mentally engage students in drawing intended NOS ideas; and (c) are written in a manner so they will be used by post-secondary science faculty in introductory science courses. The project title, The Story Behind the Science: Bringing Science and Scientists to Life, reflects the intent of the stories to humanize science, accurately and effectively teach important NOS ideas, improve science literacy and entice more individuals to consider science careers.
3.1 Project Rationale
Despite ongoing calls stressing understanding the NOS as a critical component of scientific literacy (AAAS 1989, 1993; ASE 1981; Collette and Chiappetta 1984; Lederman 1992; Matthews 1989, 1994; NSTA 1982, 2000; Shahn 1988), few science teachers, particularly at the post-secondary level, devote instructional time to accurately conveying the NOS. The time such instruction is perceived to take away from traditional science content instruction likely deters many science teachers from purposely and accurately addressing the NOS in their courses (Abd-El-Khalick et al. 1998; Olson and Clough 2001). And yet, understanding the NOS is fundamental to scientific literacy because the conceptions of scientists, the scientific enterprise, and the processes of science are what citizens use when assessing public issues and controversies involving science and technology. Social decision-making, interest in science, and understanding science content are all linked to understanding how science and scientists work (McComas et al. 1998).
Encouraging capable but disillusioned students to continue their science education is important for improving science literacy and for attracting individuals into science careers.
They hungered — all of them — for information about how the various methods they were learning had come to be, why physicists and chemists understand nature the way they do, and what were the connections between what they were learning and the larger world. (p. 81)
3.2 Project Goals and Objectives
Create 30 short stories for use in post-secondary astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics courses (6 short stories in each of these five disciplines). These short stories are linked to important science ideas commonly taught in these courses, and they draw students’ attention to important NOS issues entangled in the development of those ideas.
Develop accompanying support materials that help faculty seamlessly implement these historical and contemporary short stories alongside the fundamental science ideas taught in these subjects.
Implement the short stories in introductory science courses and collect formative assessment data that informs revisions to improve the stories.
Evaluate the educational outcomes of the project in post-secondary introductory science courses.
3.3 Development of Short Stories and Supporting Materials
Thirty historical stories have been created (six each for astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics) that are targeted at key science ideas taught in post-secondary introductory science course. They tell the story behind the science ideas and are structured so that post-secondary science faculty can infuse them when and where they deem suitable.
The project stories also incorporate mediation strategies (Metz et al. 2007)—specifically, comments and questions are inserted at appropriate points in each story to encourage reflection and help students draw intended NOS ideas. Reflecting how people learn (Bransford et al. 2000), the short stories developed in this project explicitly engage students in questioning commonly held NOS misconceptions. Empirical evidence supports the view that NOS instruction is more effective when it has both an explicit and reflective character (Abd-El-Khalick et al. 1998; Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000b). The historical stories in this project address the development of fundamental science ideas (using the words of scientists) with embedded comments and questions that explicitly draw students’ attention to key NOS ideas. Clough (2006) argued that this feature is crucial for deeply understanding the NOS, and the role of history of science alongside explicit and reflective NOS instruction is supported by the work of Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman (2000a) and Howe (2003). Importantly, these historical and contemporary short stories fit seamlessly in post-secondary introductory science courses because they are linked to fundamental ideas taught in those courses. Faculty can implement these stories when and where they wish to enhance students’ understanding of science content and the NOS.
- Step 1
Post-secondary science faculty in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics identified important science ideas that are commonly taught in those introductory courses. Science faculty, the project historian of science, and the project director (a science educator) together selected six ideas in each discipline for stories to be created. The final decision was determined based on the following criteria: (a) the primary science idea addressed in the story must be commonly taught in the particular introductory post-secondary science course; (b) the topic must be one that the historical development and acceptance of the idea could be addressed in a four to seven page story understandable to the target audience; and (c) the topic must be such that important NOS issues embedded in the story can be readily drawn and grasped by most students in the targeted audience.
- Step 2
The project historian of science and doctoral students in the history of science: (a) accessed historical and contemporary resources that addressed the development of the identified science ideas; (b) wrote extensive summaries using those sources particularly emphasizing the characters involved and the complexities individual scientists and the scientific community experienced in constructing and validating those ideas, and (c) submitted those materials to the project director.
- Step 3
Early in the project, the project director used the material provided by the historians of science to craft a four to seven page story for the particular topic. The project director then identified key NOS issues inherent in the story and inserted at appropriate places comments and questions to explicitly draw readers’ attention to those issues. In time, those conducting the historical research for each science topic came to understand the structure and intent of the stories and took the primary role in writing the stories. The project director continued to edit the submitted stories, identify key NOS ideas in each, and insert comments and questions.
- Step 4
A reading specialist reviewed the stories and recommend changes to ensure their reading level was appropriately matched to the abilities of typical freshman and sophomore college students. The project director implemented suggestions and then sent the story to the project historian and appropriate science faculty member.
- Step 5
The project historian of science and project science faculty reviewed the short stories to ensure they accurately portrayed the history of science and science content, respectively.
- Step 6
Stories are implemented in the appropriate classes. Feedback from the instructor and students has been used in making needed changes to the stories to make them more intelligible, and to better mediate students’ interpretation of the stories.
- Step 7
Based on classroom observations of science faculty implementing the stories and student data, project staff have prepared support materials that include: (a) an overview of important NOS ideas for science education; (b) how to use the short stories; (c) Tips for creating effective class discussions; (d) additional tips for creating class discussion in large group settings; and (e) tips for structuring group work. Work is currently underway to develop assessment items aligned with key NOS ideas.
- Step 8
Research regarding the efficacy of the short stories for improving students’ understanding of the NOS, perceptions of the short stories and their impact on students’ interest in science has been conducted in post-secondary introductory astronomy, biology and geology courses. Additional research is ongoing.
3.4 Framing Project Stories to Accurately Portray the Nature of Science
Suspect simplicity. Beware vignettes. Embrace complexity and controversy. Discard romanticized images. Do not inflate genius. Mix celebration with critique. Scrutinize retrospective science-made. Revive science-in-the-making. Explain error without excusing it. And above all respect historical context. (p. 347)
At the time Mendel began his scientific work, discussions regarding heredity had already been very active for a century. …Early investigations into heredity were done with animals. Plants were not used in hybridization experiments until the 1700s. In Origins of Mendelism, Olby maintains this was likely due to the difficulty natural scientists had in accepting that plants sexually reproduced. …
What stimulated Mendel and others to begin investigating the mechanism of heredity was prior work regarding the fertility of hybrids. Almost 100 years earlier, around 1760, Joseph Koelreuter, a German, began mating hybrids with other hybrids. He filled all the space he could spare with potted plants acquired from all corners of the globe. He even wrote Linnaeus asking him for seeds of hybrids. Koelreuter made two important observations. The first was that not all hybrids could produce offspring, and the second was that when hybrids were mated, many offspring looked like the parents, but some appeared to be a new species. How could one set of parents create identical offspring and a new species all at once? Koelreuter provided the following interesting explanation: in nature, species remain fixed and like parents give birth to like offspring, but when humans interfere is when the ‘unnatural’ crosses appear.
While Koelreuter’s explanation is no longer accepted, his work was important for questioning one of the major ideas regarding heredity, called “preformation.” Preformation stated that an exact miniature replica of the parent existed inside sperm cells or ovum cells. Therefore, exact blueprints were passed on in each generation, with slight changes depending on the influence of either the male sperm or female egg—not both. The idea of preformation had survived to Koelreuter’s day even though the microscope had been invented almost one-hundred years earlier. Despite failure to see the miniature replicas of parents in the sex cells, the preformation idea lived on because it explained why so many species had more or less identical offspring. Taking his extensive examples, Koelreuter measured key points on his hybrid plants, and argued that his results could only occur if both the male and female were involved in heredity. Mendel had extensively read Koelreuter’s work, and it influenced the way he thought about heredity. Franz Unger, a professor of plant physiology at Vienna, was yet another influence on Mendel’s thinking. Unger rejected the idea that species were stable and, in contrast to Koelreuter, proposed that variations arise in natural populations.
Note that the numbers do not reflect a precise 3:1 ratio. While some crosses gave results that were almost exactly that ratio, other results were further from it. Moreover, Mendel’s published paper made reference to additional crosses he performed, but whose numerical results were not reported. The results above were selected by Mendel for presentation, and were likely chosen because they best illustrate his proposed ideas regarding heredity. Varying levels of ambiguity is part of all scientific work, and those who do research must make judgments to make sense of that ambiguity. Mendel’s crucial interaction with and interpretation of his data is apparent in: 1) his having to observe and judge which categories the outcomes of his crosses belonged, 2) his choice of which data to present publicly, and 3) the way he identifies and reacts to anomalous data.
These results again illustrate that research findings must be interpreted. Fairbanks and Rytting write that when Mendel noted that one of his crosses yielded results he thought were not in line with the predicted ratio, “he repeated the experiment and obtained results that were more acceptable to him.”
Mendel wasn’t fudging his data. Scientists must make sense of data, and this entails interpretive judgments, because data doesn’t tell scientists what to think. Over time, the wider scientific community will decide to what extent an individual scientist’s decisions hold up to scrutiny, and this reduces, but does not eliminate subjectivity in science.
Explain how Mendel’s thinking shows both a gradual progression from prior ideas regarding heredity and also a break from those prior ideas.
How does Mendel’s work illustrate that observation and data analysis is not objective (i.e. scientists “see” through the lens of their theoretical commitments)?
The above excerpts illustrate the kind of text found in the project stories that, as a whole, accurately portray the history and nature of science. Readers are urged to visit the project website to view additional stories and supporting materials.
3.5 Project Website
Project materials in pdf format are freely available at http://www.storybehindthescience.org. The bolded links below appear on the homepage.
Detection of Black Holes: The Power of Robust Theory and Mathematics
Data Makes Sense Only in Light of Theory: The Story of Cosmic Microwave Background
Imagination and Invention: The Story of Dark Matter
Personalities and Pride: Understanding the Origins of Elements
The Great Debate: Just How Big is the Universe?
Accounting for Anomaly: The Discovery of Neptune
Charles Darwin: A Gentle Revolutionary
Adversity and Perseverance: Alfred Russel Wallace
Creativity and Discovery: The Work of Gregor Mendel
Model Building: Piecing Together the Structure of DNA
A Distinctly Human Quest: The Demise of Vitalism and the Search for Life’s Origins
The Realization of Global Warming
Continents: A Jigsaw Puzzle with no Mechanism
Data Do Not Speak: The Development of a Mechanism for Continental Drift
Understanding Earth’s Age: Early Efforts by Naturalists and Chronologists
A Very Deep Question: Just How Old is Earth?
Ice Ages: An Alien Idea
Determining How Volcanic Activity Fit into the Greater System of the Earth
Pendulum Motion: The Value of Idealization in Science
The Role of Theory: Pendulum, Time Measurement, and the Shape of the Earth
Conservation of Energy and Mass (Forthcoming)
Newton’s First Law (Forthcoming)
Potential Energy (Forthcoming)
Universal Gravitation (Forthcoming)
A Puzzle with Many Pieces: Development of the Periodic Table
Atomic Structure (Forthcoming)
Characteristics of Science: Understanding Scientists and Their Work
How to Use the Short Stories
Tips for Creating Effective Class Discussions
Additional Tips for Creating Class Discussions
Tips for Structuring Group Work
Assessing the NOS (Forthcoming)
Conference papers, summaries of research, and references to publications
Project PIs and Senior Personnel information, pictures and links to professional web sites.
4 Efficacy of the Project Short Stories
Several research studies have taken place and are continuing regarding the efficacy of the project short stories. During the spring 2007 semester, four geology short stories (Two addressing continental drift and plate tectonics and two addressing the age of Earth) were assigned in two large sections of introductory geology. The four stories and embedded questions were assigned as homework and then analyzed to determine how students interpreted the short stories and their ideas regarding the NOS. The use of historical short stories that contain NOS comments and questions resulted in significant gains in student understanding of targeted nature of science ideas (Olson and Clough 2007; Vanderlinden 2007). Specifically, (a) students better understood that invention and creativity are important processes in the development of science knowledge (as opposed to simplistic views that knowledge is simply discovered/uncovered/apparent from experimental work); (b) students better understand that data does not tell scientists what to think—that scientists creatively develop ideas to account for data (this is related to understanding how multiple interpretations of the same data are possible); and (c) that scientists and their work reflects the broader culture and society of the time, and this influences what is studied, what data is collected, how data is interpreted, and what explanations are considered. Therefore, science is not absolutely objective and separate from the broader world. An interesting finding from this study is how students’ thinking about the NOS can be quite tangled. For example, 11.7% of the students in the study expressed the misconception that scientists must follow a rigid linear scientific method that leads to proven truth (a NOS misconception not targeted by the stories), and they could not reconcile this view with the notion that scientists create ideas to account for data, or that scientists may have different interpretations of the same data.
Kruse et al. (2009) presented a study they conducted of students’ and their instructor’s reactions to the use of five project short stories in a post-secondary introductory biology course. They report that the stories (Two addressing the age of Earth, one addressing Mendel, one addressing Darwin, and one addressing Wallace) positively impacted students’ interest in science careers and that the instructor expressed his desire to continue explicitly addressing the NOS in his course. Many students noted surprise or encouragement when writing about their new insights on the NOS such as: science is collaborative, science is creative, and science does not have to be laboratory-based. The instructor has continued using the short stories in his course due to his perception that addressing the NOS decreases his students’ resistance to biological evolution, and because the stories accomplish this while addressing science content that he teaches.
Recently, studies were conducted in large section post-secondary introductory astronomy, biology and geology courses to assess the impact of the project stories on students’ NOS understanding. Students in the post-secondary biology course showed improved understanding of several NOS ideas targeted in the implemented short stories. Specifically, students expressed a more accurate understanding of (a) scientific laws compared to theories; (b) the importance of imagination and creativity in doing science; (c) methodological pluralism (d) the significant collaboration that occurs among scientists; and (e) the crucial role of methodological naturalism in science. Perhaps just as importantly, students in the study indicated the stories increased their interest in science and science careers (Clough et al. 2010). Analysis of the geology and astronomy data is still underway, and future studies are planned for post-secondary introductory chemistry and physics courses.
5 Significance of Project
Focused on learner-centered teaching—addressing commonly identified NOS misconceptions held by students, the project stories bring humanity back into science to help students better understand how individual scientists and the scientific community do science, and how societal influences have affected the development of scientific knowledge and the participation of various groups in science endeavors.
Interdisciplinary in its approach to scholarship—bringing together faculty from history of science, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics, science education and English education to create innovative historical and contemporary science short stories that will improve post-secondary science education, promote science literacy, and further the field of NOS research.
Designed to enhance student learning—the project stories are designed to improve student learning of science concepts while also increasing students’ interest in and understanding of the scientific enterprise. For instance, student understanding of biological evolution has been shown to be significantly influenced by their understanding of the NOS (Johnson and Peeples 1987; Bishop and Anderson 1990; Rudolph and Stewart 1998; Rutledge and Warden 2000; Trani 2004), and secondary science teachers who understand the NOS are more likely to teach this fundamental biological concept (Scharmann and Harris 1992).
Targeted to promote interest in science and life-long learning—those who understand the NOS appear to find science and science classes more interesting. This increased interest may help stem the flight of talented post-secondary students from science. Understanding the NOS prepares all students to make more informed decisions, and better understand the role of science in society. Having a greater interest in science, they are more likely to remain informed beyond formal schooling.
Despite a wide variety of efforts aimed at encouraging teachers to devote explicit attention to NOS instruction, results have, for the most part, been disappointing. Science teachers generally appear unconvinced of the need to emphasize the NOS as a cognitive objective (Abd-El-Khalick et al.,1998; Lederman, 1998), and likely see NOS instruction as detracting from their primary mission of teaching science content. Lakin and Wellington (1994) point out that NOS instruction appears to be contrary to “expectations held of science and science teaching in schools, not only by teachers and pupils but also those perceived as being held by parents and society” (p. 186). Science teachers balk at extensive explicit decontextualized NOS activities, seeing them as taking time from science content instruction. For the same reason, they also resist extensive history of science case studies. (p. 475)
The Story Behind the Science project stories diminish the argument that NOS education must detract from science content instruction. Rather than an “add-in” activity that science teachers perceive as detracting from the science content, use of the project historical short stories to accurately convey the NOS is ubiquitous with teaching science content. Post-secondary science faculty may very well be willing to plan for and accurately convey the NOS if it is entangled within the science content traditionally taught in their courses, thus not taking significant time away from that instruction. In previous presentations of the project stories, both post-secondary and secondary science teachers have expressed significant interest in our project stories. Work is already underway to create additional stories for post-secondary science courses and expand the project to create stories with the same kind of design for secondary science courses.
Partial support for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation’s Course Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program under Award No. 0618446. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.