Why Science???

I saw this tweet from Danielle the other night.

Which got me thinking (and googling some definitions…..).

Epistemic – relates to knowledge. What is knowledge? How to we know? How do we know what we don’t know? How can we measure? Reason? Are there things we just can’t know?

Conceptual – mental concepts – how do we know things we can’t possibly see.

Procedural knowledge – knowing what to do during a procedure. I am linking this to essentially following instructions


I had a similar if less slightly technical talk with a friend who is a uni lecturer while at Hands on last week. She is also thinking a lot about how we can focus on skills rather than content. We are both lamenting how students are so focussed on grades they have lost the wonder and awe about Science, and in particular when they get into a lab situation they do not have the skills to function well. She feels many students (as a gross generalisation) who excel in the post grad opportunities are not those who excelled in their exams.

So for me, I am phrasing both of these two different but similar points as

How can we make Science Education about Science?

How do we know what we know, and factor in what we don’t know?

Rather than learning a whole lot of facts for A, linking them together for M and including an example or data from the question for E (which is basically how I see science in many secondary schools, sadly including my own class room all to often), or spouting back what a lecturer wants to hear in an exam that makes up 70% of a tertiary sci paper that gets the scholarship to do postgrad study where remembering stuff doesn’t always help.


I started to think about how I could make a course that looked explicitly at how Science worked. I think the closest I have got is the extended practical investigation in L3 chem, where students had to design an experiment based on water sampling round the Taieri. We then had 2 days at the uni labs where students had to make up all there solutions, find the right concentrations of solutions and generally muck around till they got some accurate readings and could take their measurements.

Now surely I could think of a way to incorporate this into the junior school I thought. I can meet this challenge. Maybe not for a whole course, but for a topic or two. The junior school has no assessment standards to meet, no external examiner to appease. Surely I could think up a course about Science.

It has been 24 hours and I’ve got nothing


I’m confident I have done parts of my classes that do focus on the processes and thinking around Science. I’ve done patches of iterative development around practicals, exploring stuff and fair testing, or during coding (love hour of code) or during technology challenges. I’ve played around with student driven learning for parts of topics, tried to gather and listen to student voice, and given students time to explore their own ideas. I’ve got things wrong and students have still learned stuff. I have tried to make some small inroads into focusing on competencies not content. I focus on the key competencies of the NZC and always have a focus on the Nature of Science. And this year, my dept is looking at incorporating the Science capabilities. Most of all, I try and have some fun – life is much nicer when learning is fun.

In thinking about this, I keep coming back to a context. Which context would I use to be more explicit about Science knowledge?

And then a nagging in my head asks why do you need a context?

And then I come round to scaffolding. Scaffolding is one of those things that has stuck with me from T col. Sometimes you need some knowledge to expand it. It is very difficult (in my unlearned opinion) to think critically about something you don’t know anything about. You need a place to start or a hook to hang new ideas on.

To discuss the validity of an idea, you need the idea to discuss.

This is where I go even more off track and start thinking about inception. It you haven’t seen it, see it. I really like this scene about ideas and where they come from.

So is the only reason I can only think about contexts is because I am trying to tell myself not to think of contexts?

And a idea I have come back to time and time again – if you want to think critically about an idea, you need to have some other ideas to compare it to.

For example –  vaccines are awesome.

Disclaimer – I think vaccines are awesome. Vaccinate yourself, your kids and your pets people!!

Conceptual and procedural knowledge – immune cells in the body pick up the antigens and display them to make b cells and antibodies or T cells to kill infected cells. These make memory cells that recognise the pathogen from the antigens when the pathogen tries to infect the organism later. You can’t really ‘see’ any of these things happening, but you can confer them from procedures followed in experiments that have clearer demonstrated how vaccine/immune responses work. The idea of vaccination stems from the observations of Jenner and milk maids. Milk maids exposed to cow pox did not develop small pox. This idea was tested on James Phipps who was given cow pox and then small pox- and then repeated a LOAD of times. From a public health/statistics point of view, testing procedures get followed, studies conducted etc

Epistemic –  Are T cells and B cells real? Or are they an artefact of the experimental process? Are antigens real? What makes a good antigen? How do we know these are the things that are important. By measuring, are we effecting the process. There is also massive ethical debates around this first vaccination/s, and current day eg Australian policy on no $$ if you do not vaccinate children. There is also ‘THAT’ paper which has been shown by numerous other studies to have been completely untrue. Then we have the idea of statistics – eg the current measles increases in countries or states where vaccination rates were lower. But on the flip side of this, vaccinations do carry statistically significant risks. Which we can only understand if we know ideas about statistics. How do we generate statistics? What is significant? What is the risk/benefit and cost analysis of these statistics.

And loads more…. I could go on for ages

But explaining the idea that vaccines are awesome uses jargon heavy language. You need to know the definitions. You need to know what T cells and B cells are – and perhaps to fully understand this you need to know an awful lots about human development, physiology, biochemistry, cellular assays. I did several 300 and 400 level Immunolgy papers back in the early 2000’s, as well as extensive reading in the later 2000’s are part of my post grad and work, yet I am pretty sure that even 6 years later there are some big differences in some types of T cells identified now. You might branch out into how HIV is an interesting case study for Immunolgy, as it demonstrates what happens when T cells are removed from previously healthy people.

I guess I am trying to say is, in my thought processes, you need to have the knowledge before you can dissect it.

And all of this takes time. Enormous amounts of time. Even when you are trying to break ideas down, you still need to learn some basic content such as definitions to make sense of it.

So while I think I could make more of an effort to be explicit with how we know where ideas come from and the procedures undertaken by researchers of all kinds to try and verify results (and how so many of our greatest discoveries are from mistakes in procedures…..), I am not sure I would want to base a whole course around it. Even with the key competencies, I usually chose to focus on one or two a unit (eg one unit have a real focus on language, symbols and texts, another on managing self). Maybe this idea of where knowledge comes from could expand my ‘thinking’ competency ideas, which I generally try to link to making inferences and linking observations to concepts. With the nature of Science, you still need a context, because (again, my opinion) if you don’t have a hook the nature of science is actually repeatitive and dull. My time in a research lab was often dull – doing the same thing over and over and over again changing one tiny thing even 3-6 times.

And even after quite a lot of thinking, reviewing of unit plans, plotting to just teach kids for 5 hours a day instead of 3 or 4 hours a week, stealing the ‘conspiracy theory unit‘ that Matt Nicoll did, completely getting rid of assessments all together and what if I didn’t need to prep them for a specific L2 course…… I still don’t know how I would make my Science course more about Science and less about learning facts. I want it to change, but I’m still not sure how to do it. I think a quote from my rambles on goals for this year sums up where I am at with this….


So I am going to purposefully play around with my units this year and ask my students and see if we can find a way to make Science class more like Science…….

And I’d like to thank Danielle for posing an interesting question. I’m sure she won’t mind I don’t have a definitive answer.



2 thoughts on “Why Science???

    1. Thanks – I have read it but it is always good to go back to. Implementing it in classrooms while trying to get kids through NCEA assessments is my challenge…..

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