Exploring What Scientists Do

"On the first day of class, I ask my second and third graders to draw a picture of a scientist," says Louisville, KY, teacher Andrea Miller. "Most of their images are of males with wild hair and white coats."

As Andrea's students use their gardens as living laboratories, she regularly reinforces that they are all scientists, mathematicians, and Earth stewards. Using the GrowLab learning cycle as a guide, students mess around with materials and questions, launch their own investigations, and draw connections to their lives. Throughout the year, they discuss ways in which science process skills and attitudes (like listening to others' points of view) are used in all careers. "We routinely use KWL charts (What I know, What I want to know, What I've learned) and always use the language of science when we speak and write (I observed, I predicted, I collected data, I looked for patterns, for example)," she explains.

At the end of the school year, says Andrea, when she again asks students to draw pictures of scientists, most draw themselves.

Although students often memorize and follow fixed "steps" of the science process in classroom investigations, this can encourage a limited view of what science is about, bypassing the imaginative, intuitive, "messier" side of science. The newly released National Science Education Standards call for classroom experiences that help students develop an understanding of science inquiry and of the nature and history of science. How can we educators help students appreciate the full richness, relevance, and diversity of science and what scientists do? And how can we demystify science and help students make meaningful connections between what they themselves do -- collaborate, question, learn from mistakes, and so on -- and what professional scientists do in the real world?

Following are some thoughts on how to use routine classroom activities and special events and partnerships to help your students understand and relate to the nature of science and scientists.

Use Science Skills and Habits of Mind

  • Early in the year, consider having students generate a list of characteristics of a good science investigation. For example, good investigations (1) have a clear and interesting question, (2) include treatments and controls when necessary, and so on. Use this as a reference throughout the year.
  • When individuals or groups present investigation plans or results, have a peer review or mock science conference in which other students critique plans and question experimental setups and findings. Encourage students to use the language of science as they plan, conduct, and report on investigations, linking the skills they used (predicting, observing, controlling variables, and finding patterns) to those of real scientists.
  • When student experiments experience "failures" or produce results contrary to what scientists believe, seize the opportunity to further review the process. Ask, for instance, How might we modify this if we were to do it again? What other factors might have influenced our results?
  • Invite students to generate a list of qualities of scientists (e.g., scientists are good observers, open-minded, cooperative). Then choose one quality per week and create another list that helps define the term (e.g., What does a good observer do?) Keep and revise your charts throughout the year and have students use them as they review their own and others' growing investigations.
  • Have students keep science journals to record questions, observations, experimental setups, and reports.

Emphasize Science in Everyday Life

  • Have a discussion and/or keep an ongoing chart to answer the question: Where did we see science today? Consider giving younger students toilet paper tubes to use as viewers to help them zero in on science around them. Alternatively, create a bulletin board for student-captured photos with the caption: I got caught doing science (or observing, measuring, or inferring).
  • Have your students read The Math Curse, by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. Suggest that they write a companion book called The Science Curse, focusing on how science saturates our everyday lives.
  • After brainstorming the many ways in which plants affect our lives, generate a list of professions that indirectly or directly deal with plants (e.g., pharmacist, groundskeeper, florist, chef).

Connect With Scientists

  • Before working with real scientists, invite students to list their thoughts on the behaviors, skills, and attitudes of scientists (Scientists are careful observers, are patient, and so on.) Then have students take notes during and/or after the trip containing evidence on the nature of scientists. Revisit the original chart after the trip and add new student understandings and insights.
  • Have students survey parents and other adults and keep an ongoing list of the range of professions and hobbies that involve science. Invite some of these people to visit the class or take a field trip to their places of work.
  • Have a mystery scientist visit and share some of the tools of his or her trade or hobby. Invite students to explore the tools, then try to guess the scientist's job using a "20 Questions" format.
  • When planning a visit with scientists, ask them ahead of time to consider some specific questions they might pose to students or materials they can send back with the class to inspire further investigations. These might be simple activities that parallel aspects of their work. Also ask scientists in advance to share some experiences that highlight the "human" side of science, such as times they've learned from "mistakes" or "failures."
  • Have students "interview" scientists individually or on a field trip. They might then write about or discuss what they learned about what scientists do, brainstorm how their own activities/lives reflect what scientists do, or impersonate the scientists through a dramatic presentation or interviews.

Additional Activities

  • Create an alternative to science fairs. Teachers near Baltimore, MD, set up a highly successful, multischool Kids Inquiry Conference to simulate a scientific conference. For information contact Barbara Bourne, Elementary Science Integration Project, phone: (410) 455-2308.
  • Have a weekly or monthly plant-based science learning center or station. This might include questions requiring observation and other process skills, problem-solving challenges, and so on. Encourage students to create stations.
  • Have students talk or write to parents about their scientific curiosities. Students might ask parents, for instance, What did you wonder about plants when you were my age?

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