Understanding Science

BioQUEST has had the pleasure of collaborating with many interesting projects over its 20+ year history. We are developing a series of Partner Project Profiles to share some of that richness with the broader community. For this profile we spoke with Judy Scotchmoor (Project coordinator), and Anna Thanukos (Project assistant and author) of Understanding Science. This profile interview was conducted via e-mail over several days in February 2009.

In a nutshell, what is Understanding Science and why should faculty teaching undergraduate biology be aware of it?

Understanding Science is a fun and freely accessible online resource that communicates what science is and how science really works. In addition to basic content on these topics, we provide tools and strategies for teachers at all grade levels to reinforce the nature of science throughout their science teaching. Research suggests that even college students fail to understand basic characteristics of the nature and process of science. The Understanding Science website can help undergraduate faculty better prepare their students to become scientifically-informed decision makers, more thoughtful scientists, and pro-science citizens who view science as an exciting, interesting, and inherently valuable human endeavor. We have an undergraduate teachers’ lounge that provides many tools to help faculty with this effort.

The beginning of Lisa White's report on how she is using Understanding Science in her teaching.

Can you identify 1 or 2 specific resources that are popular or that you would recommend to faculty teaching introductory biology?

Ahhh… that one is super easy! Understanding Science has developed a Teachers’ Lounge for each grade span, including one for undergraduate faculty. There, faculty will find a growing number of resources. We recommend several introductory activities that can set the tone for the semester by presenting an accurate and engaging perspective on what science is really about:
  • Mystery boxes: Uncertainty and collaboration Students manipulate sealed “mystery” boxes and attempt to determine the inner structure of the boxes, which contain a moving ball and a fixed barrier or two. The nature and sources of uncertainty inherent in the process of problem-solving are experienced. The uncertainty of the conclusions is reduced by student collaboration.
  • How scientific is it? (50kb pdf) Students are given six knowledge statements and asked to rank them according to how scientific they feel the statements are. A group discussion ensues. This activity is adapted from Scharmann et al. 2005.
  • Amazon fly This short activity quickly engages the participants in the process of developing testable hypotheses. Students come up with multiple hypotheses to explain a set of observations and figure out how to test these hypotheses. The activity is appropriate for small or large group discussion that could take place during a lecture.

Where do you get your material? How can faculty help out or provide input?

Our text and graphics are all original. We have an extraordinary team: Anna Thanukos, primary author; Josh Frankel, webmaster (and cartoonist); and Dave Smith (graphic artist). However, the determination of WHAT to include has been the result of in depth communication with all members of our Advisory Boards. Our advisors have reviewed and re-reviewed each word and image included. This has been a highly collaborative effort! Now we are adding additional materials that include profiles, case studies, and teaching resources. We welcome contributions from others and suggestions for other resources that would be useful! As for input, we are very interested in finding out how the resources are being used and how they can be improved, so any feedback would be terrific. You can contact us directly or leave a suggestion on our website.

You haven’t mentioned the Science Flowchart. I think the BioQUEST Community is going to be very interested in it. Can you say something about it?

The Science Flowchart is a new, and much more accurate, way to represent the process of science than the usual presentation of the 5-step Scientific Method. You can explore an interactive version of the flowchart and access multiple versions of the flowchart to support your teaching. The Science Flowchart is helpful in conveying the true process of science because it emphasizes science’s nonlinearity, the unpredictability of scientific investigations, the role of the scientific community, and the benefits that scientific knowledge can offer us. Not only is the Science Flowchart a more accurate representation of the process of science, it’s much more exciting too! We think that students will be inspired (and perhaps surprised) by the flexibility of the process of science and the role that creativity plays in science.

Who should folks contact if they have comments, questions or suggestions?

Please feel free to contact:
Judy Scotchmoore Judy Scotchmoor – Project Manager, jscotch@berkeley.edu
Anna Thanukos Anna Thanukos – Project Assistant, thanukos@berkeley.edu

Editor’s Note:

I really appreciate Judy and Anna taking the time to do this interview. After their enormous success with Understanding Evolution it was exciting to see the University of California Museum of Paleontology receive National Science Foundation support to take on the nature of science. I was excited to be asked to play a role on their advisory board and it has been a great experience. Their Undergraduate Faculty Lounge is just getting off the ground, but I think it can play an important role in how we explicitly address scientific processes in our classrooms and labs. I’m a big fan of the poster sized version of the science flowchart which you can download here.
If you have suggestions for projects that we should profile or other comments please add them below or send them via email to bioquest@beloit.edu.
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