How to Get Students to Think Like Scientists

Student doing chemistry experiment. (mrloz/istockphoto)

Climate change, population growth, pandemic diseases, nuclear arms proliferation, pollution. Green technologies, new mobility systems, and advances in bio technology. The science classroom is a powerful place for students to explore the implications of these worldwide problems and opportunities.

To do this, great educators do more than deliver information to a passive audience. They create a place where students learn science from interdisciplinary and global perspectives. A science curriculum with a global focus gets students engaged in problem-based learning tasks, experiments and scientific investigations, and gives them a solid foundation of research in scientific literature.

This gives students the tools to raise their own questions about established science and empowers them to take action that makes a difference in their local community and the world.

Global competence is understanding different perspectives and world conditions, communicating ideas in defensible ways and recognizing that issues are interconnected across the globe. A global science curriculum teaches students how to use science to investigate the world, including their immediate environment and beyond. Students recognize their own perspectives through the study of science, communicate about science effectively with diverse audiences around the world, and use their scientific knowledge and skills to translate their ideas and findings into actions that improve conditions.

It’s important for students to understand that science is more than learning established facts and findings. Science offers the potential for medical cures, and doing things better, faster and with fewer materials. But science also can be at the center of complex interrelationships between scientific results, unforeseen consequences, and ethical, legal and social implications. To understand the impact of global issues—and their current solutions—students need experiences with questioning current scientific understandings and technological practices, the opportunity to generate ideas and possible solutions to existing problems, and to engage with scientists to benefit their community.

Students in a global science classroom get lessons in both science inquiry and science literacy—two sides of the same coin that form an essential process for understanding and advancing science knowledge. Science inquiry shows students how to initiate the inquiry, design and conduct experiments, present and analyze data, interpret results and draw conclusions. Science literacy teaches them how to discuss a science-related issue, put the issue into context, conduct research, develop and support a thesis, discuss the implications and communicate about the work.

To give students the broadest platform to study science in this way also means introducing topics that lend themselves well to interdisciplinary study, and not keeping science issues confined to the science classroom.

For example, consider a study of plastics. Plastic bags were considered a breakthrough for keeping food fresh and thought to actually help the environment, because they saved the use of water and toxic chemicals, fossil fuels and the destruction of forests created by the production of paper bags. Beyond the science of plastic, students in a global science classroom can discuss how plastic shopping bags in particular have become a global environmental crisis. According to marine biologists and oceanographers, an enormous stew of trash, twice the size of Texas and consisting of 80 percent plastics, is floating in the Pacific Ocean. Students study the impact on marine life, and what will happen if plastic pollution continues at its current rate. They’re driven to action, perhaps writing a persuasive letter in a language arts class that informs the public about why people should re-use plastic grocery bags.

Another area of potential interdisciplinary study is natural gas. Considered a “clean” energy source when burned, natural gas produces virtually no emissions of sulfur dioxide or particulate matter and lower levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides than other energy sources such as oil and coal. Students learn the chemistry behind natural gas, but also about the controversial process of tapping it. To get to the largest known gas deposit, trapped deep below sensitive watersheds in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, requires a boring technique that environmentalists say causes everything from earthquakes to above-ground explosions, pollutes groundwater and drains streams. Students can research and take a position on drilling or not drilling, and discuss whether the energy is needed enough to counterbalance the impact on water and the environment.

In biology, students might learn about the Human Genome Project, which identified links between diseases and specific chromosomes, resulting in innovative gene therapy treatments. But it’s much more than a science issue, raising ethical, legal and social concerns, including fairness in the use of genetic information by insurers and others. Students can discuss privacy laws, the health and environmental issues concerning genetically modified foods (GMO), and the use of genetic information in reproductive decision making.

The above issues call for science research and investigation, looking at the bigger picture of politics, economics and history. Students learn to ask essential questions: How are the results of each action changing the global system dynamics? What are the complex interrelationships between local causes and worldwide effects? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Are we reflecting on the known impacts and inquiring into the unknown effects? They probe for deeper understanding and reflect on the results and unforeseen consequences of scientific progress. And they take a position, argue it and find action to take that makes a difference in the world.

In a globally focused science classroom, students learn to think like scientists. They get experience with thinking systematically about the dynamic interactions between factors like the loss of watersheds, increased emission of waste products, human population growth, loss of plant and animal biodiversity, and natural earth geologic processes, and how all of these factors interact and impact the global ecosystem. Students will observe natural phenomena that causes them to wonder, ask their own questions and test their ideas. When they interpret their data, new questions arise leading them into focused, purposeful research of the literature and further inquiry. The result: Students who can understand, analyze, apply, and evaluate existing scientific knowledge in the context of finding potential solutions to complex global issues.

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