When I was a teenager I remember my mother, herself a research scientist at the time, advising me that it was not how much science you knew that was important. Rather it was how to recognize whom to believe that was vital to becoming a scientifically literate citizen. Though that was some 60 years ago, it is even more important today. We are bombarded with so much science and technology information on a daily basis it’s hard to know what is real and what is fake.
Much of scientific theory is sound, evidence-based and solidly researched with universal acceptance among the scientific community and has stood the test of time. The theories of gravity, atomic structure and photosynthesis, for example, have few if any detractors. Others, though with solid research and wide scientific acceptance behind them, have groups which have their reasons not to embrace them. Darwin’s theory of evolution, the link between global warming and human actions, the causal relation between smoking and lung cancer are concepts which have skeptics among many outside the scientific community (and even among certain scientists). More troubling however is the proliferation of fake or pseudo-science among unsuspecting members of society, as McGill’s Dr Joe Schwarcz has often pointed out. The “scientific” basis of homeopathy is one such widespread fraud. The fake and discredited link between vaccination and autism is another.
So how do we decide whom to believe? How do we get our students to learn to discriminate between accepted evidence-based science and fake science – hearsay, promotions from special interest groups and unsubstantiated fear mongering? Perhaps the solution to the problem begins in the science classroom. In order for students to accept science they need to DO real science. They need to participate in meaningful scientific inquiries – ask real questions, decide what to do to find the solution and carry it out, gather and analyze appropriate evidence and come to some conclusion about their original questions. Sometimes the process is clear and expected, but frequently it can be somewhat messy and inconclusive – often giving rise to doubts and further questions. That’s the way science is.
The solar furnace
In my visits researching science activities of some of our teachers, I had the pleasure of observing Christine Pouget, a teacher at Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School. As part of her Secondary 4 science curriculum, she challenged her students to answer the question, “Can solar energy be used to heat water for cooking?” The activity, based on the curriculum areas of energy conservation and heat transfer, was a meaningful real-world topic for students – especially useful in less advantaged world contexts. Students set about designing an experiment and creating a set-up to test their hypothesis. Other than giving them a rough sketch of a possible apparatus, Christine gave the design control over to the students – working in groups of 2 or 3.
After some classroom discussion of heat reflection, radiation and absorption, they got to work. As shown in the photo, one group of students constructed their cooker and put in a beaker of water inside. They set it out in the sun with a control next to it and measured how much the temperature rose in each case. Comparing the temperature of the water in both the experimental and control situations, they were able to make a conclusion based on the data they collected. Though it was a simple experiment, they soon realized that there were many factors which had to be considered before coming to a clear conclusion. For how long should they collect data? Were the air temperature and wind factors? Did the time of day make a difference? What if clouds obscured the sun? In other words what appeared to lead to a clear-cut answer was much more complicated than originally anticipated.
A key benefit for the students was an emerging understanding of the scientific process. An important result of going through the scientific process for students was that they learned how to base decisions about scientific “facts” on real observed evidence. More importantly, they began to learn how to evaluate whether or not the evidence was solid enough to draw a reasonable conclusion – a vital process for evaluating “truth” and “fact”.