Why Teach the Nature of Science?

Sarah Bodbyl RoelsFaith and Science, The CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Ethan, a middle school student, isn’t sure science can be trusted. He’s learning about climate change in Earth Science class, but his grandfather told him that “global cooling” was all the rage in the 70s.

Andre, a high school student, shares vaccination concerns with his peers at lunch after listening to his mom’s favorite podcasting doctor on the drive to school.

Jade, a college student, is having a crisis of faith: her professor said that evolution disproves God, and she finds the scientific evidence for evolution in her studies compelling.

How many young people do you know like Ethan, Andre, and Jade, students who struggle to incorporate scientific information into their understanding of the world? Scientific literacy is a primary goal of science education, yet Christian students may be reluctant to trust science and the field’s current advances.1,2

Ethan, Andre, and Jade’s conflicts with scientific knowledge and scientific authority manifest in different ways, but their struggles have a common origin: all derive from confusion about the nature of science. In fact, most modern societal conflicts with science are rooted in misconceptions about the nature of science.

What is the nature of science?

The nature of science, or NOS, concerns what scientific knowledge is, what science can and cannot answer, and what processes generate scientific knowledge.3–5

What are NOS core concepts? Below are example NOS principles from the Next Generation Science Standards.6 As you read, consider–Which of these ideas am I most and least familiar with? Which would be most beneficial for my students?

What scientific knowledge is:
  • Science is a way of knowing. However, science is not the only way of knowing.
  • Scientific knowledge is open to revision in light of new evidence. Science is a continuously self-correcting and evolving endeavor, responding to new information with refinement and revision.
  • Scientific knowledge is based on empirical evidence. Science uses information gained by observation and experimentation. Hypotheses about phenomena must be supported by validated evidence to gain acceptance in the scientific community.
What science can and cannot answer:
  • Science addresses questions about the natural and material world. Science cannot answer questions about meaning, purpose, or anything non-physical or non-natural, such as the existence or characteristics of a supernatural being.
  • Scientific knowledge assumes there is order and consistency in natural systems. Scientific investigations are based on patterns, and findings require validation by replication. Assuming order and consistency allows science to powerfully predict future phenomena.
What processes generate scientific knowledge:
  • Scientific investigations use a variety of methods. Scientific investigation relies on both inductive and deductive reasoning. It rarely follows the classic six-step scientific method often presented in textbooks.
  • Science is a human endeavor. Science has a history and is not separate from the characteristics of humans and their abilities to make sense of the natural world.

Why should we teach NOS?

Research shows that K-12 students, undergraduate students, graduate students, and even science educators themselves struggle with NOS concepts.7–9 Despite being identified as a critical component of science education,6,10–13 NOS teaching remains underemphasized in classroom settings.14

The lack of robust NOS instruction allows NOS misconceptions to persist, undermining students’ abilities to incorporate scientific knowledge into their lives. NOS misconceptions lead to problematic beliefs such as the following: science can prove or disprove the supernatural, science is the ultimate authority (i.e. scientism), and science and scientists should not be trusted. These misunderstandings about science create intra- and interpersonal conflict when students navigate the modern scientific world.

Further, inadequate NOS preparation is a primary cause for students believing that they need to choose between science and their faith. Intentionally incorporating NOS thinking in the classroom will prepare your students to interact faithfully with scientific knowledge, reducing and even preventing the types of struggles typified by Ethan, Andre, and Jade.

What would a more robust understanding of NOS mean for Ethan, Andre, and Jade?

Ethan would benefit from learning how scientific knowledge changes in light of new evidence. Those who perceive scientific knowledge to be a collection of immutable facts are less likely to trust science because new findings may contradict older ideas. Science as a changing body of knowledge is evidence of progress itself. For example, to know that former concerns about near-term global cooling are incorrect means that we now have more information and better modeling in climate science. A firmer grasp of NOS ideas would prepare Ethan for a conversation with his grandfather about advances in climate data science and that it is appropriate to change thinking based on new evidence.

Andre would benefit from learning more about science as a human endeavor, specifically when interpreting individual vs. community claims. Science is durable and self-correcting as a community effort, harnessing the diverse talents of many individuals over time. However, pointing to an individual as representative of the collective body of scientific knowledge risks introducing fallibility and bias.2 NOS knowledge would provide Andre with perspective on scientific consensus and uncertainty, and encourage him to evaluate individual claims about vaccine safety while being mindful of data and recommendations from public health agencies.

Jade would benefit from at least two NOS concepts that are particularly relevant for Christians: understanding science as one way of knowing and understanding that science is limited to making claims about the natural world. Scientists who do not recognize the limits of science may inappropriately attempt to use scientific methods to investigate non-scientific questions like those of purpose or meaning, or to try to use science to prove or disprove the existence of the supernatural. Similarly, non-scientists who are unaware of the bounds of scientific inquiry may not appropriately evaluate scientific claims or pseudo-claims. For example, if scientists or scientific arguments overstep NOS bounds and claim that science disproves God, non-scientists may incorrectly assume that science is an atheistic enterprise when, in fact, it is inherently agnostic. Robust NOS thinking would help Jade reject the inappropriate claim of her professor and see that evolutionary science is not a threat to her faith.

How might additional NOS discussions and activities in your curricula benefit your students? In what ways might the communities in which your students are embedded benefit? Finally, where might you look for NOS teaching ideas?

BioLogos Integrate: An NOS teaching opportunity

For the last four years, BioLogos, an organization dedicated to promoting the harmony between science and faith, has been developing a science curriculum supplement for 6–12th grades called Integrate. I am honored to be a part of the interdisciplinary authorship team of scientists, teachers, and homeschool parents.

Integrate is designed to help learners like Ethan, Andre, and Jade use scientific knowledge in ways that both honor the scientific literacy goals of science education and honor “scholarship faithful to Scripture and to God in Jesus Christ.”15 For example, inthe unit Climate Change and Our Commission, students practice drawing scientific inferences from climate change data­—an exercise Ethan could share with his grandfather. In the unit Ways of Knowing, students learn how to critically evaluate the trustworthiness of scientists and scientific claims for scientific merit–skills Andre could apply when discerning the validity and reliability of claims made by the podcast doctor. In the unit Evolution and God’s Creation, students learn what a scientific theory is and consider both the power and limits of science­—knowledge that would benefit Jade as she discerns what evolutionary science means for her faith.

Teaching NOS is an important component of any Christian education as we prepare students to apply both scientific- and faith-based knowledge to understand God’s world.

References

1. Funk, C., Rainie, L., & Page, D. (2015). Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society. Pew Research Center. 29.

2. Kahan, D., Jenkins-Smith, H., & Braman, D. (2011). Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus. Journal of Risk Research. 14: 147–174.
https://doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2010.511246

3. Extensive history and debate exist concerning the definition, meaning, and practices for teaching the “nature of science.” See contextual reviews in Lederman (2007) and Duschl & Grandy (2013).

4. Lederman, N. G. (2007). Nature of science: Past, present, and future, p 831–879. Handbook of Research on Science Education. Routledge, New York, NY.

5. Duschl, R.A., & Grandy, R. (2013). Two Views About Explicitly Teaching Nature of Science. Science & Education, 22: 2109–2139. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-012-9539-4

6. NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

7. Cofré, H., Núñez, P., Santibáñez, D., Pavez, J.M., Valencia, M., & Vergara, C. (2019). A critical review of students’ and teachers’ understandings of nature of science. Science & Education, 28: 205–248. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-019-00051-3

8. Wheeler, L.B., Mulvey, B.K., Maeng, J.L., Librea-Carden, M.L., & Bell, R.L. (2019). Teaching the teacher: Exploring STEM graduate students’ nature of science conceptions in a teaching methods course. International Journal of Science Education. 41:14, 1905–1925. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2019.1647473

9. Mesci, G. & Cobern, W. W. (2020). Middle school science teachers’ understanding of nature of science: A q-method study. Ilkogretim Online, 19.

10. Showalter, V. M. (1974). What is unified science education? Program objectives and scientific literacy. Prism, 2: 1–6.

11. American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

12. National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

13. National Science Teachers Association. (2000). The nature of science: NSTA position statement. Arlington, VA.

14. Lederman N.G., & Lederman, J. (2020). Nature of scientific knowledge and scientific inquiry. In V.L. Akerson V.L. & G.A. Buck (Eds.), Critical Questions in STEM Education: Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education, vol 51. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-57646-2_1

15. Wolterstorff, N. & Joldersma, C. (2004). Educating for shalom: Essays on Christian higher education. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Author

  • Sarah Bodbyl Roels is a faculty developer at the Trefny Innovative Instruction Center, Colorado School of Mines. In this role, she promotes evidence-based educational practices to enhance effective teaching and support learning for all students. Sarah earned her doctorate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Kansas, where she studied mating system evolution, behavioral ecology, and conservation. Sarah is a member of BioLogos’ Voices speakers bureau, its advisory council, and the Integrate curriculum development team.

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