March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Is Science Practiced in Your Classroom? Seven Overarching Skills Used by Scientists (Part 1 of 2)

Posted: Friday, February 1st, 2013

By Bethany Dixon

The College Board has released seven science practices that describe the overarching skills and abilities that scientists use, and which will crucial for students to succeed with the new Advanced Placement (AP) Science Examinations and the upcoming Next Generation Science Standards. Intended to allow students more opportunities to build their inquiry-based reasoning skills, the practices will be implemented via revamped discipline-specific courses: AP Biology’s new Curriculum Framework began this year and plans for a revamped AP Chemistry (2013-2014) and AP Physics (2014-2015) are on the horizon. Here are the first three of the seven practices with use-them-now tips for your classroom.

Use REPRESENTATIONS and MODELS to communicate scientific phenomena and solve scientific problems.
Building models has been a mainstay of science education since the first “solar system” was made out of wire hangers. This type of kitschy, inaccurate model can be used to spark questions about how models can be improved, what scientists can learn from them, and how refining a model can help scientists (and students) to better understand complex systems. Allowing students to build and critique their own models of intricate scientific phenomena helps them to understand subtleties that might be missed in a traditional lecture. I use this strategy in groups: teams are given index cards, pipe cleaners, string, pennies, paperclips, Play-Doh, and masking tape. I use a giant “modeling toy box” filled with random donated items like packaging, plastic bottles, lids, colorful math counters, etc. Students select items from the box and model their system in partners and then share within a group of four, discussing benefits and drawbacks to each design. Critical thinking with models also extends to discussion of model organisms in science and bioethics.

Use MATHEMATICS appropriately.
Quantitative skills are an absolute necessity for any researcher! Allowing students to discover early that math skills can be used to solve student-selected problems, and WHICH math skills can be used for which type of problem, empowers students to be more numerically literate. When I hear the inevitable groans and moans in my middle school science classes at the beginning of the year, I explain that now that we are in Middle School,  and Math and Science are “BFFs”—remember your best buddy, Science? She isn’t going ANYWHERE without her bestie, Math EVER AGAIN. They are fused at the hip like middle school girls. Luckily, Math is a really good influence on Science and helps her solve all kinds of problems, and you’ll find out from Science that Math is actually a much cooler friend than you ever imagined—you might even fall in love with Math and be happy that Science introduced you. AP Biology has added grid-in items on their newest exam, and we can expect to see more quantitative skills requested in introductory college classes, as math skills frequently separate which students continue in science. Make sure your class can “do the math” when they get there: for example, work with your math department to find out when they teach graphing or statistics and see if you can arrange some cross-curricular homework.

Engage in SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONING to extend thinking or to guide investigations.
Asking and answering scientific questions is one of the most difficult tasks a researcher faces. Narrowing the wonderful world of science into a single, testable question can be excruciating for graduate school students. Figuring out HOW to run the test is part of the creativity and excitement of science that is so frequently glossed over in school. So often in textbooks, it seems as if the researchers magically already “knew” how to test these questions. Taking students back to the basics of research is exciting. Most often, they seem to do it on accident, without even realizing they’re being coerced into a situation they cannot escape without thinking. Watch your students after a lab. What do they ask? What do they want to do next? How could they change the lab and what would they do? Why would they do that? Would the experiment still be safe? Valid? Would it test a new hypothesis? Starting an experiment from “scratch” can be fun, but engaging students to extend experiments that you’re already doing can yield exciting results that begin to invite them into the world of investigation.

We would love to hear what strategies you use that mirror the first three science practices! Please feel free to reply and share! Part 2, coming up in March, will include the last four practices:

  • Plan and implement DATA COLLECTION strategies appropriate to a particular scientific question.
  • Perform DATA ANALYSIS and evaluation of evidence.
  • Work with scientific EXPLANATIONS AND THEORIES.
  • CONNECT AND RELATE knowledge across various scales, concepts, and representations.

Written by Bethany Dixon

Bethany Dixon is a science teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy, is a CSTA Publications Committee Member, and is a member of CSTA.

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Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

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For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.

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CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

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Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.