What even IS science???


It would be Kim Possible for me to get through this post without including at least one of the numerous jokes that Dr. John VanNiel delightfully included in his presentation on Monday!



Dr. John VanNiel is a professor of Environmental Conservation and Horticulture at Finger Lakes Community College, and on Monday he was a guest presenter for our class, Theory and Practice in Teaching and Learning Science. An effortless pro in eliciting student ideas, he demonstrated for us how he presents information to his classes in a way that builds upon their funds of knowledge and fosters meaningful learning and comprehension. As science teachers, we do not want to simply present our students with seemingly disconnected and abstract pieces of information. We’ve all been there- as students, we’ve memorized vocabulary definitions and after the test, those contextless pieces of information float out of our brains, never to be heard from again. If a student gets an A on a test, but can’t use the information they studied in a meaningful way ever again, did they actually learn it?

So what can we as teachers do to ensure that we are doing our jobs? A sentence from the primer for the book Ambitious Science Teaching (Windschitl, Thompson, & Braaten, 2014) really resonates with me- “Your main objective as a science teacher is to change students’ thinking over time” (p. 1).  Dr. VanNiel’s presentation was a wonderful example of this. He gave us a stack of notecards, each with the common name of a mammal on it: Norway rat, bighorn sheep, elk, fisher, grizzly bear, bobcat, red squirrel, etc. He asked us to work in pairs to sort the cards into two piles- animals that belong in New York and animals that don’t. That was our only instruction. To use the jargon of Ambitious Science Teaching, he was ascertaining our partial understandings. As we worked in our pairs to sort our cards, he sneakily wrote quotes that he heard us saying on the board.

  • “I was at camp and saw a flying squirrel.”
  • “They have bobcats in the Adirondacks.”
  • “What color would you call our squirrels?”

After we had completed our task and he told us the correct answers, he went on to explain how his answers may not be the only right ones. Sometimes students have alternative conceptions- a student may have said that at one point a certain animal lived in New York but was driven out by human activity. Given their viewpoint, that animal may very well have belonged in New York. As a teacher, he gave more meaning to the activity and validation to the student by recognizing other ways of thinking that his students may have. He also used everyday language and drew upon our everyday experiences as students in noting how we reasoned with and talked about our task of sorting the notecards. He could have rambled on at us, using the scientific names of species and the jargon of the field, but he didn’t. He used the language that we used to continue with the lesson, making the concepts he was illustrating comprehensible for us.


The way in which Dr. VanNiel led his presentation was exemplary of how I hope to be able to lead my classes. As a science teacher, it is important to elicit student ideas to engage in meaningful and authentic science.


But… what even IS science???

Wolves are one of the species that might have been an acceptable answer for animals belonging in NY, as they once roamed the Adirondacks before being eliminated due to unregulated hunting and deforestation. This wolf is just as confused as we were when grappling with the question of what science actually is…


This question was particularly poignant for me at this moment in time as my STARS group is currently worried that we aren’t doing “enough science” through our investigations with 7th and 8th graders at School  58. (See Gavin’s post below for more details on what STARS is.) Do we need to have our students using Erlenmeyer flasks and drawing the Krebs cycle for there to be “enough science” involved?


In one reading that was assigned to us this week, Chapter 7 of Science Instruction in Middle and Secondary Schools, Chiappetta and Koballa (2010) argue that science is not one simple definition, but rather a culmination of many different ideas.

Prospective science teachers might put forth the following phrases when asked for a definition of science:

  • To discover nature
  • Using scientific methods
  • A process of finding out
  • A study of the universe
  • Organizing facts into theories
  • A method of discovery
  • A body of organized knowledge
  • Problem solving
  • A search for truth

All these ideas have some connection with science, but each is limited. Only collectively do they begin to portray the breadth and complexity of the scientific enterprise. (p. 102)


Throughout our investigations with STARS, we will be utilizing many of the different aspects of what makes up science, and I think it is important to portray to our students that although we are not doing the stereotypical white lab coat type of experimentation, in our search for the truth and our endeavors to use the knowledge we acquire to tackle a problem, we are in fact acting as scientists.


-Written by Alyssa Rutherford


Chiapetta, E., & Koballa, T. (2010). Science Instruction in the Middle and Secondary Schools (7th ed., pp. 101-117). Pearson Education, Inc.
Windschitl, M.,  Thompson, J., & Braaten, M. (2014). Ambitious Science Teaching. Harvard Education Press.

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