Maybe This NOS Stuff is Useful

I planned on writing about school choice for this blog. However, I heard another interesting podcast recently and thought it would be a better idea to bring the focus back to science education. The EDU 434 class has spent a lot of time thinking about how to incorporate the nature of science (NOS) into our lessons. NOS wasn’t something I thought about explicitly prior to this course. My undergraduate degree is in engineering and I am unsure if I forgot or was never taught NOS. Norman Lederman says that K-12 students should understand six characteristics of the nature of science:

  • It is tentative – subject to changed
  • It is empirical – based on observations
  • It is subjective
  • It requires human interpretation and creativity
  • It consists of a combination of observations and inferences
  • It is socially and culturally situated (Lederman, 2007)

Lederman seemed to imply that, while there is not complete consensus on what NOS entails, these six are somewhat agreed upon. I was surprised at this list because my own, admittedly limited, experience with science led me to only understand that it is empirical.

I recently listened to a podcast of This American Life called “Things I Mean to Know”. It begins with Diane Wu telling the story of a talk she went to while a graduate student in chemistry. The Nobel Prize winning chemist, Harold Kroto, challenged the audience to explain the evidence that proves that the Earth travels around the sun. Only a few audience members thought they could and he chastised them for taking that “fact” on faith. The host, David Kestenbaum described it as, “Like, they were all running around talking with complete confidence about stuff we think we know, but we don’t actually really know. “ This was an example of a room full of scientists neglecting science empirical nature. The other stories of episode are examples of professional scientists ignoring various characteristics of NOS. The most impressive of these had scientists ignoring five of the six characteristics.

In the last story of the episode geography professor and filmmaker, Ian Mauro, shared the claims of various Inuit people he spoke with saying that the sun began rising from the “wrong” spot after the six-week-long night in the Artic. Dr. Mauro thought one possible explanation was that the earth had tilted on its axis and sought the opinions of other scientists. Though a different scientific phenomenon was later discovered that explained the change in sun position, Dr. Mauro received a lot of resistance from the scientific community when he began his search. He summarizes a letter he got from an astronomical society as saying “we’re the leads on whether or not the earth is tilted, and how dare you talk about any of this stuff? And they were quite incensed.”

My classmates and I talk about how challenging it is to consistently design lessons that tie back to NOS. Unfortunately, the podcast seemed to show that a deep of understanding of NOS is not a requirement for practicing science. That makes it easy to conclude that the time and effort it takes to make NOS-based lessons may be wasted. However, I was recently listening to a radio show about gun control. Two pundits on different sides of the disagreed on whether or not there were laws requiring background checks for online gun purchases. I found I believed one of the pundits even though I, in fact, knew nothing about the actual law. I believed this person knew they facts about the law because I agreed with the pundit’s politics. I took this “fact” on faith. This was a real-world reminder about why teaching NOS is important.

This American Life: Things I Mean to Know

Lederman, N. G. (2007). Nature of science: Past, present, and future. Handbook of research on science education2, 831-879.

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