Grappling with the Nature of Science

Jo Ann recently sent around the NSTA Position Statement on the Nature of Science and I wanted to talk about one of the pieces of it more specifically and the challenges that, I would imagine, come along with teaching students that portion of the statement. The statement is below:


A primary goal of science is the formation of theories and laws, which are terms with very specific meanings.

  1. Laws are generalizations or universal relationships related to the way that some aspect of the natural world behaves under certain conditions.
  2. Theories are inferred explanations of some aspect of the natural world. Theories do not become laws even with additional evidence; they explain laws. However, not all scientific laws have accompanying explanatory theories.
  3. Well-established laws and theories must be internally consistent and compatible with the best available evidence; be successfully tested against a wide range of applicable phenomena and evidence; possess appropriately broad and demonstrable effectiveness in further research.


Now, I realize that this fact of science isn’t new news to any of us, having studied science for 10+ years (if you count from 7th grade on). But I would assume that this is a really difficult idea for most young science learners to wrap their heads around, especially the first few times they come across this.

Obviously my instincts want me to talk from a Chemistry perspective so some topics where this idea would come through include might be within atomic theory specifically with the evolution of the atomic model and within ideal gas laws. I think there would be more opportunities for this piece of the nature of science to be taught in other content areas like within evolution or many of the major physics units but my main struggle with teaching this concept centers around when learners grapple with the concept the first few times they encounter it. This mostly is because this idea that theories explain laws but not all laws have theories is contrary to most other areas of school, and really life.

What experiences have you all had that directly covered theories and laws in class and how did you find students did working through the struggles of theories not ever becoming laws despite evidence that proves them true and how not all laws have partnering theories to explain them? I’m mostly interested in how students responded to this unique part of science and what helped them think through all of these idiosyncrasies of science.



NSTA. (2015). NSTA Position Statement: Nature of science.

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