Shallow science

Students of all ages have only a “shallow” understanding of science, concludes a federal study. Students in fourth, eighth and 12th grade were asked to use materials and lab equipment to perform science experiments and to perform interactive computer tasks which “simulated an environmental or laboratory setting.”

Both the hands-on and computer tests asked students to predict what might happen in a particular scientific scenario, make observations about what occurred in the scenarios, and explain the findings of the experiments or investigations they launched.

. . . On average, the students were able to accurately report what was happening in scenarios with limited data, but were challenged by manipulating multiple variables and making decisions as part of running an experiment, according to the findings. Additionally, the numbers of students able to draw the right conclusions in experiments was much higher than the the numbers of students who were able to provide an explanation or justification for their answer based on the findings.

For example, 71 percent of fourth graders could select how volume changes when ice melts, but only 15 percent could explain why that happened using evidence from the experiment.

 

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Comments

  1. “For example, 71 percent of fourth graders could select how volume changes when ice melts, but only 15 percent could explain why that happened using evidence from the experiment.”

    I don’t see how the kiddies are supposed to answer that with data from their ice-melting experiment.

  2. “the numbers of students able to draw the right conclusions in experiments was much higher than the the numbers of students who were able to provide an explanation or justification for their answer based on the findings.”

    That is because theory development (explanation) is almost universally ignored in k-12 science education. Instead most “hands-on” science is an attempt to be engaging like MythBusters, and simply answer a question. Take note that on the show MythBusters, the experiments are only used to answer questions but not develop explanations. Of course this is purposeful because theory development is difficult, and hands-on experiments are fun. I can only assume that this is part of the reason that all my high school students are 100% sure that a theory is simply an idea that hasn’t been proven yet. Someone is teaching them this nonsense.

    Even so, theory development is really the heart of science and what actual scientists (not technicians) do in real life. Einstein, the most famous scientist of all, never even bothered with the hands-on. (Note I think both are important.)

  3. This stuff won’t be on the test, will it?

  4. Sigivald says:

    No surprise – and I doubt it’s ever been otherwise.

    Given that many schools seem barely able to manage literacy and basic math, I’m half shocked they teach science as well as they do.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Had college-track science in HS. Non-college track science was known as “cookbook chemstry”. Sneer.
    Nothing wrong with learning that if you do this thing, you’ll have this result, which is bad, or good, or poison. Putting in time with valences and those cute wooden models of atoms and molecules which could be taken apart is for a different path in school.
    You don’t need college-track, theory-heavy science to be skeptical about something somebody’s trying to sell you–AGW, for example–or the idea that the any concentration, no matter how small, of something dangerous in large amounts must be similarly dangerous if discovered at one part per nanomillion by our sooperdooper new bosonscope. Etc.

  6. Learning to interpret data is more difficult than it seems. Students need to know the relevant theoretical info, understand variables, controls, the best way to measure their variables, etc. Students not only would need explicit textbook instruction, they need to be taught how to set up an experiment. On one hand, setting up and interpreting simple experiments should be manageable. On the on the other hand, the difference between my undergrad degree and my doctorate was an additional 5 years of training in setting up experiments and interpreting data. Lots of ‘health research’ doesn’t seem to differentiate between an observation and an experiment, so its not too surprising that kids can’t do it.

  7. >“For example, 71 percent of fourth graders could select how volume
    >changes when ice melts, but only 15 percent could explain why
    >that happened using evidence from the experiment.”

    >I don’t see how the kiddies are supposed to answer that with
    >data from their ice-melting experiment.

    Easy: ice floats and sticks up out of the water. This means it is less dense than water. When ice melts, the level of water doesn’t change, but the volume is less (no ice projects up above the surface of the water). Therefore, the density of the water (mass per volume) is greater for liquid water than for solid water.

    Interestingly, you can get into great arguments with less clearheaded individuals when you note that the melting of the northern ice cap, at least the part that is floating, would have no direct effect on sea level. I’ve actually seen people get angry when confronted by this.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Rob. I expect there are people who get angry when they find that other people know better. That’s the sort of thing non-STEM folks can use profitably, even if they didn’t mess with molecular weights and whatnot.