Michael and Christine
What is Science?
As an infant
repeatedly pushes a toy from its high chair she observes a pattern -
everything falls downward. Though she may not realise it, her mind is
attempting to build a model of the universe. As she learns to walk she
stumbles and again confirms the model. Then one day she releases a
helium balloon at a party and is surprised when the balloon does not
drop. Her ideas have been challenged and need to be revised to account
for the way the balloon drifts up into the sky...
Popper (1) encourages a similar approach in the search for scientific
knowledge. Old or young, male or female, we first must have a clear
idea of what scientific knowledge is before any experimentation is
possible. Scientific knowledge starts with problems, both theoretical
and practical. It is the search for objectively true explanatory
"A theory or
a statement is true, if the state of affairs described by the theory
corresponds to the facts - to reality."
It is not
the search for certainty. To err is human; for even with the greatest
care, we can never be quite sure that some errors have not eluded us.
on to trials and experiments and the elimination of errors by
criticism. Sir Karl reminds us that any idea may be put forward to
explain how the world works as long as it is testable. This is what the
post-graduate student finally gets to experience. The elimination of
errors by criticism comes by making public your findings and thereby
subjecting them to peer review. We do not have to wait until we are
certain that we are correct. Others will accept our idea if it has good
explaining power. We then hold onto that explanatory theory until we
make some observations that demonstrate it is false or we develop
another theory with greater explaining power.
It is no
surprise then that "Question Everything" has been the motto the Nexus
Research Group since it was founded in 1997. Whether it was challenging
current theories on evolution or perfecting a procedure to isolate
human DNA, the students have always been encouraged to experience first
hand what good science is all about. Now expanding the areas of
interest, here is a unique opportunity for students to develop the
skills required for life-long learning; problem solving, critical
thinking, technical skills, communication skills and self-reliance.
questions cannot be answered by using a scientific approach. Religious
beliefs generally depend on FAITH. Theses beliefs, unlike scientific
beliefs, are NOT testable...you either accept them or you don't. In
this way Science and Religion are not necessarily in conflict. They
deal with completely different views of the world around us.
(1) For more information
see NZ Science Review Vol. 48 (3-4), 1991 p56-66
Is there a place for research
To be honest, when we started in 1997,
most Science teachers I worked with or knew did not believe a child
could contribute anything useful or original to the Scientific
community. It seemed that teachers are the source of all knowledge and
it is they who fill the empty heads of their students. Students can not
know more than the teacher. Besides, schools are schools, not research
What many of those teachers seemed to
forget was that research skills are part of the New
Zealand curriculum. The so-called "experiments" carried out in class
were really only demonstrations the teacher had designed. And if they
had bothered to find out, many students would have politely told them
they were desperate to do something more meaningful than the, in their
words, "boring" demonstrations and assigments they were forced to do.
The reason they were bored is simple; the students have to find out
about topics they have no real interest in or answer questions the
teacher had asked, not them.
For those of us who are
teachers, it isn't always our fault! Often our options are limited by
NZQA assessment tasks. Ironically, in contrast to the statements from
the Minsitry of Education and NZQA, with the introduction of NCEA our
options seem to be even more limited!
Has the NCEA killed experiencing
real Science in schools?
I have been a member of the local Science
Fair organising committee for many years. With the introduction of the
National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) I have seen a
significant decline in the time spent doing authentic science in High
Schools. Coinciding with the introduction of NCEA in 2002, very few
senior students enter projects into the Fair. It appears that for years
now many schools do not place much importance in the practical nature
of science, and many colleagues blame the crowded curriculum robbing
them of time to pursue practical investigations. Atomising knowledge
into Achievement Standard chunks of learning means many students never
see how knowledge and experiences from ALL subjects contribute to
meaningful knowledge that lasts.
The Nexus Research Group model of
learning can make up for the deficiencies of foucusing solely on
assessment via the NCEA, and with some planning, can compliment
existing classwork and assessment tasks. In fact, with the introduction
of the new curriculum, this approach is justified further and can
permit students to develop many of the key competencies expected.
It was hoped that students would gain a better
understanding of the nature of science; that failure is common, that
failure is okay and can be learned from, that science involves ideas
that can be tested, and that lots of learning can come from a chance to
play and investigate the world just for curiosities sake. Authentic
learning was the focus for us all.
Rather than "just in case" learning (write
a report about this topic...in case it is useful one day) the NRG
students volunteered to take part in "just in time" learning (pick
your own topic, ask your own questions and find the answers if they
exist). The students discovered that to really understand a topic
they had to learn a little bit about many different but connected
disciplines. Through seminars and reports the students became better
communicators, better question writers, and could narrow in on one
particular question they wanted answered. They also developed patience,
persistance, an ability to see relationships (eg, SOLO
taxonomy) and higher thinking skills (eg, Bloom's taxonomy,
including affective and psychomotor skills). It became a true research
group once the students produced University post-graduate style
publications and attended science
conferences. They had bitten off a small part of a larger
problem and became thoroughly knowledgable about it.
- YES, there is a place for research in schools - it
is up to you as the teacher to decide how far you want to go - or
should it really be up to the student to decide?
- YES, "just in time" learning is more meaningful for
the student and can meet the requirements of NZQA assessment tasks -
the trick is how you merge the two!
- YES, it is OK for the teacher to say "I don't know" -
we forget students can teach themselves; we are really
just guides and time managers.
- YES, there is still a lot of stuff in science and
technology we do not know or understand. There is plenty for everyone.
Let your students have their own little piece of a puzzle to play with.
- YES, this type of research will lift their marks
across many subject areas, not just Science. We have seen this many
times with students of all ages and abilities.
- YES, anyone of any age or ability can work like this
- you just pick a very small piece of a larger problem. The student
then has a task suited to their ability and interests. Make them part
of a team with one aspect their sole responsibility.
- YES, if you carry out the work with appropriate
resources and equipment you can get your results published. Work with
experienceed researchers as mentors for advice.
Find details about Michael and Christines
qualifications and experience here...
Written on a research
lab wall at Massey University:
He who knows what he knows
not is a child; teach him
He who knows not what he
knows is asleep; wake him
He who knows not what he
knows not is a fool; shun him
He who knows what he knows
is wise; listen.
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