The Nature of Science as a planned activity

by Michael Fenton, as shared with the Primary Science Teacher Fellows

What should we see happening in our classes if the students are truly experiencing what science is all about?

Is there a problem with Science education in New Zealand?

Clearly, the answer is Yes. A number of reports indicate that the way Primary and Secondary Science is delivered does not match the way scientists work or make discoveries.

Why is this important?

The recent recession demonstrates that entrepreneurship on its own does not create real wealth or real benefits, but new products are needed. The growing awareness for new technologies to be sustainable in terms of their 'footprint' (the harm they do) is now leading to a concept of technologies also having a 'hand print' - they benefit the environment without this being the main reason for their production.

As a research scientist who has retrained as a science teacher, and having carried out research in education, I have some suggestions of where teachers could start leading their schools in developing science units that effectively integrate the "nature of science" strand of the curriculum.

But don't you need to teach / know a lot of science content first?

Some reflections that may help…

  • Early pioneers such as Isaac Newton and Galileo did NOT have any 'science' content knowledge….it didn't exist yet!
  • What made them 'scientists' was the way they went about their wonderings about the world around them.
  • ONE way to think like a scientist is to simply be willing to put your ideas to the test.
  • TKI website for more but remember that this is just ONE perspective on the Nature of Science (NoS)

Nature of Science strand - compulsory up to Year 10

It is now compulsory for secondary schools as well as primary schools to cover the Nature of Science strand. You may like to use and add to Chris Astall's checklist for activities that support the Nature of Science strand

Building Science Concepts and Making Better Sense of Science

The BSC and MBS books are very useful for novice as well as experienced science teachers:

Both books provide
  • guidance as to the important science concepts in a particular context
  • activities to help develop these ideas

The BSC books provide:
  • teacher background science knowledge all in one place: useful for other topics too
  • common problems children experience in grappling with science concepts 
This series of 64 books published by the Ministry of Education is designed to help primary teachers build students’ science concepts in the contextual strands.
A table of titles which allows teachers to search by level and contextual strand is included in this section. Each title has an associated concept overview in PDF format.

Susan Hagedorn has summarised the entire BSC series according to content, themes and activities

Teachers that support scientific thinking will:

Raise interest in a subject

  • Are there any puzzles, riddles, problems or 'weird' stuff happening related to ANY topic you are working on this term?
    • eg ' Different Cultures' - language involves people speaking…how does sound get from one place to another? Can it bounce? Can it reflect? Can people communicate without sound? Has new technology been invented to replace sight, taste or hearing? Have different cultures contributed different science knowledge to the world?
    • eg, 'The Final Frontier' - what were the other frontiers BEFORE the final one? What difficulties did people have to overcome when entering a new frontier? - food, climate hazards, etc. What drove people to enter new frontiers? - food, climate change, minerals, etc? What technologies are required to explore new environments? How do movies and TV shows portray the Final Frontier? What functions does a spacesuit provide?
  • What knowledge or interests do the children already have about this topic that could incorporate ideas from the Goldsworthy '"It's not fair' article?  (TKI similar summary here )
    • Modelling, classifying and identifying, pattern seeking, making things or developing systems, exploring, and of course, fair testing.
    • It is OK to start from the child's perspective…eg, that the world is flat. We have ideas based on what our senses tell us and this is where science begins. Many adults would have difficulty explaining how we know the world is round. Try standing in the child's shoes and wonder - how could we test our idea OR look at the world a different way?
  • Ask fellow teachers to add their ideas and interests to the unit; if the teacher is motivated and enthusiastic about their own twist on a unit of work, it is likely their students will pick up on this enthusiasm. Use differences in approaches as a strength of the school.

Identify specific questions of interest for follow up

  • Have students build up a portfolio of work; digital images, movies, slideshows, games, models, working systems (technology), a play or story, science fair poster, etc. Students could re-create famous disasters such as the Titanic sinking - make a model boat and experiment with different sized rudders (the rudder on the Titanic, if bigger, might have permitted the ship to miss the iceberg)
  • If time permits, allow students to do a number of cycles of investigation and get them to either widen or deepen their work in the unit.

Get their hands dirty!

  • Beginning a unit using ICT, books or video's is OK… but the nature of science means evaluating our judgements against real-world consequences.
  • It is OK to learn with / from the students…experiencing things as the children do is an excellent place to begin learning…for all ages.
  • Learning content often comes as a consequence of an experience in the real world. You can always ask someone else for help on content…ask a mentor!

Help students assess their new understanding in relation to consequences for further learning

  • Does the new understanding offer opportunities for more investigation to be done? More data to collect? New categories to be created? New systems to be invented?
  • Can this new knowledge be shared so others may benefit? If so, in what form?
  • Is there some 'content' knowledge that would now be appropriate for the student to acquire? If so, in what form?

Help students assess their new understanding in relation to others

  • Does the new understanding have any similarities or differences to current thinking about this topic?
  • What impact on society has there been / could there be from using this knowledge?

The nature of science encourages endless cycles of learning by action!


Inquiry model / Scientific Investigation model in mathematics


Practical investigations for Primary and Secondary students

Fun! Science activities and technical projects

Winning Science Fair projects


Build you own inexpensive lab equipment

Success stories from school students

Scientific Journalism 1st place winner - A Year 8 student asks 'Do the benefits of science outweigh the risks?' As printed by the Royal Society

Classroom noise meter - a 10 year old student's science fair project is being commercially produced by the National Foundation for the Deaf

A team effort - students of different ages, abilities and interests make a great team for New Zealands school-based research group


Why hands-on Science is important and a great learning opportunity ...

The Primary Science Teacher Fellows (PSTF) programme, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, goes some way to addressing the science issue. Oddly, rather than the Ministry of Education (MoE) taking responsibility for this, the PSTF programme is sponsored by the Minsitry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST).

Learning from Life: Communities of Learning via a Connected Curriculum. Microsoft Innovative Teachers conference, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2009.

ICT: Interested in Conversations and Thinking - technology is less important than the conversations it permits students to have with their teacher. For the techno-phobic this puts the student in the role of expert technologist but the teacher remains the expert assessor.
Teaching and the f word: From the New Zealand INTERFACE article....putting the fun back into teaching while dealing with the competing tensions of assessment and covering the curriculum. For primary and secondary teachers

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