Communicating science is often limited to talking about the things that science has discovered. Although interesting, it creates a disconnect between the audience and the scientific endeavor. How can we improve how we talk and teach about science so that audiences understand how the process works and can feel comfortable using it, even in everyday contexts?

Imagine if We Taught Movie-Making the Way We Teach Science …

You saw a great movie and now want to make movies too. You watch all the behind-the-scenes extras on the DVDs and YouTube. You meet some of the stars and producers and writers at public events. And now you can take a course about movie-making centered around that great movie!

You sit down in your class, open your notes excitedly.

You receive the syllabus.

And you’re going to be spending the whole semester memorizing the names and backstories of the primary, secondary, and tertiary characters. You’ll be quizzed on plot details. For practical experience, you get to use outdated equipment to recreate scenes from the movie (which will be graded on how accurately they replicate the original scene).

Now you don’t want to make movies anymore.

What went wrong? Science tells amazing (evidence-based) stories about how the universe works. But too often in science education contexts, we focus on telling the stories that others have built without showing people how to build those same stories themselves. As a result, scientific stories look no different than any other stories that humans tell, and often look weaker because new observations constantly modify scientific stories, giving the impression that we can’t decide what story we want to tell (when in reality, we are improving our stories to better reflect the way the universe actually works).

How do we fix this? You can’t teach what you don’t understand. So first, we need to identify the skills of scientific thinking.

Reimagining Science Education

An ideal science course would teach the skills of science. These aren’t lab skills, but instead, critical thinking skills. They include evaluation skills for:

  • Observations (evaluating them for reproducibility and validity)
  • Assumptions (evaluating them for falsifiability and simplicity)
  • Models (evaluating them for comprehensiveness and groundedness)

How does this look in practice? Explore this concept lesson developed for the online astrobiology lab course Habitable Worlds:

Philosophy of Science (Concept Lesson)

Initial research results from this lesson identify the concepts with which students have particular difficulty, and also show improvements in differentiating between hypotheses and theories (terms that students and the public often conflate with “guesses”). This improved science pedagogy and initial results are being submitted for peer review and eventual publication in the scientific literature this summer.

Once we identify the skills of science that every science educational experiences should teach, we can start to recast our educational experiences to train those skills, using whatever science concepts we find most important or interesting.

For more information on how to incorporate elements of this improved science pedagogy in your classroom, consider our educator training workshop.