WHY a DEDICATED UNIT on the Nature of Science?

In order for evolution, climate change (and many other science topics) to be properly understood as a science, ENSI maintains that a thorough introduction to the real nature of modern science is a necessary prerequisite. Common misconceptions about the Nature of Science (NOS) must be exposed and repaired. Research tells us that the best way to do this is to teach NOS in a dedicted unit, EXPLICITLY. The lessons included here are intended to do just that.

For the MOST EFFECTIVE, research-supported, and field-tested way to TEACH the Nature of Science, using our NOS lessons, try this...

Science Surprises: Exploring the Nature of Science. This book is for students in any science class, grades 7-10. It integrates and extends selected NOS lessons from the ENSI site. This unit satisfies ALL NOS standards in the NGSS and Common Core. Click Here for Details.

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Key Elements of the Nature of Science
NOS Lesson Selection Matrix
STEM, NGSS, CCS Features of ENSI lessons
Teaching Tips for Teaching NOS
NGSS NOS Standards Matrices

Intended Audience/Grade Level

 These lessons are intended for use in any high school science course. However, many can be used in middle school / junior high school, possibly with slight modification depending on teacher's style and approach, and the experience and level of students. Many have also been used in junior college and lower division university levels.

Titles in Black Are Still Evolving


Realm and Limits

Basic Processes

Social Context



Realm and Limits

Flat Earth

 Students are exposed to a compelling idea: the Earth really IS flat! They are challenged to provide the evidence for a spherical earth, then present the evidence (experiences) for a flat earth, discuss the relative strengths of the evidence, and reach conclusions. They look at the nature of science and pseudoscience, and examine the "flat earth" idea in that context. The role of science in exposing illusions in nature is also mentioned.

Magic Hooey Stick

  A piece of notched wooden dowling, with a smaller dowling "propellor" at one end, is rubbed with a small stick, which causes the propellor to rotate. On command "Hooey", the propellor stops and reverses direction, "magically". This is an excellent vehicle to address natural illusions and how science can effectively reveal them.

Sunsets, Souls and Senses

  Explores the realm and limits of science. Engages students to give examples of topics that can be studied by science, and those that cannot. This also takes a look at descriptive terms which reflect the true nature of modern science, and those which do not, especially those which do not fit the popular perceptions of science.

Perception is Not Always Reality (T-Illusion)

  Various visual illusions are used to engage and intrigue students, all raising the question "Why is this an illusion?" With interest piqued, students are engaged to answer this question about the
, proposing hypotheses to explain what makes it an illusion, then designing simple experiments to test those hypotheses. This is extended to a look at natural illusions, and how science effectively reveals their reality.

How's Your Horoscope?

 Is astrology a science, pseudoscience, or a non-science? A major premise of astrology is that one's birth sign correlates with a particular collection of personality traits and interests. In order to test that premise, students compare their own traits with standard astrological descriptions, THEN learn whether their actual birthday matches the corresponding astrological dates. Simple statistical calculations reveal likely results due to chance. Discussion explores various explanations for results matching expectations for chance alone, and for results which do not match. The reasons that astrology is a pseudoscience are also examined.

CONPTT: Science vs Non-Science (Mini-Lesson)

 Explores six criteria of science (CONPTT), with definitions and self-check questions. Compares "Emerging Science", "Non-Science", and "Pseudoscience", with definitions and examples. Activity engages students in analyzing a collection of paragraphs to decide which category each fits into.

Drops on a Penny



Basic Processes

Find the Washer

 A closed box is shown to the class. It can be seen that 3 wires run through the box lengthwise and 3 more run through it widthwise, creating a grid of 6 crossed wires. The class is told that there is a metal washer somewhere on one or two of the wires inside the box. The challenge is to propose a series of "tests" (pulling out the wires, one at a time, listening for the washer to drop) in such a way that the washer's location can be ascertained.

Three-Hole Bottle

 Another discrepant event problem is probed, to help students get familiar with the process of science. A plastic bottle with three holes covered with tape is filled with water and capped. Students predict what may happen as the tape is removed from each hole in turn, and hypothesize about the cause of the observed results.

The Great Volume Exchanger

 Use of a discrepant event piques curiosity and provides an excellent metaphor for a problem in science that can be addressed in a scientific way. Water is poured into a "magic" box, and out comes a much larger volume of water (or other liquid).

The Great Fossil Find

 Students are taken on an imaginary fossil hunt. Following a script read by the teacher, students "find" (remove from envelope) paper "fossils" of some unknown creature, only a few at a time. Each time, they attempt to reconstruct the creature, and each time their interpretation tends to change as new pieces are "found".

Teaching About Evolution & Special Creation (Mini-Lesson)

 A recent article in the ABT Journal by Anton Lawson presents a clever and interesting activity which provides vivid experience in the Fair-Test approach scientists use to determine the "Best Explanation". Students study a representative collection of fossils from the total geological column, look for patterns of fossil distributions, and raise testable questions about which idea (spontaneous generation, special creation, or evolution) best explains the origin of life's diversity and is consistent with the patterns observed in the fossil record.

Becoming Whales: Discovery and Confirmation

 Students experience the historical discovery of fossils which inreasingly link whales to earlier land-dwelling mammals. This experience also reveals how scientists can make predictions about past events, based on the theory that whales evolved from certain groups of early land mammals. Such predictions suggest the age and location of sediments where fossils of early whales would most likely be found. They looked. And the fossils are being found!

Oat Seed Lab

 Oat seeds are "planted" in a particular environmental context, in the first week of the course, during an intensive introduction to the Nature of Science. Concurrent with that introduction, students record their daily measurements, process those data (graphically and statistically), and prepare a formal report, using sample reports as a model. Introduces the use of a simple statistical tool to measure significant differences.


Social Context

Mystery Boxes

 Students manipulate sealed "mystery" boxes which contain a moving ball and a fixed barrier or two, and attempt to deduce the inner structure of the boxes. The nature and sources of uncertainty inherent in the process of problem-solving are experienced. The Social Context of science is also explored, with the roles of collaboration and past experience biases being emphasized.

Palpating Pachyderms

 This lesson is built around the poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887): "The Blind Men and the Elephant". Through small group activity and class discussions, the limiting influence of incomplete data and bias, along with the value of collaboration, are experienced.

Sketch a Scientist (Mini-Lesson)

 Students draw their perceptions of a typical scientist, evaluate stereotypes in their drawings quantitatively, and then discuss the origins of these stereotypes.

False Assumptions...

 Little deceptive problem stories are presented to the class, and students are challenged to solve each problem by asking only yes/no questions. The key is for students to recognize what the False Assumption is that makes the solution tricky, and that many common problems are difficult to solve because we tend to assume a particular paradigm. Science is a way to work around or through those false assumptions.

Crime Scene (The Case of the Missing Computer Chip) ML

 A simulated crime scene is presented for teams of students to solve, using clues received piecemeal, adjusting hypotheses as more clues are found and discussed. The elements of science are recognized through discussion of the crime solution metaphor.

A Crime Against Plants

 Crime scene investigations serve as excellent examples of how science can explain past events by careful observation and analysis of present evidence. This lesson provides a novel opportunity for students to examine the evidence of a puzzling phenomenon involving a small tree, and with a little research, arrive at a reasonable explanation of what happened. Helps to fulfill the National Science Standards for the History and Nature of Science and specific content goals in the Life Science and Earth/Space Science standards.

Checks Lab

 Each team has an envelope containing a series of bank checks. A few are removed at a time, and the team attempts to construct a plausible scenario which involves those checks. With each subsequent removal of checks, appropriate revision of the scenario is done. Final scenarios are compared by the class. Class discussion is designed to show how human values and biases influence observation and interpretation, even in science.

Laetoli Trackway Puzzle

 Footprint diagrams were made from the trackway of Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy's" species) at the Laetoli site in East Africa. They are topographic in nature, showing details of depth and superposition. Students are asked a series of probing questions, some requiring direct observation, others expecting inferences and analysis. This is an excellent example of an historical problem-solving exercise, using clues to derive a likely picture of a past event, very much like crime scene scientists must do. It's also open-ended, where students try to reach a "best explanation" based on the data and reasonable interpretations, with no "correct answer" available.


Women's Brains (Bias)

 Analysis and class discussion of a Stephen Jay Gould essay on bias in science.

Therapeutic Touch: An Inquiry

 Students experience bias by testing the idea that we have an “aura” by which others can sense our presence. This is done by holding a hand about 15 cm (6 in.) above one or the other of another person’s outstretched hands (randomly selected), and that person reports if there is any sensation experienced in that hand.  This is done 15 times with the subject’s eyes open, then 15 times with the subject blindfolded. By comparing and discussing results, students come to recognize the placebo effect (a kind of confirmation bias), and the value of of a “blind” experiment to test this effect. They also see how the “Therapeutic Touch” idea is an example of a pseudoscience.

Model, Model, Who's Got the Model?

 A model-evaluation activity. A set of 5 scenarios (models for how diverse life came into existence on Earth) is divided evenly throughout the class, so each student is asked to evaluate one model. Students then come together in groups of 5, so that all 5 models are represented in each group, where the 5 models are compared and evaluated. Each group reports out to the entire class for further discussion and clarifications.



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