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Teaching the Nature of Science

A Sample Unit Plan
For High School Biology
by Larry Flammer

 Appeal for other sample unit plans

Much of the following plan has been used by its author, with considerable success. There is an infinite variety of ways for teaching the nature of science (or any other topic, for that matter). If you have developed a plan which works for you, and utilizes at least some of the lessons on the ENSI web site, LET US KNOW! Contact the webmaster, giving us at least an outline of your approach. We will add any such unit plan on this web site, with full attributions to its developer.


A high-impact introductory unit on the nature of modern science, especially in Biology, is at the heart of the ENSI program. One of the overriding goals of science teaching today should be to help our young people become scientifically literate.

Click here to see a more complete presentation of
the ENSI rationale.

 The Importance of Teaching
the Nature of Science

This short article explains why it's so important to introduce any science course with a healthy dose of the nature of science, using interactive lessons e.g., those on the ENSI site. This must go well beyond the usual "Scientific Method" typically presented in textbooks. It must address the many aspects of science that are so often misrepresented by those who, for various reasons, try to use science for supporting their own unscientific agenda (these are "pseudosciences"), or to belittle science. Teachers must make sure that their students understand the true nature of science, its realm, rules and limits, and why pseudosciences are pseudosciences, not to be confused with legitimate science.

How to Present These Lessons for Maximum Effect,

What IS the Nature of Scince?

 Science Knowledge Survey

In order to get an untainted insight into any misconceptions about science that your students may have, you may want to administer a short pre-test within the first day or so of the course. So, after your dramatic opening (see below), plan to insert your pre-test (or Science Knowledge Survey) in some 15-20 minute time slot as early as you can. Take a look at this "Science Knowledge Survey" as an example. If you have the means, you may find that an item-analysis of the questions would be very revealing. You could even share the frequencies of hits and misses for each item (or selected items) with your class as an opening to discussion, or as a rationale for the need to take a look at What Science is NOT (see below).

At the end of the unit, or end of the course, you could use this same test as a "post-test" to see how much your students have improved, and/or to see how effective your teaching has been.

 The First Days

Try to open the course with some sort of dramatic "grabber". This will get their attention, and instantly impress your students that this is not just another "ho-hum" course. (In fact, you should try to do SOMETHING off the wall, dramatic, unusual or unexpected EVERY DAY, so that your students will look forward to being there, everyday, with great anticipation).

Two different scenarios are suggested here. They have both been used, with considerable success (as measured by pre/post testing). You could even try combining elements of both scenarios. Either one will, in an exciting way, lay the groundwork for introducing the nature of science.

Scenario A: Illusions

1. Blind Spot
2. Other Illusions in Nature
3. Intentional Illusions
4. "Perception is not always reality". At some point make it clear that the natural world is full of illusions, and simple common sense doesn't always work to explain such illusions. This is where science is especially useful to help us dig out the real story....the most accurate explanation.

Scenario B: Deep Ignorance

This dramatic opening emphasizes the idea that we actually know very little about the universe, compared to what we could know. There is so-o-o-o much we do not even know we don't know! That's "DEEP IGNORANCE". And science seems to be the most effective tool we have for trying to understand at least some of that vast unknown universe. This approach is especially nice if you want to encourage your students to consider science as a possible career. Many students may think that just about everything to discover MUST have already been discovered. In spite of all of the amazing discoveries of the past, each new discovery opens many new doors... there is still so much to be learned... and there always WILL be!

RESOURCE: A very interesting book, just out (1999), by Ken Miller, is "Finding Darwin's God" (see "What's New", go to "Book News"). The author touches on how what we are calling "Deep Ignorance" may actually be built into the universe, a product of quantum theory. In addition, Miller does an excellent job of correcting the widespread popuar misunderstanding of evolution and the many arguments put forth against it, including the current effort to bring in "intelligent-design theory". The evidence and the reasoning behind the age of the earth, radiometric dating, and speciation are presented clearly and succinctly, begging for someone to put the material into neat interactive teaching lessons. That's YOUR CHALLENGE. If you do it, please share them with us here at ENSI, so we can share them with the world of biology teachers.

 The Followup: So, Just What is Science?

A. What Science is NOT
  Twelve common misconceptions are presented and discussed briefly. Make an overhead version, listing in large print the 12 items without the explanation. Reveal each myth, and get students to explain why it's not true. Great discussion maker.

B. Then What IS Science?

 A working definition of science is presented (on your overhead?) and briefly discussed. In addition, you could go over some of the underlying assumptions about modern science, and you could also present some of the limitations of science. Alternatively (preferably?), you could address these less well known aspects of science after doing all or most of the following lessons. Handing out this one-page summary is probably a bit too heavy at this time. Try handing out as a summing up after the following lessons have been completed, perhaps just before your test on this unit.

For a very useful and successful lesson for students to become vividly aware of what science IS and is NOT, do our "Sunsets, Souls & Senses" lesson, where students explore this in depth. This is very critical to an accurate understanding of the real nature of science. The lesson includes an opportunity for students to find key terms associated with what science IS and is NOT, and links to an expanded explanation (pdf file) of why those terms are aligned as they are, especially since many of them are popularly associated in the opposite way! Working with this helps students to recognize many of their misconceptions about science.

For a more extended treatment of this, see Martin Nickel's "The Nature of Modern Science & Scientific Knowledge" on this site. It includes clarification of terminology and concepts about the nature of science.

C. How Scientists Pick Better Answers: Fair Tests

   A very important component of doing science is the ability to pick the better answers. Generally, there is only one explanation for how nature does what it does. Of the many hypotheses generated to solve a problem, they can't all be the "right one". So how do scientists select the one most likely to be the operational one? There are several criteria, and one of them can be called the "Fair Test". Go here to see how it works.

D. Some of the Important but Lesser Known Features of Science
   The following ENSI lessons (accessed from our "Nature of Science" section) could probably be used in a variety of sequences, as their applications to the sub-categories of the nature of science overlap each other to some degree. Not every lesson has to be done, or you could choose others from the Nature of Science Index, but you should do at least one in each of the three categories. I would recommend using the lessons marked with an "*" as a start.

   1. Exploring the Realm and Limits of Science
a. The Flat Earth
b. Sunsets, Souls and Senses
c. The Magic Hooey Stick
d. How's Your Horoscope?
e. The Great Volume Exchanger

   2. The Basic Processes of Science

a. The Great Volume Exchanger
b. Perception is not always reality (illusions)
c. The 3-Hole Bottle
d. Find the Washer

   3. The Social Context of Science (Collaboration, Bias, Assumptions)



a. Mystery Boxes
b. False Assumptions (continue throughout course)
c. Checks Lab (or The Great Fossil Find)
d. Women's Brains (bias)

 The Limits of Science

In the works is a text supplement which will address these lesser-known elements of science: especially its assumptions, and its limits. It has not gone unnoticed that such information is sadly lacking in most texts. The proposed booklet for students will contain easy-to-read versions of the above information, along with at least some of the lessons from the ENSI site, and built-in "self-check" questions from which students can monitor their own understanding.

A teacher's manual will accompany multiple copies of the student booklet. This will provide specific information for preparations and suggestions on how to present the material. There will also be a sample assessment tool (test).

If you are interested in such a supplement, please let the webmaster know. Your interest may be just the "kick" needed to get the product fine-tuned and published.