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Ways of Knowing in the Sciences (Integrated Liberal Studies 153)

Nancy Ruggeri
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Ways of Knowing in the Sciences is a course that focuses more on how scientists figure things out than what that knowledge is. The course emphasizes a deeper understanding of the contexts within which scientific knowledge is constructed than traditional science courses. We discuss the ways in which scientists make sense of the natural world in the past, understand the present and make predictions for the future. An integral part of this process is to understand the different methods scientists use, the way they work together as a community, and how that community interacts with and reflects society at large.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Integrated lecture and lab

Course Context:

This is a 4 credit, general science course that is taught at the introductory level. It satisfies the undergraduate physical sciences requirement and is open to all grade levels. We typically have an even distribution of freshmen-seniors from a wide variety of majors, predominantly in the humanities. (e.g., French, journalism, political science). The course is recommended in the School of Education for pre-service teachers.

Course Goals:

In the context of the course modules on planetary motion, plate tectonics, evolutionary biology and global climate change, the goals for the course include:
  • Students will understand how scientists use different ways of knowing via empirical and theoretical approaches to answer questions about the natural world;
  • Students will identify the methods scientists use to answer scientific questions;
  • Students understand that scientific knowledge is subject to change given new data, interpretations and models;
  • Students understand that there are uncertainties inherent in scientific data and interpretations, and that scientists have particular ways of addressing them.

Course Features:

Teaching the Process of Science

The format of our course involves meeting for almost two hours (110 minutes) twice a week. This allows ample time for small group work and large group discussions. In general, each class period is comprised of about 20-30 minutes of PowerPoint lecture, 40-50 minutes or activities, 20-30 minutes of small group discussions, and 30-40 minutes of large group discussion. Our approach to the reading assignments has been to integrate perspectives from historians (Naomi Oreskes) and philosophers of science (TS Kuhn) as well as from scientists who have written about the process of science (Pollack, Feynman). Each week, we assigned readings from the NYT Science Times as well as articles such as Richard Feynman's commencement address entitled "Cargo Cult Science." We required written reflections on the readings and held discussions about them in class. In addition, we implemented a variety of group activities that illustrate elements of the process of science in context.


Assessment in the course took multiple forms and was very qualitative in nature. Formative assessments involved a combination of: weekly reflection questions, essays on readings, in-class discussions, minute papers, and ungraded open-ended questions on quizzes such as "Do you have any questions that arose from lecture or the readings this week?" (this type of question elicited some very interesting thoughts and preconceptions throughout the semester). Summative assessments took the form of group assignments and quizzes and exams (comprised of short answer and essay questions). We gave students short quizzes (3-4 questions) about every other week, and two longer exams (10-12 questions) at midterm and at the end of the course. We also developed a pre-and post-test instrument and implemented an online tool, Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) at the end of the semester.


Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

  • Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything - It provides a nice overview of a broad array of major scientific discoveries while portraying scientists and their discoveries with a good dose of humor and humanity.