The "What is Science?" Box

This page authored by Jennifer Anderson, Winona State University, based on an activity that she participated in during a science teaching discussion led by Larry Wakeford, Senior Lecturer in Education and Director of Biology/Science Education, Brown University.
Winona State University, Geoscience
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In this activity, a group of 3-4 students are presented with a box that has writing on the five visible sides. Their task is to determine what is on the bottom of the box without touching the box in any way or moving from their seats. In solving this problem, students are using the same techniques that scientists use to learn about nature.

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Learning Goals

The main goal of this activity is to demonstrate how science is done and how we do science all the time simply by solving problems that life throws at us. The Teacher's Guide has a very complete list of connections between this activity and the process of science.

Methods of Geoscience

This activity models the methods of science generally. It applies to the methods of geoscience as well and could be modified to highlight these connections.

Context for Use

I have used this activity in many courses and workshops when talking about the nature of science. Typically, this activity is used in the "Investigative Science" content course sequence for elementary education majors at Winona State University as part of the introduction to the Nature of Science on the first or second day of class. There are 32 students in groups of four at four tables, one person on each edge of the table.

Prior to class, I set up a box on the center of each table, each box oriented the same direction with respect to the room (this way, a student can't see another side of the box just by looking to the next table). I cover each box with a kitchen towel and students are not allowed to touch the box/towel as they arrive in class. I have students put their heads down on the table while I uncover the boxes and then they can open their eyes to make observations.

I typically use this activity with no introduction except to tell them to figure out what is written on the bottom of the box. They are not allowed to shift substantially in their chairs. I usually wait until someone asks, but they are allowed to use paper and write/sketch if they'd like.

I have done this activity with middle-school students and also with in-service teachers during teach workshops. I have followed up by having students design their own boxes and I also designed a box using geological symbols.

Description and Teaching Materials

Please see the Teacher's Guide for a complete description of how to create these "What is Science" boxes, how I use this activity in my class, and the topics that I highlight during our class discussion. Teacher's Guide for the "What is Science?" box activity (Acrobat (PDF) 103kB Jun26 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips


References and Resources