The Cube Exercise and the Methods of Science

This activity is used by Barbara Bekken at Virginia Tech and is modified from a similar activity published in 1998 by the National Academy of Sciences in a volume entitled Teaching about evolution and the nature of science; National Academy Press: Washington DC, p. 66-73.
Virginia Tech, Geosciences
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In this 30 to 45 minute small group activity, students work initially in small groups of 3 to 5 and subsequently as a large group of 18 to 30 to pool data to solve a puzzle. The steps for solving the puzzle are analogous to both descriptive and experimental methods of science. The process of collaborating over the results of the activity are analogous to the scientific collaborative process. And finally, the process of reporting out the model that student groups develop is analogous to the scientific communication process for both research reports and review papers. As students develop a hypothetical model for the puzzle, most succumb to an assumption they make along the way, reinforcing the power of assumptions to constrain the envisioning process.

Learning Goals

The primary goal of this activity is to make explicit two common methods of science—descriptive and experimental—by practicing these methods through the analogy of solving a puzzle. A secondary goal is to impress upon students how easy it is to make assumptions that limit them from developing new and novel insights into solving a problem.

Methods of Geoscience

This activity directly addresses the process of using descriptive and experimental methods to solve problems. It also links these methods with the style of research reports that communicate findings from each of these methods.

Context for Use

This activity works well in a laboratory, workshop, or small class setting of between 15 and 40 students who are sophomore to senior level. It is effective in any empirical discipline that uses both descriptive and experimental methods. No special equipment is needed other than a few printed pieces of paper that need to be folded and taped into cubes in advance of class.

Description and Teaching Materials

The file named "The Cube Exercise" describes the activity. The file named "Cube" is a copy of the cube that needs to be built for the exercise. The latter is published in: National Academy of Sciences (1998). Teaching about evolution ad the nature of science. National Academy Press: Washington DC, p. 66-73. The Cube Exercise (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 152kB Jun26 12)
Cube (Acrobat (PDF) 79kB Jun26 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips


At the conclusion of the exercise, ask students to write a five minute reflection on how this exercise is analogous to the way in which geoscientists approach a given problem. Provide students with a particular problem that can be informed by both descriptive and experimental approaches and that has been limited by incorrect assumptions (for example, "How does the cube exercise relate to the methods of science used to decipher the history of the Channeled Scablands?")

References and Resources

The cube for this exercise is available in the following publication:
National Academy of Sciences (1998). Teaching about evolution and the nature of science. National Academy Press: Washington DC, p. 66-73.