Ordeal by Check: An introductory activity about the Nature of Science
In this science capstone laboratory class for pre-service teachers, students are introduced on the first day of class to how scientific knowledge develops, often referred to as nature of science (NOS). Students write answers independently to questions on the NOS survey, then discuss their answers in small groups, and finally share with the entire class during a brief discussion. As a group they establish NOS tenets.
Small groups (about 4 students) then engage in the "Ordeal by Check" activity, which involves creating a story based on evidence and adjusting their story based on more evidence. By the end of the activity the instructor leads a class discussion about several of the NOS tenets that became evident as the activity unfolded, such as how scientific knowledge is durable but tentative (when new evidence is found), how scientific activity requires both being logical/systematic and creative/imaginative, and how science and its methods cannot answer all questions.
Learn more about the course for which this activity was developed.
Students should become familiar with the nature of science (NOS) (i.e., how scientific knowledge develops). The NOS tenets used in this lesson include that (1) scientific knowledge is durable but tentative, (2) scientific activity requires both being logical/systematic and creative/imaginative, (3) because of social, historical, and cultural influences, science can be subjective and have bias, (4) science and its methods cannot answer all questions, (5) there is no such thing as a single scientific method, and (6) scientific knowledge is a product of both observation and inference.
Students will use higher-order thinking skills, such as synthesizing their observations as more evidence (i.e., data) becomes available. They will be working in groups and will be presenting their findings orally to the class.
Context for Use
This activity is to be performed on the first day of an upper division laboratory course that is required for, and restricted to, Liberal Studies majors at a large state university. Some of the students are in a 4-year pre-credential program whereas others are in integrated programs from which they will graduate with a Bachelor's and a teaching credential. The laboratory sections are limited to 32 students, and typically seven sections are offered each semester. Following an introduction to the NOS that includes completing and discussing the NOS survey, which could take up to 30 minutes, they perform the Ordeal by Check activity (30-40 minutes). Afterwards the instructor leads a class discussion during which each group summarizes their story.
Materials needed include the actual checks placed in envelopes. Nine checks per group are needed, with three common checks among all groups. This activity should be easy to adapt to any science class.
Description and Teaching Materials
- In your group, take out three of the nine checks from the envelope. Do not look at the other checks.
- Examine the checks (evidence) and write a short story of what happened. To help in this task, you may want to (a) organize your checks in some specific way, for example, by date or name of the check writer; and/or (b) pay attention to the dates, the people writing the checks, and the addresses on the checks. Draw a line under your story when finished.
- Take out three more checks from the envelope. Use the additional information to continue/modify/rewrite your story. Again, draw a line under your story when finished.
- Repeat with the remaining three checks.
- Prepare to present your final story to the rest of the class. Support your story with evidence (the checks).
Although each group has 9 different checks from which they constructed their story, there are three common checks that all groups have. Thus it is interesting to see how each group's story used the same "pieces of evidence" in a different way. Conclude the activity by emphasizing that they are using evidence to create a story, and then adjusting the story based upon new evidence. This is analogous to the development and advancement of a theory. For example, the theory of plate tectonics changes as new evidence is collected.
Blank checks (Acrobat (PDF) 1.7MB May16 07)
Checks from 1903-1931 (Microsoft Word 3.4MB May16 07)
Checks from 1977-2005 (Microsoft Word 5.6MB May16 07)
NOS survey and answer key (Microsoft Word 22kB Apr13 07)
Teaching Notes and Tips
- NOS survey. First ask students to write answers independently (discussion will follow). To save time, I suggest giving one group (i.e., each table of four students) one question each, rather than having everyone in the class answer all five questions.
- Have each group discuss their group's question among themselves to see if there is a consensus. (NOTE that this is a good time to have students introduce themselves to each other since they will probably remain is the same group for the semester.) Tell them to plan to "report out" a summary of their discussion (next activity).
- As a class discuss each of the five items. Have each group begin the discussion of the particular question that they were assigned to answer. Write on the board or chart paper the five basic tenets. You will want to return to this material throughout the semester. NOTE: there are six tenets listed in the lab manual even though the survey only considers five of them:
- Scientific knowledge is durable but tentative.
- Scientific activity requires both being logical/systematic and creative/imaginative.
- Because of social, historical, and cultural influences, science can be subjective and have bias.
- Science and its methods cannot answer all questions.
- There is no such thing as a single scientific method.
In addition to referring regularly to the NOS tenets and checking that students understand how they apply to a given laboratory exercise, we include short essay questions in exams that check student understanding. Note that we do not ask students to memorize tenets. They are provided with them to help on the exam questions.
Example 1: In the past, people believed that the earth's seasons were the result of earth's changing distance from the sun. Today we know that the seasons are the result of the tilt of earth's axis of rotation relative to the orbital plane around the sun. Choose one of the Nature of Science tenets to explain how this change in our understanding of the earth illustrates how scientific knowledge develops.
Example 2: There are many types of data that can be collected related to the weather in a given area (e.g., humidity, wind speed and direction, temperature, air pressure, etc.). Even with large amounts of data, meteorologists ("weather men/women") cannot always predict the weather accurately. Because of this, some people feel that "scientists don't know what they are talking about" when it comes to the weather. Use one of the Nature of Science tenets to explain how scientists' inability to predict the weather 100% of the time is, in fact, aligned with how scientific knowledge develops.
Example 3: In the past, people believed that the sun and planets of our solar system revolved around the earth. Today we know that the sun is at the center of our solar system. Choose one of the Nature of Science tenets to explain how this change in our understanding of the solar system illustrates how scientific knowledge develops.
References and Resources
Nature of Science: Our custom lab manual includes a reprint from Methods for Training Elementary School Science, Fifth edition, L. A. Montgomery, Ed., Prentice Hall, Inc., 2005.