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Top 3 Science Concepts for a successful school year

Here are a few activities you may or may not have thought of for introducing science and teaching the scientific method.


Do your students think like scientists? Do they view themselves as scientists?


For years, at the end of a school term or the end of the school year, I asked myself this very question. I think all science teachers, especially those responsible for very young and impressionable students should.


As someone who has taught high school and college chemistry as well as lower school science (ages 11-14), I have noticed a few patterns.

  1. Students do not really understand the process of science

  2. Students hold a number of misconceptions

  3. students do not view themselves as scientists, leading to the "I'm just not cut out for this subject" self-talk.

As science teachers, I believe it is our responsibility to get our students to at least appreciate the scientific process and to first view themselves as scientists and this all begins ...well... at the beginning.


That is why, instead of diving straight into a new unit, it is important to cover some basics. I have put together a list of some of my favorite activities to get my students thinking and working like scientists, but most importantly, viewing themselves as scientists.


1. What Makes a Scientist?:

Superseding Stereotypes


Students need to first see themselves as scientists.


Research has shown that students' perceptions of science and scientists often reflect stereotypes (Finson, 2010) and these stereotypes make it difficult for students to see themselves as scientists.


Conduct a brief survey in your classroom and you may (or may not) be surprised to find that your students have warped ideas of what it means to be a scientist and what a scientist looks like.



Students often associate science with explosive reactions in a laboratory, carried out by an old white man, in a lab coat laughing manically over a frothing beaker with some unknown green liquid.

Therefore, you either have to be old, white, male, or crazy to be a successful scientist.


These stereotypes make it difficult for students to see themselves as scientists. It also doesn't help that textbooks and the media perpetuate these ideas.


Think of three successful scientists right now! I am positive that Albert Einstein was one of them. And the man should definitely be celebrated but this underscores my point.


According to Finson (2010), if students are able to see themselves as scientists they are more likely to devote time and engage in the subject matter more profoundly. And getting students more engaged leads to better learning outcomes.


One of the most effective ways of accomplishing this is to demonstrate that scientists are people from all walks of life and a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.


Activity 1: Draw a Scientist

First, have students acknowledge the stereotypes.


An activity based on the Draw a Scientist Test (Barman, 1996) enables me to get an idea of my student's currently held beliefs about what a scientist does and what a scientist looks like.


When I first carried out this activity with my students, ages 11-14, I was surprised by the results. Although I taught at an all-girls school in the Caribbean, none of the drawings depicted female scientists and hardly any were POC when I specifically instructed my students to use color to depict skin tone.


If you plan on doing this activity with your students, be sure to allow them to view the work of others as a means of generating discussion. This is best done as a gallery walk, or in small groups where students can compare and contrast their drawings.


You can then ask your students to explain, in writing why they drew the scientists as they did, and what are the commonalities among their drawings.


An extension to this activity is to also have students draw themselves as a scientist and explain their drawings.


I've put together some worksheets for this activity, you can download them for FREE from the members-only library. If you do not have access to the library you can gain access by clicking here.


Activity 2: Scientist's IG profile

Once you have established the stereotypes in your classroom, it would be meaningful to now have your students research a few scientists who have made great contributions to the scientific community that do not fit into the mold.


Instead of the usual: Albert Einstein, Issac Newton, Dmitri Mendeleev, etc., I prepare a list of scientists with diverse backgrounds including:

  • women who have made contributions to the scientific community

  • scientists from the Caribbean and other parts of the world

  • people of color

You can also create a list based on the stereotypes in your classroom.


To make the activity a bit more interesting, I ask students to create an Instagram Profile for their chosen scientist.


These profiles are then displayed on the class bulletin board (which is set up to look like a giant IG wall) or via a slide show which is then sent out to all students, that way students can learn about all the scientists from our list.

While researching their scientists and completing their profiles, I ask my students to think about the following :

  • did this scientist work alone or in a team

  • what characteristics did they possess that made them suitable for the role of a scientist?

  • were they interested in science from a young age?

  • Is it important where they were born?

  • did they work in a laboratory?

This activity establishes that:

  1. Scientific investigations are usually a team effort

  2. Scientists do not always work in laboratories

  3. scientists can be young, old, rich, poor and come from all over the world, and have diverse backgrounds

  4. scientists are usually curious, detail-oriented, and open-minded

You can get the IG profile kit which includes a list of diverse scientists for your students to research here.



2. The Scientific Method...with a Twist

Addressing Misconceptions and evaluating the Scientific process


Teaching the scientific method is not all about completing practical activities and identifying variables. Of course, these activities are fun and engaging and encouraged, but there is much more to it.


In recent years I've moved away from the formulaic approach of teaching the scientific method and have shifted my focus more on getting students to develop the skills used by scientists. I talk all about this in my blog post 4 Mistakes we make when teaching the scientific method.


When we teach the scientific method as a step-by-step process, students start to believe that these steps must be completed in one particular order. This limits their creativity and innovation.


As I have mentioned previously, the scientific method we teach in school science aligns with how scientific reports are written rather than how scientists work. You will not walk into any research facility and see a researcher:

  1. making an observation then;

  2. asking a question then;

  3. formulating a hypothesis and so on.

Sometimes, scientists start out with the data, sometimes they formulate multiple hypotheses, and sometimes there is no experimentation just observations.


It is better to have students focus on scientific skills rather than a scientific method.


Also, as we move more toward STEAM Education it becomes more important to allow our students to practice creativity and flexibility when approaching science and science investigations.


Activity 1: Evaluating Scientific Discoveries


One activity I have found useful for introducing the skills used by scientists and getting students to have a better grasp of the scientific process is to have them evaluate the scientific method of other scientists.


Many scientists praised for their groundbreaking discoveries did not follow a cut-and-dry formulaic method but rather a highly iterative process that involved creativity, intuition, and plain old luck.


I used the discovery of penicillin as well as the development of the smallpox vaccine (for obvious reasons).


First I prepared a newsletter that highlighted the process of these scientists (keeping my end goal in mind), this included setbacks, the contributions of other scientists, and any previous research which contributed to their own work.


Then I give my students worksheets to evaluate the scientific process.

Students are asked questions such as:

  • What were their initial observations?

  • What did they do to test those observations?

  • How did they ensure their tests were fair?

  • prepare a timeline outlining their process

  • Did any previous research influence their findings?

  • what were some of the ethical issues?

These questions definitely get students thinking about the scientific process on a deeper level as they begin to move away from the formulaic thinking of the scientific method.




Activity 2: Addressing Misconceptions in Science using Concept Cartoons



Students develop a number of misconceptions about science due to erroneous information in the media, their own stereotypes, and even the misuse of technical scientific vocabulary.


Concept cartoons are a great way of addressing some student misconceptions.


What are Concept Cartoons?

Concept cartoons are cartoon-style drawings first developed by Naylor and Keogh (1999), that propose alternative ideas about a particular scientific concept (including the scientifically accepted account) as a way of generating student discussion and revealing students' misconceptions.


According to research concept cartoons:

  1. present problems in a form that is easily accessible to students across all age ranges and at different levels of understanding

  2. are effective at both revealing and challenging learners' ideas thereby enabling students to contextualize those ideas both in writing and verbally.

  3. supports student collaboration and social construction of understanding by having students consider each other's and evaluate their own ideas regarding different concepts.


I would assign my students to groups and present each group with a concept cartoon card featuring the STEAM Kids addressing a science myth /misconception related to science and the scientific method.


Each STEAM Kid is presenting an alternative idea/misconception and one Kid is presenting the more scientifically acceptable idea.


Within their groups, students then decide which character they agree with and why. Students are asked to first discuss their ideas then they are allowed to do some research.


Some of these ideas addressed include:

  1. There is only one scientific method all scientists follow

  2. The myth that a hypothesis can be upgraded to a theory, then a theory to a law

  3. That experimentation is necessary for gaining scientific knowledge

  4. That science provides absolute proof

  5. That scientists are completely objective.


This is an excellent way of having students learn and address the various myths in science and having an active role in their own learning process.


If you haven't read my post on the 4 Mistakes we make when teaching the Scientific method, I strongly recommend you do so.

3. Lab Safety: via Game-Based Learning

I cannot end a post on the most important concepts to cover in science without talking about Lab Safety!


You should teach lab safety at the beginning of every new term, just in case students forget (and you know they will). However, the worksheets and lab talks tend to get stale. Recently I have started using the game-based learning strategy when covering this topic.


Game-based learning is an active learning strategy where games are used to enhance student learning and conceptual understanding of different topics.


A few games I employ in my classrooms are:

  1. Lab Safety Dominoes for teaching lab safety symbols and their associated hazards

  2. Role-playing activities for teaching lab safety rules

  3. Scavenger hunt for teaching lab safety equipment.

I wrote an entire blog post describing these activities in detail. You should definitely read this here.



Do you agree with my top three concepts for teaching science? Sound off in the comments!


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References

Barman, C. (1996). How do students really view science and scientists? Science and Children, 34(1), 30-33. Retrieved 10/21/2015 from http://castle.eiu.edu/~scienced/329options/crbscience.html


Chambers, D.W. (1983). Stereotypic images of the scientist: The draw-a-scientist test. Science Education, 67 (2), 255-265.


Finson, K.D. (2002). Drawing a scientist: What we do and do not know after fifty years of drawings. School Science and Mathematics, 102(7), 335-345. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1949-8594.2002.tb18217.x/full


Gee, James Paul. 2003. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


Naylor, S. and Keogh, B. (1999). Constructivism in classroom: Theory into practice. Journal of Science Teacher Education 10(2), 93-106.

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