Science Through Modeling and Simulation
Technology for Learning
by Bob Coulter
From an early age students get "The Scientific Method" drummed into their heads as a lock-step methodology that when followed, means that you're doing real science. Classroom posters usually reinforce this image of the steps that need to be followed, and for older students the requisite lab report assignments help to mold thinking to this path. Taken by itself, none of this is badthe mental discipline brought about by logical thinking, controlled comparisons, and managed variables all contribute to students' cognitive growth. The limitation of the scientific method appears when it becomes the only view of science in the curriculum. For students to develop a healthy understanding of science and its importance in their lives, we need to go further.
First, it is vitally important that students have a broader understanding of what constitutes science. Many important areas of science rely more on close observation and disciplined interpretation of data than on formal experimental manipulation of variables. Citizen science projects such as Journey North, the various bird study projects led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or Project Budburst rely on metaphorical armies of data reporters each making careful observations of relevant events. From these observations, patterns emerge and tentative conclusions can be drawn.
As an example of this, consider the experience my third and fourth graders had several years ago when they were monitoring red emperor tulip bulbs as part of our participation in the Journey North program. Each fall they planted new bulbs in accordance with the recommended protocols. Over two successive springs, the students recorded a dramatic difference: The second spring the bulbs emerged and bloomed several weeks earlier than they had in the previous year. While this may have just been an unusual occurrence, the data reported from other sites across the Midwest was showing similar results. By the end of the season, the pattern was clear: For the same calendar dates, tulips were blooming much farther north. Looked at a different way, for the same location the tulips consistently bloomed earlier. This was puzzling to the students until they consulted weather data, which showed how much warmer and wetter the second spring had been. Spring came early that year.
Stepping back for a moment, note that the students had no hypothesis at the beginning of the project, and only developed one when they were challenged to explain the unexpected data from their own site and the other gardens. With some teacher guidance they were able to interpret their own data through reference to the maps of data from other sites, and tables of data showing temperature and precipitation levels. The data pointed toward a conclusion that they knew intuitively from their plant growth projects: warm temperatures and moisture support plant growth. Since the second spring had those characteristics, that probably explained what they observed.
Could they prove that seasonal variation caused the difference in blooming patterns? Probably not, but I would argue that they were involved in very scientific thinking. So much of science today involves interpreting data in the form of remotely sensed images and building models to explain abstract, theoretical physics,that we need to broaden students' perception of what it means to do science. A good starting point will be to promote the scientific method, but only within a broader context of the discipline.
An important dimension to consider as we build curriculum that supports a broader view of science is to reframe for whom science is intended. Traditional science classes are all too often framed as preparation for a science career. While it is certainly important that we provide opportunities and encouragement for students to become professional scientists if they choose, we also need a more expansive view of why science is important.
Many careers other than a professional scientist require the ability to understand basic scientific principles and concepts, and to think in terms of variables and controlled comparisons. For example, a city planner considering options for solid waste management needs to understand a variety of scientific concepts relating to pollution, decomposition, and recycling. While she doesn't need to have a Ph.D. in environmental sciences, she does need to be able to understand and make judgments based on the issues involved, and perhaps interpret ideas put forth by consultants with more in-depth expertise.
Typically, we just teach kids traditional science with admonitions that "You'll use this someday," or, "You never know when you might change careers." In my experience it has been much more productive to engage students in a broader, more inclusive view of science that engages students now rather than relying on vague promises of future value. One strategy is to use citizen science projects such as the ones mentioned above. They are typically kid-friendly in that they build interest through natural phenomena that kids find engaging andbeing localare very accessible. Done well, these projects can promote wonder and curiosity as well as support development of skills in data analysis and modeling.
For more expansive phenomena that don't lend themselves to schoolyard study, there are an increasing number of simulations available that promote complex, science-informed thinking. A classic in the field, SimCity, requires players to balance their urban growth agenda. Too much city building can lead to pollution problems, which will lower the quality of living for the residents. As the simulation progresses, regular adjustments are needed to maintain an economically and ecologically viable city.
Similarly, Zoo Tycoon requires the player to develop a zoo environment that provides for the basic needs of zoo animals, ensuring an adequate habitat and provision of food and care. If these needs aren't met, the zoo won't succeed. While a simulation such as this doesn't provide a rigorous and in-depth study of animal biology, it does provide a starting point. Through the simulated environment, students can explore the needs of herbivores and carnivores, and see how different animals have varying habitat needs and adaptations.
Any simulation is inherently limited, and recreation-oriented ones are particularly subject to taking liberties with scientific accuracy. For kids at this stage of development, that's not the most important consideration. Rather, we need to use simulations as one component of an integrated strategy to help develop interest and competence in science. Used well, simulations engage kids in safely navigating complex systems, just as citizen science projects build students' sense of competence as they make contributions to larger endeavors. Both complement formal academic learning such as the scientific method, promoting real science literacy.
Cornell Citizen Science projects: http://birds.cornell.edu/LabPrograms/CitSci/.
Journey North: http://www.jnorth.org.
Project Budburst: http://www.budburst.org.
©2009 Synergy Learning Inc. All rights reserved.
- Bob Coulter is director of Mapping the Environment, a program at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Litzsinger Road Ecology Center that supports teachers' efforts to enhance their science curriculum through the use of the Internet and geographic information system (GIS) software. Previously, Bob taught elementary grades for 12 years.