INTRODUCTION AND PREVIOUS WORK
Many universities have requirements that nonscience majors take at least one science course. The goal is not to turn them into scientists; rather it is to give them a better understanding of how science works, and an understanding of scientific ways of reasoning. A desirable outcome is that students’ reasoning abilities improve. At the precollegiate (K-12) level, the National Science Education Standards (1996)14
indicate that students should understand the nature and practice of science. Understanding how science works and the nature of scientific knowledge has been seen for decades as important to the scientific literacy of the general populace (Miller 198912
; Miller 199813
). Scientific literacy can no longer be reserved for scientists alone because nonscientist members of our society are and will continue to be confronted with personal and public policy decisions that involve science (e.g., medical treatments for cancer or voting decisions on issues concerning Earth’s environment.) This demands a working knowledge of what science is, how scientific knowledge is developed, how to distinguish pseudoscience from valid science, and the limitations of science.
Although crucially important, the nature of science (NOS) is rarely taught or assessed. A potential problem is that there are many definitions of the NOS. We follow Lederman (1992)7
who states that the NOS refers to the epistemology of science, science as a way of knowing, or the values and beliefs inherent to the development of scientific knowledge. We adopt a pragmatic approach in the current work by concentrating on aspects of the NOS agreed upon by a majority of scientists and useful to students (e.g., Lederman 19927
; McComas 200410
; and Abd-El-Khalick, Waters, Le 20081
), particularly the ideas concerning what science is.
Assessing students’ views about the NOS is challenging. Forced-choice instruments and open-ended interviews have limitations associated with suitability for a given audience, pertinent depth, and breadth of individual and collective items, and relevant context of and content of the items (Elby et al. 20016
, EBAPS home page5
). Forced-choice instruments may not enable students to adequately express their own ideas. Open-ended instruments or interviews may require follow-up questions that can potentially lead students toward particular responses [Sandoval, 200316
]. However, the goal of many of those who teach science courses to nonscience majors is to improve their scientific reasoning and help them to make better informed decisions about scientific issues. This is a more limited goal than teaching about all potential aspects of the NOS.
An increasing number of teachers, particularly in K-12 levels and in preservice teaching programs, are specifically targeting the NOS through their course curriculum. Strategies that have been implemented for teaching NOS include puzzle-solving activities (Clough 19973
), pictorial gestalt switches (Michaels and Bell 200311
), activities that require students to make inferences from limited data sets, and an emphasis on the importance of scientific language (e.g., terminology such as law, theory, prove, true) (Clough and Olson 20044
). Published examples of similar efforts at the college level (excluding preservice teaching programs) are scarce.
Various efforts have been made to assess students’ views about the NOS before and/or after taking traditional science courses. “Traditional” is used here to indicate that the NOS is not explicitly taught as a part of the science course curriculum. A recent study focused on atmospheric science majors at a large research university (Parker et al. 200815
). Seventeen juniors and seniors participated in a study where they completed the views of nature of science questionnaire version C (VNOS-C) during the first week of classes; three of these 17 students also consented to be interviewed. Based on their findings, Parker et al.
recommended explicit integration of teaching the NOS in atmospheric science undergraduate courses. Another study, by Adams et al. (2006)2
, used the Colorado learning attitudes about science survey (C-LASS) to measure individual changes in student attitudes after taking a traditional physics course as compared with their attitudes at the start of the course. Over 7000 students from 60 different college-level physics courses participated in the study. The C-LASS instrument was used to measure how “expertlike” and “novicelike” students’ views about learning science were. Adams et al.
found that in every application of the survey to introductory physics classes, the overall class populations became less
expertlike in their views about learning science. Their findings support Sandoval’s (2003)16
idea that doing science doesn’t necessarily change ideas about science
. It has also been shown that students who become more proficient in scientific knowledge (specifically, mechanics or electricity, and magnetism) do not necessarily become more proficient in their scientific reasoning abilities (Bao et al., 200917
With respect to the field of astronomy, surveys of those who teach introductory college-level astronomy courses indicate that an important learning goal is to increase students’ understanding of the nature and process of science (Slater et al., 200118
). Most astronomy courses, however, do not explicitly address the NOS through assigned home-work or other activities designed to give students practice thinking about the nature or process of science. They also do not explicitly discuss scientific reasoning. Even astronomy lab activities that are supposed to provide scaled-down examples of doing science rarely ask students to think about and discuss the meaning of what they are doing. Such curricula apparently assume that just by learning astronomy content or doing science activities students will automatically obtain more expertlike ideas about the NOS. The findings of Adams et al.
(2006), however, suggest that students do not develop more expertlike views about NOS when NOS is either only implicitly taught or not taught at all; in fact they are likely to develop more novicelike views.
Herein, we discuss the efforts of one college-level astronomy instructor to explicitly teach selected aspects of the NOS that deal with defining what science is, scientific reasoning, and metacognition to nonscience majors enrolled in an introductory level astronomy course. The objective of the present study was to examine the following questions:
What is the status of introductory-level astronomy students’ attitudes about learning science and ideas about the nature of science after a semester of traditional astronomy instruction?
What is the status of the same student attitudes and ideas when specific aspects of the NOS, scientific reasoning and judgments, and metacognition are explicitly taught?
Our project studied two introductory courses for nonscience majors taught in fall 2007 at the University of Colorado by two different instructors. Both instructors are highly rated by students and had taught the same course more than once. The traditional course covered basic principles of light, motion, and gravity, and applied them to the solar system. The transformed course covered the same basic principles but applied them to stellar and extragalactic astronomy. In the traditional course, the NOS was only implicitly covered during the course of instruction. The transformed course taught by Duncan explicitly discussed specific aspects of the NOS, scientific reasoning, and metacognition using an embedded curriculum (see below), which was added to the traditional astronomy curriculum. Students were explicitly taught what science is and the difference between scientific and other ways of knowing. They were repeatedly asked to make and discuss their own scientific judgments throughout the semester. Students were also regularly engaged in discussions that required them to think about how they think about their own learning in the course and in general.
The traditional course was the first of a 2-course sequence. The transformed course was the second in such a sequence. The courses were not a perfect match since most students in the transformed course had one previous semester of astronomy and were on average one semester older. Otherwise the class demographics were very similar (mostly freshmen and sophomores; comparable numbers of male and female students; class sizes between 150 and 200). Eliciting student participation from these two courses allowed us to collect a sizeable amount of data, including a large number of interviews and classroom observations by Arthurs. We hope that our interesting results will prompt others to try similar experiments in their courses, some of which are more precisely matched. Hereafter, students in the course that received traditional instruction will be referred to as the “Control Class” and the students in the transformed course will be referred to as the “Test Class.”