The Real Purpose of Science Education

One of the definitions of learn in Webster’s dictionary is memorize, and too often science education is no more than the memorization of facts about science, where learning is evaluated by repeating these facts on a multiple choice test.   Memorization is not science!  Another definition of learn is to “gain knowledge or understanding by study, instruction or experience”, which is a better approach for science education.  Gaining understanding of the physical world from what past generations scientists have discovered is an important component of science, though not the most important one.  The most important feature of science is the process of rationally determining the underlying cause of an observed phenomena in nature –  a process which is called the scientific method.  The science principles taught today were discovered by past generations of scientists using the scientific method.  The definition of the scientific method is taught in the traditional physical science class, but the only way to really learn the scientific method is by doing, which requires hands-on experimentation and inquiry-based questions, not memorization of facts from a textbook.  Hardware Store Science is designed to involve students in discovering the basic physical science principles, using the scientific method to design experiments and analyze data collected from their own experimental apparatus.   One can only really learn science by behaving like a real scientist.  This means students need to collect and analyze their own data, not just memorize facts developed over the years by the great minds of science.

Learning the scientific method (which is much more than just learning about the scientific method) has significant benefits for all students, not just those who pursue a career in science or engineering.  For example, consider a technician on the paint line of an automobile manufacturing facility, when the paint starts to streak.  The challenge is to rationally determine the underlying cause of the paint streaking in order to correct the problem, which requires using the scientific method to evaluate the various potential causes, perform discriminating experiments and then analyze the resulting data to determine the cause of the problem.  Another example is a nurse that observes a health problem in a patient, where the challenge is to first determine the cause of the problem and then choose an appropriate treatment option.  Again, resolution of the problem requires application of the same thought processes used in the scientific method – identification of possible causes of the observed effect, design of tests to eliminate some of the alternatives, analysis of the outcome of various changes in medication/diet/exercise/etc. and propose a treatment protocol.  There are many more examples where the thought processes in the scientific method have significant value far beyond just science.  A properly focused physical science curriculum provides one of the best platforms for learning how to rationally determine the cause, or causes, of an observed phenomena – whether it is in science, health, social issues or even politics.

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