What are Scientific Theories? Thinking Like a Scientist
Lesson 3 of 10
Objective: SWBAT differentiate between fact, general theory and scientific theory; explain that theories use evidence and logic to explain phenomena; and show how scientists use data from many sources to make inferences about the natural system.
The purpose of this lesson is to help your students make the distinction between a theory in the general sense of the word like a fact, and a scientific theory. Students will be able to debate whether something is a theory, a fact, or a scientific theory and know what the definition of a theory is in scientific terms.
My rationale for placing this lesson here is to reinforce the importance of making explanations that are supported by rigorous testing, evidence and/or facts and being open to the same explanations changing over time as more evidence is collected. This lesson is part of the introduction to the unit since the debate on climate change is often accompanied with claims that are not substantiated by evidence, facts, and current scientific testing.
- Computers with internet access
- Word processing program
- Science journals
Ask students to respond, in their science journals, to the following :
- What is a fact?
- What is a theory?
- What is a scientific theory?
Give students 5-8 minutes to think and write, then have students share out their ideas. No need to call on all your students. This can lead to a longer discussion with your students if you elect to drive the dialog.
Direct your students to work in groups of 2-3 students. They use the internet to find out information about one theory, one fact, and one scientific theory. Briefly explain what each one is about, and then given an example of each.
They can collect notes using the Fact, Theory, or Scientific Theory Note Template or in their journals.
Once completed, have students assemble their findings into presentation slides to share with you and/or the class. Here is a sample Facts & Theories student powerpoint.
Lead the class in a follow up discussion. Some possible questions to use are:
- What are the criteria that qualify something as a scientific theory?
- In your own words, explain the difference between a scientific theory and a theory used in the general sense.
- Come up with two synonyms for the words theory, fact, and scientific theory.
- Do you think scientific theories are to be regarded as “just a theory”? Why or why not?
To summarize our discussion, I use the Segment-I-Science powerpoint courtesy of Leah Reidenbach, Joshua Reece, and Reed Noss at the University of Central Florida.
I lead the following activity as a group discussion. The questions provide an opportunity to hear your student's prior knowledge on climate change and their ideas on actions to take to regarding climate change.
You may choose to manage this activity differently to suit your classroom. The attached handout may be simply given to students to complete and discuss. I decided to try out a science talk and used the questions to help drive student conversation. They did not see the handout before or during the activity.
To set up this science talk, I arrange my classroom with the students sitting in a circle. I ask for two volunteers (you should think about who may be best suited for these roles beforehand). One person records our ideas (note taker) and the other tracks student conversation by making a sociogram (mapper). You can see the sociogram in the image below near the easel.
To help the notetaker, I prepare a template of the questions I will ask ahead of time and have them saved as a word document on the computer.
For the mapper, I already created a circular seating chart on chart paper for each section (I have three classes). This is on an easel and set off to the side of the circle.
The note taker tracks the conversation, keeping running notes of responses (bullet points) and who said them. The mapper draws connections to who is talking. This gives you a visual of who participated in the conversation.
Before the talk begins we set some norms for having constructive conversation. I guide the students through making a list a guidelines to agree to follow which we will debrief at the end. Here is a sample of the list for one of my classes:
Guidelines for discussion: After the teacher reads the question any student may initiate discussion. The teacher is there as observer/facilitator but stays out of the conversation, this includes keeping eyes out of the conversation. While the students are talking you should take notes used to ask clarifying questions. It's o.k. if this process is a but messy. Students need time to get the hang of the process.
Leave time at the end to reflect on how they did with norms...what went well, how they would invite more people into the conversation, etc. This is time to show the map of the conversation and discuss how they think the conversation went based on the data. Were they inclusive? Did many talk or only a few?
Here an image of a completed map:
I found this to be an excellent way to hear students ideas about climate change and where they get their ideas from. Most of them repeat what they hear at home or through the media. I want to push them to question their sources and think about the connection back to "thinking like a scientist" rather than regurgitating others ideas.
Listen to two of my students reflect on what they took away from the science talk.