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Upton Sinclair

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What Makes a Scientist?

Credit: LIGO Laboratory

Credit: LIGO Laboratory

A significant part of the education of children is the inclusion of technical subjects, starting at an early age. Because the United States has fewer American students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) than the projected need, education organizations have promoted increased emphasis in these areas. Further, these areas would appear to be perfect incubators for personalized learning because each student comes to science from a different direction. For example, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) provides grants for such efforts as well as other personalized learning directions. Perhaps, in taking a step back, science education should first encourage the characteristics of science exploration. But just what makes a scientist?

Curiosity is the first requirement, a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a scientist. A scientist tries to understand the aspects of nature, how things work. In a study of the perceptions of scientists themselves, honesty and curiosity were the top characteristics mentioned. Professor Robert Pennock, MSU, said, “"If you’re not curious, you’re probably not a real scientist. The goal that you have is to find out something true about the world, regardless of what your preferred hypothesis might be. Your real drive is to find what is revealed by the data. This is absolutely essential in being a scientist.”

And curiosity can be an important part of teaching, but it must be nurtured not demanded. All children start with a natural curiosity in the world about them, so the education question is how to reward that native instinct. As one teacher said, “[students] must feel entitled to ask questions and encouraged to stray, to explore, to seek.” This is the essence of personalized learning. As one experiment has shown, curiosity prepares the brain for learning and makes subsequent learning more rewarding.

Imagination is the second requirement for a scientist. This is sometimes conflated with creativity. Indeed, Physicist Max Plank once said, “[the scientist] must have a vivid and intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by an artistically creative imagination.” Plank pioneered quantum physics by imagining how the sun radiated over the various wavelengths (colors).

But how to foster and encourage imagination in a school? For the scientist, the most direct path is through problem solving. And the best way to present a scientific problem is through the avenue of invention. That’s where makerspaces and the various forms of robotic competition come in. However, these types of activities need to be expanded into the curriculum and the classroom, not just as extracurricular activities. Teachers need to teach imagination through innovation as part of the formal education process.

Observation is the third requirement for a scientist. Just as math can be described as pattern recognition, so science can be described by observation, that is, the acquisition of data. And the reason for taking data is usually the result of looking at a theory or an expectation. And as Physicist Richard Feynman has said, “If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement, is the key to science”

And the key to observation is paying attention to detail. And the best way to pay attention to detail is to tell a story of your experiment. There is nothing so revealing as the writing of a story to see what pieces are missing. The best way to teach scientific observation is storytelling, that is, descriptive writing, in order to see the missing parts. But teaching observation goes beyond the science classroom. Even the most fanciful story must have detail that forces observation upon the mind. Try, just try, to think of and explain in writing the detail behind any good movie.

Persistence is the fourth requirement for a scientist. Scientists fail. Experiments don’t work the way that was expected. The mathematical model had no solution at the first, or second, try. Or, worse yet, the model didn’t fit experiment. The key to good scientific work is to get up from failure and try again. Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Persistence is usually discouraged in schools by bad grades, instead of allowing for learning by failure. Yet failure is an integral part of the work of all scientists. As part of personalized learning, standards based grading can change that. Students are measured by their mastery of a subject, not the completeness of their homework, or even the first poor grade on a test. And persistence can only be taught by creating difficulty which leads to actual achievement. The easy task has no value.

Skepticism is the last requirement for a scientist. Every piece of scientific knowledge is but an approximation to Nature. Every theory, no matter how solid the experimental evidence, can still be tested one more time in yet another way. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was published in 1915, and was tested yet again by the measurement of gravitational waves just this year. Theory is tested with data, not models.

As Physicist Richard Feynman said, “Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.” Science must be taught as a method of constantly testing ideas with empirical evidence. Science is never settled, because an idea can only be proven wrong by evidence and never the converse. Science is never done by consensus, but by evidence. As Carl Popper said, “The game of science is, in principle, without end. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game.”

And the only way to teach science skepticism is to teach the methods of critical thinking as part of the curriculum. Yes, all parts of the curriculum. Are there resources to get there? Yes, yes, and yes; just be as skeptical of resources as they are of their subjects. Even Popper’s fallibilism can invoke a lively discussion. And every student arrives here from a different direction, so personalized learning should push many paths to critical thinking.


1 comment to What Makes a Scientist?

  • Jonathan

    Gee John, I think you might have liked Tony Wagner’s opening speech at the CABE covention. Not to far apart.

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