Doing Science Wrong

Science Project
Photo by Robert S. Donovan

In many different places in our country today, high school students turn in their laboratory exercise sheets after having just performed an experiment to determine the acceleration due to gravity. The teacher begins checking and grading the papers and penalizes answers that deviate too much from the accepted standard of 9.8 meters per second squared.

Elementary students submit their observations when asked to list down the colors of light passing through a prism. They are penalized if they do not write the colors of the rainbow in the correct ROYGBIV order.

Children are made to taste different substances in different parts of their tongue, and to determine which part of the tongue determines a particular taste (e.g. front tip for sweetness, back and center for bitterness, and so on). Their answers are marked wrong if they do not follow the “correct” locations as diagrammed in the textbook.

Many of you have probably experienced similar situations when you were a student in a science laboratory. I’m also pretty sure your kids or nephews or nieces are going through this very same thing today. And if you are the teacher currently practicing this, please do not get mad when I respectfully opine that you are doing science wrong.

When you grade laboratory exercises based on textbook answers, what do you think the students will do? Do you expect them to write down their honest observations? Of course not. They will quickly learn to be inventors instead of scientists. They will invent data or skew the experiment in some way so that the results come close to what the book says.

This should not come as a surprise though, even for the teachers. You probably did the same thing yourselves when you were students.

What bothers me is that this practice has been so ingrained in science education that hardly anyone talks about it anymore. I am probably one of the few parents raising a fuss about this, but I am doing so because I am seriously concerned.

When teachers begin teaching our kids that science is about getting the right answer in the book, then they have failed science miserably and have done a great disservice to the scientific development and future of our children. Remember that kids carry a lot of habits developed during childhood well into adulthood.

Look at the ratio of adults today who appreciate real science and do serious inquiry and research compared to those who readily believe and share anything posted on Facebook without a second thought. The amount of people spreading rumors and hearsay on the internet should be enough to convince you that there are not that many people really interested in finding out the truth for themselves.

The question now is, how then should science teachers grade laboratory exercises?

My suggestion is for them to observe the process. How did the students perform the experiment? Did they follow the procedures as described? Did they properly set up the equipment? Did they measure accurately? The teacher should also make the students aware of the many different factors that can contribute to deviations in test results.

One possible way of concluding an activity is to collect and compare everyone’s result in a graph, then look into answers that deviate too much and see if that particular group did anything out of the ordinary that could have caused the difference. True, it is a more work than simply looking up the right answer, but it is the right way. It is, in fact, the scientific way, and it produces a more enriching experience for both teacher and student.

The science teacher’s job is not just to make students memorize and spit out facts and figures but to make them think like real scientists — and one of the most important lessons they should learn in that regard is to provide honest data — only then can there be honest analysis and evaluation. Students should not be punished for reporting “bad” results but should be taught how to analyze and interpret these results and how they can improve from that experience.

Science has improved our lives in ways we could not have imagined just a mere one hundred years before and it will continue to do so for the next hundreds or thousands of years.

Let’s do science right. The future, our future, depends on it.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. Send me your email at andy@freethinking.me. Visit Freethinking Me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/freethinkingme)

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