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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Science Articles (How to Read)

Whether students go on to work in science or not, it is important that they be knowledgeable consumers of science.  Sometimes scientific studies are flawed or has an agenda; sometimes the writer is flawed or has an agenda.  Claims get overstated or misinterpreted.  (See:  "Researchers have found that authors of "soft science" research papers tend to overstate results more often than researchers in other fields.") Students need to be able to think critically, to see for themselves what is reliable and what is not.

This is probably one of the easiest yet most useful, practical exercises I have done as a teacher.  Often I will introduce the topic by dissecting a flawed article.  There was one in about depression, and one in Scientific American about Facebook that we picked apart, sentence by sentence.  I'll see if I can find those (there's a newly released, problematic article which I will discuss today here).  But really any article will do, but it helps if the article is flawed so that students see that "Scientists found that" does not necessarily = the whole truth.

The rules are simple:

  1. Find a science article from a reliable source.  (Science News, Scientific American, etc.)  
    1. Length is unimportant.  (It just has to answer #3 below)
    2. I tend to let them read in any field because I want them to focus on their interests, which will help them engage in the activity.
  2. Read.
  3. Summarize in one to three sentences about what the scientists learned.  
    1. Focus them or they will ramble all over the place.  If they reach the end and cannot answer this question, they've read the wrong article.  Early on, you may have to repeat, "What did the scientists learn?" frequently.
    2. Also, this must be reported orally.  There's something soporific about students reading aloud their summaries (and it usually includes more information than they need).  No, they do not need to look up the exact name of the drug used.  (They can write it down for reference, especially if they're not going to report orally that day.)
  4. Finally, the most important part, ask a question about what the scientists learned.  Sometimes students need guidance.  Provide the question starters, "Who, what, when, where, why, and how."  It helps.  
The first day you do this will be unimpressive, but subsequent days tend to get more impressive--the questions they come up with. Many start to sound like well informed college students.  I have done this with seventh grade to twelfth grade students with success.  However, those times we only did it a few times during the year were only so-so--no matter what grade.  This, of course, will depend on what your administrators allow.  Some only want you to plow through the book or state standards, but hopefully the smarter ones will realize the value of such an exercise.

Sample questions:
  • Why did this happen?
  • What caused this?
  • What might result from this?
  • What aspects might the scientists have overlooked?  (proper controls, etc.)
  • What future experiments might result?
  • Would using X make a difference?
  • Would doing this to X produce the same result?
If you know the answer, chime in.  Or simply acknowledge the good question.

This may be a useful activity for spurring ideas for a science fair.  I plan to use this as an idea generator and a way to help them focus on what might interest them for projects:  What kinds of articles did you want to read?  Does this give an idea for a future experiment?

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