Benchmarks for Science Literacy: Chapter 15 THE RESEARCH BASE


Research on students' understanding of the nature of science has been conducted for more than 30 years. The earlier part of the research investigated students' understanding about scientists and the scientific enterprise and about the general methods and aims of science (Cooley & Klopfer, 1961; Klopfer & Cooley, 1963; Mackey, 1971; Mead & Metraux, 1957; Welch & Pella, 1967). More recent studies have added students' understanding of the notion of "experimentation," the development of students' experimentation skills, students' understanding of the notions of "theory" and "evidence," and their conceptions of the nature of knowledge. The available research is reviewed in Lederman (1992).

Research on the nature of science focuses mainly on the middle-school and high-school grades. There are few studies that investigate what elementary-school learning experiences are effective for developing an understanding of the nature of science, although Susan Carey's and Joan Solomon's work is a beginning in that direction (Carey, Evans, Honda, Jay, & Unger, 1989; Solomon, Duveen, Scot, McCarthy, 1992).

Research in the 1960s and 70s used multiple-choice questionnaires. Recent studies using clinical interviews reveal discrepancies between researchers' and students' understanding of the questions and the proposed answers in those questionnaires. This finding raises doubt about the earlier studies' findings because almost none of them used the clinical interview to corroborate the questionnaires. Therefore, the following remarks draw mainly upon the results of the relatively recent interview studies.


Although most students believe that scientific knowledge changes, they typically think changes occur mainly in facts and mostly through the invention of improved technology for observation and measurement. They do not recognize that changed theories sometimes suggest new observations or reinterpretation of previous observations (Aikenhead, 1987; Lederman & O'Malley, 1990; Waterman, 1983). Some research indicates that it is difficult for middle-school students to understand the development of scientific knowledge through the interaction of theory and observation (Carey et al., 1989), but the lack of long-term teaching interventions to investigate this issue makes it difficult to conclude that students can or cannot gain that understanding at this grade level.