The process of science

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The Process of Science
by Anthony Carpi, Ph.D., Anne E. Egger, Ph.D.

Several years ago, a student working on an undergraduate research project in my laboratory approached me with concern. “I’m doing something wrong,” she exclaimed.I had seen her research results and knew she was making good progress, so I was surprised to hear that she was having a problem. Over the next several days we went through her experimental procedure, we reviewed her instrumental methods, and we examined her results; yet I could not find a problem with her work. Finally, I asked her the obvious question, “Why do you think you’re doing somethingwrong?” “Because I’m not getting what you said I should get,” she replied with some frustration. Her response startled me. After discussing it with her, I realized that she was mistaking an hypothesis for a foregone conclusion. I had not told her what she “should get,” but I was familiar with the existing literature and research in the area and we had discussed some published hypotheses several weeksearlier. When faced with valid research data that did not fit these predictions, I recognized that she had a novel finding and came to change my hypothesis. But she was interpreting her results as a mistake. Why was I startled by her response? Because despite almost four years of an intensive college science major behind her and several years of high school science experience, this student stillprescribed to the common misconception that science is a rigid exercise in proving a pre-conceived point. That there is little creativity or discovery in science, but rather it is a tedious exercise in proving something we already know to be true. I was also startled because I realized that, although I spend many hours with my students, teaching them about scientific research procedures,experimental design, instrument operation, and the scientific literature, I was still not teaching them about science. But how can this happen? This was an excellent student who had a near perfect “A” grade average, and I was trying to be conscientious in my teaching and advising. Why was there still such a difference between the way she and I perceived her results? The root of the problem goes far deeperthan our interaction over the course of the year. Throughout school, science is often portrayed in textbooks and even in the classroom as a series of “known” facts and figures; for example, electrons are negatively charged, DNA is a double helix, earthquakes occur at plate boundaries, etc. Unfortunately, the process by which these discoveries were made and how they fit into scientific progress isoften ignored in the classroom. Even when material is added to science lectures about the discovery of these concepts, they are often presented as an obvious and inevitable conclusion. For example, JJ Thomson’s experiments with a cathode ray tube are commonly discussed in chemistry classes (Fig. 1). Few teachers present the critical components of the process that humanize Thomson, however, likethe fact that when Thomson first presented his ideas on electron enlarge image charge to the scientific community, a colleague asked him if he was joking! Figure 1. J.J. Thomson (1856 - 1940), a These details help illustrate the nature of scientific discoveries, the British physicist and Nobel laureate credited for discovering the electron. skepticism that accompanies new discoveries, the process ofreview and validation they undergo before they are accepted. Yet this is rarely conveyed in the classroom along with the content, so it’s no wonder these ideas seem like inevitable conclusions. So where do we learn about how science is practiced? Those fortunate enough to be exposed to scientific research begin to understand because they are engaging in the process of science. After my...
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