Science Process Skills For Children Of Missionaries

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There is no one way to use a process skill. Each skill has characteristic, developmentally appropriate abilities for different ages, from novice to advanced. With practice, these abilities can be developed over time.

Research suggests that some process skills are more regularly practiced in the elementary classroom than others. In particular, there may be more observation and questioning than hypothesizing and interpreting. Because all the skills are necessary to full inquiry, and because they all fit together in a coherent fashion, it is important to develop all the process skills early on.

The inquiry process takes advantage of the natural human desire to make sense of the world.  This attitude of curiosity permeates the inquiry process and is the fuel that allows it to continue.

Process skills are not used for their own sake. Rather, they are used in order to further the learning process and are an important way to link previous and current knowledge. During their investigations, for instance, the kindergarten children were observing, questioning, gathering information, and performing some initial tests that would propel them in many new directions. As students use these skills, they build up new conceptual understandings. They learn the content of science.

When doing inquiry, we assume that curiosity, respect for evidence, and a willingness to change ideas are attitudes of scientific thinking. These go hand in hand with the idea of a fair test and respect for evidence. Use of evidence involves both the processes, the content, and the attitudes of science, for it is useless to gather evidence if one does not have a willingness to change beliefs if the evidence is contrary to expectations.

For children, the process of asking questions, investigating phenomena, gathering evidence, and solving problems begins when they realize that they can find things out for themselves. The inquiry process takes advantage of the natural human desire to make sense of the world. It relies on a willingness to come up with questions that reflect these interests. This attitude of curiosity permeates the inquiry process and is the fuel that allows it to continue.

By linking new ideas to existing ideas, children can change conceptual models and build up a rich array of experiences. With these experiences, they can go further–making hypotheses, posing questions, making inferences, and ultimately coming to a deeper understanding of science.

As a research scientist who is involved with elementary science education, I often notice teachers recalling from their past education a “scientific method” that usually includes many attributes of scientific inquiry, among them observation, collection of data, analyzing data, drawing inferences, and reaching a conclusion. Very often this method is presented as a linear sequence of activities, which it need not be. Scientists move back and forth among processes to refine their knowledge as the inquiry unfolds. Inquiry is an artistic endeavor, and not the following of a recipe

Frequently, the scientific method as taught by non-scientists requires that a scientific inquiry must stem from a hypothesis, which in fact is not usually true. Did Darwin board the Beagle with the hypothesis of natural selection in hand? Did Galileo experiment with falling bodies with the hypothesis that they would all exhibit the same acceleration? Did Mendeleev invent the periodic table based on a hypothesis that there should be one? In these three cases, as well as a great majority of other crucial scientific inquiries, there was an exploration of the unknown, with not nearly enough previous knowledge to support an initial hypothesis on which to focus the exploration.

If we don’t begin with a hypothesis, then what does initiate a scientific inquiry? A question. Sometimes it can be a very specific question: “Do bean seeds germinate better in the light or the dark?” Sometimes it can be a much more general question: “How do crayfish relate to one another?” If we have a great deal of previous knowledge, we might hypothesize. After some study of electric circuits, we might hypothesize: “Two lengths of resistance wire in parallel will have less resistance than either one.” But we could just as well have asked the question, “How does the resistance of two lengths of resistance wire in parallel compare to that of either one?”

We can begin every scientific inquiry with a question. If we insist on a hypothesis we will often merely force an unscientific guess. If there is a valid hypothesis it can always be stated as a question, for example, “Is it true that (insert the hypothesis here)…?”


* Adapted from an article by Jerry Pine, Caltech Precollege Science Initiative.

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