S&T Education Resources
Developing Realistic Conceptions of the 'Nature of Science & Technology'
Welcome! This page provides ideas, resources and links to other relevant websites relating to 'NoST Education'; that is, education aimed at helping students to develop realistic conceptions of the 'nature of science and technology.' NoST is one of three aspects of what I call Procedural Education and is integrated in the STEPWISE framework. It is very much related to STSE Education; possibly 'one side of a double-sided coin.' If you have comments, questions, suggestions, resources ideas, etc. about anything here, please write to me about them. Thanks.
Nature of Science.
Nature of Technology.
|Science vs. Technology.
Social Influences on S&T.
Science and technology (S&T) play prominant roles in many societies. While strict definitions of 'science' and 'technology' are elusive, humans generally have always wanted to explain what they perceive to exist — which tends to be associated with 'science' — and/or change what they perceive to exist (i.e., invent new entitities) — which tends to be associated with 'technology' (Gardner, 1999; Schauble et al., 1991). Early in human history, people likely had such 'scientific' goals as to explain such basic phenomena as day and night, weather, seasons, fire, sunlight, etc. Related to those, they likely had such 'technological' goals as to control fire, re-direct light and build structures to protect themselves from harsh environments. Today, much human activity, especially in industrialized countries, is mediated by one form of technology or another - including, for example, computers, cell phones, bread making machines, television, etc., etc. Similarly, many human decisions are mediated by numerous products of science including, for example, wearing white clothing on a hot day with the knowledge that warmth from light will be reflected away, avoiding high tension electrical sources with the knowledge that electro-magnetic radiation emitted from such sources can cause disease, and avoiding cigarette smoke because of studies indicating that smoke ingredients cause cancer. Given the extent of influences of products of science and technology on individuals (not to mention societies and environments), it is crucial that all citizens receive appropriate education about these products. Whether or not students will become practising scientists and/or technologists (e.g., engineers) (who are more directly involved in knowledge building in science & technology), they need an education that helps them to develop realistic conceptions about the nature of products and practices of science & technology. For societies making great use of professional science and technology, all citizens need to understand characteristics of the work of its practitioners and, perhaps, most importantly, the potential value (or lack thereof) of its products. NoST Education is, likely, essential for citizens not working in fields of professional science and technology and for those working in such fields.
NoST Education is included in many curricula around the world. Ontario goverment curricula mention it, but tend to de-emphasize or ignore it - particularly in their 'Expectations' for teaching and learning. It is clear, as well, that NoST Education is not well implemented in schools. There are likely many reasons for these de-emphases. There are indications, however, that one reason might be the extent to which there is disagreement about its actual meaning. It is difficult to test and assess & evaluate something that is contested. The discussion at right is intended to stimulate thought on the meaning of 'NoST.'
|Like so much in human thought,
'NoST' can be considered an 'arbitrary' human
construct. Clearly, its meaning has been created by
humans, but human thought is changeable and not,
necessarily, certain. For example, there are
journals and conferences separately devoted to NoST
and STSE; yet, many thinkers suggest that
these two constructs refer to the same study, but
from different perspectives. NoST can be thought of
as characteristics of processes and products of
scientists and engineers - including, for example,
that they may have pesonal biases about their
investigations, such as desiring certain results to
occur. However, their biases also may be influenced
by the society in
which they are immersed - such as wanting to focus
on ideas and products that have commercial merits,
in societies that prioritize profit. Such emphases
are, traditionally, considered part of STSE Education. But, in
that such influences may be accepted by scientists,
they could be considered part of NoST Education. To
complicate matters further, however, it may also be
necessary to think of NoST & STSE Education as
associated with Skills Education; that is, education
aimed at helping students to develop 'skills for
science inquiry and/or technology design and related
communications.' In developing skills for developing
controlled experiments, for example, it seems
illogical to dissociate the 'skill' of variable
control from reasons why one would want to keep
extraneous variables constant in experiments; which
is a traditional NoST concept. Indeed, because of
the general idea that it is difficult, if not
impossible, to separate human ideas, concepts, etc.
from their various contexts of use, NoST is only
meaningful in the context of the implementation of
skils for inquiry, etc.
Although the above complications should, likely, always be kept in mind, it may still be helpful to think about NoST in traditional - more reductionist (isolated from STSE & Skills Education) - ways. Traditionally, NoST involves studies in, for example, history, philosophy (e.g., epistemology), metaphysics (e.g. ontology), psychology, and sociology. Among questions answered through NoST studies are: 'To what extent can knowledge exist before experience?,' 'To what extent is knowledge universal?,' 'By what processes does knowledge arise?,' 'How is knowledge best obtained? (in different contexts), 'Is knowledge best conceived in parts or wholes?,' 'To what extent is knowledge explicit?,' 'What are influences of economics on knowledge building?,' and 'What actually exists?' By gaining answers to such questions, scientists and engineers may be more effective in their work, since metacognition (thought about the nature of thinking) can positively influence learning. Being aware of economic influences on the pharmaceutical industry, for example, can help people to more wisely choose medications and to influence public policy debates regarding regulation of business-science partnerships that often can lead to compromises to the integrity of science & technology.
|Nature of Science
A great deal of thought and research has gone into determining 'NoS'; that is, characteristics of practices and products of science. Despite this, consensus is lacking about the NoS. There are, instead, competing 'camps'; i.e., groups of academics etc. who adhere to contrasting general positions. Although the definitions on Cathleen Loving's (1991) Scientific Theory Profile (at right) are not, necessarily, widely-accepted and individuals' positions on it are not, necessarily, consistent or clear, her grid can be used as a basis for fruitful discussions about the nature of science. The horizontal axis represents a continuum of positions about the nature of processes of theory development. Rationalists (on the left) claim that reason, combined with 'facts,' is essential in science. Naturalists, meanwhile, also recognize such influences as human psychology, sociology, gender, etc. on knowledge building. On the vertical axis, Realists claim that products (such as laws & theories) of knowledge building represent reality, while Anti-realists claim that knowledge is a convenient social construction. Combining the two axes, we can imagine people holding different positions within the grid; such as Rational-Realists, for example — who would assert that methods of science are highly logical and systematic and lead to claims that match reality.
The opposite view is that of Natural-Antirealists, who would insist that methods of science are highly idiosyncratic and situated (including through influences by cultural, economic and psychological factors, for example) and lead to claims that don't necessarily match reality but may be accepted by most scientists. A set of claims about science that is congruent with this position has been assembled by Osborne and co-workers — and is referred to as 'Ideas-about-science,' below.
|Data and Explanations||Social Influences on Science and Technology||Causal Links||Risk and Risk Assessment||Decisions about Science and Technology|
|The idea that any
measurement always has an element of uncertainty
associated with it and that confidence is increased with
repetition and replication.
The idea that any experiment requires the identification and control of variables.
That explanations require the use of creative thought and invention to identify what are underlying causal relationships between variables. Such explanations are often based on models that cannot be observed.
That the goal of science is the elimination of alternative explanations to achieve a single, consensually agreed account. However, data shows only that a single explanation is false not that it is correct. Nevertheless, our confidence in any explanation increases if it offers predictions which are shown to be true.
All new explanations must undergo a process of critical scrutiny and peer review before gaining wider acceptance.
|Recognise that the
focus of much research is influenced by the concerns and
interests of society and the availability of funding.
That scientists’ views and ideas may be influenced by their own interests and commitments.
That the personal status of scientists and their standing in the field is a factor which, wisely or not, is often used in the judgement of their views and ideas.
|To recognise that many
questions of interest do not have simple or evident causal
explanations. Rather, that much valuable scientific work
is based on looking for correlations and that such a
relationship does not imply a causal link.
To recognise that confidence in correlational links is dependent on the size of the sample and its selection. Events with very low frequency are particularly difficult to explain causally.
To recognise that eliminating causal factors for a correlational link is highly problematic. Rather that much scientific work relies on the identification of plausible mechanism between factors which are correlated.
|To have a knowledge of
different ways of expressing risk and an awareness of the
uncertainties associated with risk measurement.
To be aware that there is a variety of factors which impinge on people’s assessment of risk.
That risk assessment is central to many of the decisions raised by science in contemporary society.
|To recognise that
whilst the application of science and technology has made
substantial contributions to the quality of life of many
people, there has been a set of unintended outcomes as
That technology draws on science in seeking solutions to human problems. However, a distinction should be drawn between what can be done and what should be done. Decisions about technical applications are subject, therefore, to a host of considerations such as technical feasibility, economic cost, environmental impact and ethical considerations.
That certain groups or individuals may hold views based on deeply held religious or political commitments and that the tensions between conflicting views must be recognised and addressed in considering any issue.
Humans likely have been carrying out technological problem solving at least as long as they have been developing science ideas about nature. Early humans had to develop ways to protect themselves from the elements and from other living things, for example, likely before they thought about how phenomena — such as fire — worked. Indeed, in the history of technology, many inventions — such as those based on steam power (e.g., steam-powered machines) — were developed without very much in the way of science knowledge (e.g., a kinetic-molecular theory of matter). Despite the longer history of technology design, however, considerably more research has been conducted into the nature of science than on the nature of technology (NoT). Nevertheless, some perspectives about NoT that seem reasonable include:
|Like the NoS, NoT is
a contested area; and, therefore, it is important to
consider various perspectives about it. Some of
these are provided through the links at: NoST
As discussed above, it is likely also important to keep in mind that NoST cannot (or should not) be dissociated from STSE and Skills Education. This makes the study of NoT a complex, often changing and situational phenomenon.
Given associations among NoST, STSE and Skills Education, there are aspects of technology that should be considered in terms of its relationship to science and science inquiry, on the one hand, and to societies and environments, on the other hand. Considerations about relationships between fields of science and technology are discussed below, while the role of technology in STSE and Skills Education are discussed elsewhere; i.e., STSE Education and Skills Education.
Between Science & Technology
There is controversy surrounding differences between science and technology and relationships between them. In popular culture, science often gets credit for various inventions — which suggests that science often is mistaken for technology. People talk about 'computer science,' for example, when they really are referring to its hardware and software. Also, science often is portrayed in schools as a necessary precursor for technological innovation — by sequencing units in science courses from abstract (e.g., atomic structure) to concrete (e.g., pharmaceutical industry applications of molecular structures) (Bencze, 2001a). Such a portrayal does not always reflect the history of science and technology. Technology often operates independently from science and is not, therefore, always an 'applied science.' Also, suggesting that science is a necessary precursor to technological innovation is part of the reason that science tends to have greater prestige in schools than is enjoyed by technology education (Gardner, 1999). Partly because of this prestige, school science has been able to dominate curricula with teaching and learning of abstract, decontextualized knowledge (e.g., laws & theories) — often rapidly delivered to students with few opportunities for them to apply these ideas in personally meaningful contexts (Eisenhart et al., 1996). This, in turn, tends to favour socio-culturally advantaged students, compromising the scientific literacy of most other students (Bencze, 2001b). For these and other reasons, many educators are recommending that science and technology be integrated or, at least, interrelated in schools (e.g., Fensham & Gardner, 1994). A good example of an integrated science and technology curriculum (in theory, at least) is that for elementary schools in Ontario (MoET, 2007). Where such S&T programmes are being developed, educators need to have clearly-developed ideas about distinctions and relationships between science & technology.
|In an article regarding his analysis of Ontario secondary school physics texts, Gardner, 1999 provides a helpful history of relationships between science & technology — namely, in which: i) science & technology function independently (e.g., development of steam engines without significant theory), ii) science depends on technological development (e.g., cell theory dependence on microscopy), iii) technology depends on science (e.g., genetic engineering) and iv) science and technology as co-dependent (e.g., aviation and theories of aerodynamics co-developing). At the same time, it should be pointed out that this analysis assumes significant differences between two fields that sometimes work together, may depend somewhat on one another or may operate quite separately. Indeed, in addition to differences noted by Gardner (1999), people identifying themselves as 'scientists' and 'technologists' often have different goals; with 'scientists' generally wanting to document and explain what exists, while 'technologists' want to change what exists (Schauble et al., 1991). These goals often involve cause-effect relationships in different ways — goals that are elaborated @ Sci. vs. Tech. There is, however, the view that science & technology are — at a very broad level of analysis — quite similar. Based on constructivist learning theory, for example, both science and technology use logic and (often) evidence to socially construct entities that are useful; e.g., explanations about nature in the case of science, and changes to nature in the case of technology. Both fields generate, in a sense, useful cognitive structures. Moreover, it is apparent that strategies scientists and technologists use are comparable. Both, for example, attempt to solve concerns involving cause and effect, both use experimentation, and both negotiate claims with peers and members of the public (although perhaps more so in technology than in science). An elaboration of such strategic similarities is provided @ SciTech Strategies.|
Influences on Science & Technology
The figure at right depicts a stereotypical - and, in my view, greatly misleading - view of relationships among science, technology and society. Briefly, it suggests that science functions in isolation (as indicated by the shaded 'wall' between Science and Technology) from fields of technology and societies. There is evidence that scientists and others perpetuate this myth. To justify isolation of science, scientists and others often claim that scientists adhere to a set of 'standards of practice' ('norms') that enable them to claim to be a self-governing social organization (via an 'Internal Sociology of Science') - and, therefore, independent from outside influences. Their role, as indicated at right, is said to be to create 'discoveries' that may (or may not) be used by fields of technology to develop 'inventions' which, in turn, may be adopted by society. In this view, fields of technology may be influenced by society, but not science. On the contrary, there is significant evidence that fields of science and technology are influenced by societies and, especially, their most powerful members. The RC Church, for example, had great influence over Galileo's astronomy. Today, there is considerable evidence that business-science partnerships often lead to compromises to the integrity [e.g., disregarding 'norms'] of science & technology.
Perhaps more realistic conceptions of relationships among fields of science and technology and societies and environments are at STSE Ed.
|Although there is a considerable body of research relating to the nature of science & technology, much of this knowledge is not — unfortunately — adequately reflected in science & technology curricula worldwide. Emphasis is placed, rather, on instruction relating to products — such as laws & theories — of science & technology (Désautels et al., 2002; Eisenhart et al., 1996). There are many possible reasons for this emphasis, not the least of which is that undergraduate science programmes tend to have the same emphasis. In my view, a major additional reason for lack of attention to the nature of science & technology in schools is because participants in school systems (e.g., government officials, administrators, etc.) have oriented school science primarily towards selection and training of potential scientists and engineers.||Portraying
science & technology in realistic ways —
particularly in terms of its negative
in school science likely would discourage students
from choosing to pursue post-secondary science and
technology education (Bencze,
2001b). Although actual curricula are
relatively devoid of learning goals regarding the
nature of science & technology, there are some
'progressive' curriculum documents in circulation that
draw attention to this domain of learning. Among the
world leaders in this area are some in the UK (e.g., Ideas
from the Nuffield Foundation), the USA (e.g., Nature of
Science & Technology, Project 2061) and
Canada (e.g., STSE,
Council of Ministers of Education).
barriers like those noted above
to promotion of realistic science & technology
in schools, development of appropriate pedagogical
strategies for such a education is likely still
needed. Having said that, a number of relevant
pedagogical principles and practices have emerged
from educational research
in recent years. Many fundamental
learning principles should be considered.
Based on constructivist
principles, I have developed a pedagogical
framework for procedural education. Generally,
for almost any domain of student
learning, this approach
encourages students to (not, necessarily, in the
following order or for equal amounts of time): i) express their
pre-instructional conceptions (e.g., concepts,
skills, beliefs, etc.), then: ii) learn (from
various people, including peers & teachers) new
conceptions (such as those developed by
professionals), before: iii) making judgements
about the merits of different conceptions —
through realistic student-led problem solving
activities. Students can re-construct their
conceptions about the nature of science &
technology using this three-phase approach. Again,
they would first (generally) express their
NoST views (in different ways), learn some
alternative claims about NoST and, eventually, judge which
NoST views make most sense to them in specific
contexts of knowledge building in science &
technology. In understanding specific strategies for
each of these three phases, it is important to keep
in mind a major principle of NoS education pointed
out by Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman (2000).
They noted that students often do not 'discover' particular, pre-determined
claims about science through "implicit"
to NoS education, such as through engagement in
scientific inquiry projects. Generally, these
approaches are 'inductive,'
the sense that students are expected to develop
generalizations (about science
from specific experiences. Because of the concept
of the inductive
fallacy, induction often fails to lead to
particular, pre-determined conclusions. To develop
particular, pre-determined conceptions about
science & technology, students need (according
Lederman) more "explicit" approaches. These
tend to be deductive
in nature; that is, students are asked to
test/evaluate particular pre-determined claims (in
this case, about NoST). Generally, students are
given access to various perspectives about the
nature of science & technology like those
above: NoS & NoT and, then, are given
opportunities to evaluate them in contexts related
to knowledge building in science & technology
— e.g., in the context of
self-directed science and/or invention projects.
Two possible problems associated with these
deductive strategies, along with suggestions for
avoiding/solving them, are: i) In providing
students with claims about NoST, educators
should avoid biasing students towards certain
positions. As indicated above,
for example, there are various competing
positions to which students should be exposed;
and ii) Because knowledge building expertise in
science & technology is idiosyncratic
(personal) and situational (dependent on
myriad often interacting and unpredictable
contextual variables), deductive approaches
should be used in concert with inductive
approaches — especially in contexts chosen by
students. This is a reminder to give
students opportunities to conduct
student-directed, open-ended (SD/OE)
scientific investigations and/or
invention projects relating to
topics of their interest. An
excellent resource for NoST
education is Hodson's
(2008) book, Towards Scientific
Literacy: A teacher's guide to the
history, philosophy and sociology
at left in mind, some specific NoST education
pedagogical strategies are briefly outlined below: