NGSS Nature of Science: Dealing with New Evidence

Q: What happens when new scientific evidence comes along and challenges our current understanding of something?

A: The scientific community works together to revise their models and develop new explanations in light of this new evidence.  Discussing how scientists deal with new and potentially contradictory data can help us work with teachers' understanding of the Nature of Science.

This image from Slate.com

Before the NGSS, many professional development and classroom discussions about the nature of science were dominated by the teaching of the "scientific method."  One of the major charges of the NGSS is for us to no longer misrepresent the process of science as a linear "method" and instead provide students K-12 with a more accurate picture of the dynamic, creative, and often messy process science actually is.  

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for students to engage in the Scientific and Engineering Practicesbut also require that we build students' understanding of the Nature of Science, a field of study that is known by NOS for short.

The NGSS outline eight different aspects of NOS, I only highlight one in this post:  "Scientific Knowledge is Open to Revision in Light of New Evidence."  

A major shift in this representation of the process of science, is providing opportunities for students to revise their models of how the world works when new evidence and observations challenge their current understandings.  Beyond discussions of the outlier, we are now asking students to develop and revise models based on this new evidence and make sense of phenomena to develop a more scientific world view.

Below a one line from the matrix presented in Appendix H of NGSS which shows the student progression for the Nature of Science progression strand: "Scientific Knowledge if open to revision in light of new evidence." The development of this concept progresses from left to right: K-2, 3-5, middle, and then high school.

Q: How do we anchor teacher professional development in this aspect of NOS? 

A: Most recently, we've been using an article about the how scientists are dealing with the discovery of new flying avian fossils that are far larger than the current range for flying birds that they have developed.  The article delves explicitly into how the scientific community has, and will have to, deal with this new data to revisit and revise their model of not only the scale of flying birds throughout the history of life, but also what this large size tells us about their structure and function (Scale, Structure & Function are Crosscutting Concepts from the NGSS).  

"According to scientists in the article, 'It’s a scaling problem,' says Ksepka: Theoretically, extremely large birds cannot fly, because the amount of power they need to fly surpasses the power of their muscles." In other words: If a bird that large could fly, how did they do it and what can we learn about flight, form, function, scale, and adaptation from our investigation into the past?

Anchoring teacher learning with current research that explicitly discusses how scientists revise models, can serve as a great jumping off point for work directly related to student exploration of structure and function. This specific example could also provide ideas for a variety of rich experiences in the class for students to grapple with developing useful explanatory models in the life sciences based upon physics.

The article on newly discovered giant avian fossils can be found here.