A Way of Knowing

Nature of Science & Engineering
The Practice of Science

Science is a way of knowing about the natural world and is characterized by empirical criteria, logical argument and skeptical review.

Benchmark: Rules of the Universe

Explain the implications of the assumption that the rules of the universe are the same everywhere and these rules can be discovered by careful and systematic investigation.

Benchmark: Reasons for Investigations

Understand that scientists conduct investigations for a variety of reasons, including: to discover new aspects of the natural world, to explain observed phenomena, to test the conclusions of prior investigations, or to test the predictions of current theories.

Benchmark: Norms of Science

Explain how the traditions and norms of science define the bounds of professional scientific practice and reveal instances of scientific error or misconduct.

For example: The use of peer review, publications and presentations.

Benchmark: Ethics impact on Research

Explain how societal and scientific ethics impact research practices.

For example: Research involving human subjects may be conducted only with the informed consent of the subjects.

Benchmark: Influence of Bias on Research

Identify sources of bias and explain how bias might influence the direction of research and the interpretation of data.

For example: How funding of research can influence questions studied, procedures used, analysis of data, and communication of results.

Benchmark: Incremental Changes

Describe how changes in scientific knowledge generally occur in incremental steps that include and build on earlier knowledge.

Benchmark: Changes in Theories & Models

Explain how scientific and technological innovations ─as well as new evidence─ can challenge portions of, or entire accepted theories and models including, but not limited to: cell theory, atomic theory, theory of evolution, plate tectonic theory, germ theory of disease, and the big bang theory.


Standard in Lay Terms 

MN Standard in Lay Terms

The universe has rules that are consistent from one place to another.  Scientists conduct investigations on these rules for a variety of reasons, and the conditions and norms of science and societal and scientific ethics define their work.  Changes in scientific knowledge occur in steps and build upon what has come before, as scientific innovations and new evidence challenge and modify older theories and models.

Big Ideas and Essential Understandings 

Big Idea

Science operates under the assumption that the basic rules of the universe are the same everywhere and over all time, with only possible variations on the theme.  Scientists hope to discover and explore applications of these assumptions through the logical process of scientific research.  This is done in order to benefit humanity and preserve and protect the world in which we live.  However, there are constraints on this research, as ethical considerations need to be taken into account  Research knowledge is built in steps and builds upon what has come previously.  With this new knowledge, old results can be challenged, modified, and added to.  Although theories are defined as having myriad supporting data, they are frequently modified and fine-tuned as more data are accumulated and more questions are asked.

Benchmark Cluster 

MN Standard Benchmarks  Explain the implications of the assumption that the rules of the universe are the same everywhere and these rules can be discovered by careful and systemic investigation.   Understand that scientists conduct investigations for a variety of reasons including; to discover new aspects of the natural world, to explain observed phenomena, to test the conclusions of prior investigations, or to test the predictions of current theories.  Explain how the traditions and norms of science define the bounds of professional scientific practice and reveal instances of scientific error or misconduct.  For example: the use of peer review, publications and presentations.  Explain how societal and scientific ethics impact research practices.  For example: Research involving human subjects may be conducted on the informed consent of the subjects.  Identify sources of bias, and explain how bias might influence the direction of research and the interpretation of data.  For example: How funding of research can influence questions studied, procedures used, analysis of data and communication of results.  Describe how changes in scientific knowledge generally occur in incremental steps that include and build on earlier knowledge.  Explain how scientific and technological innovations - as well as new evidence - can challenge portions of or entire accepted theories and models including, but not limited to: cell theory, atomic theory, theory of evolution, plate tectonic theory, germ theory of disease, and the big bang theory.

The Essentials

See this page.


Science distinguishes itself from other ways of knowing and from other bodies of knowledge through the use of empirical standards, logical arguments, and skepticism as scientists strive for the best possible explanations about the natural world. p pg 201

Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria.  First and foremost, they must be consistent with experimental and observations evidence about nature and must make accurate predictions, when appropriate, about systems being studied.  They should also be logical, responsive to the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, and make knowledge public.  Explanations on how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical ...... pg 201

Scientists have ethical traditions.  Scientists value peer review, truthful reporting about the methods and outcomes of investigations, and make public the results of work.  Violations of such norms do occur, but scientists responsible for such violations are censured by their peers.  pg 200

Scientists are influence by societal, cultural, and personal beliefs, and ways of viewing the world.  Science is not separates from society but rather science is a part of society. pg 201

Understanding of scientific concepts.

An appreciation of "how we know" what we know in science.

Understanding of the nature of science.


Scientists usually inquire about how physical, living, or designed systems function.

Scientists conduct investigations for a wide variety of reasons.

Scientists rely on technology to enhance the gathering and manipulation of data.

Mathematics is essential in scientific inquiry.

Scientific explanations must adhere to criteria such as: a proposed explanation must be logically consistent; it must abide by the rules of evidence; it must be open to questions and possible modification; and it must be based on historical and current scientific knowledge.

Results of scientific inquiry-new knowledge and methods-emerge from different types of investigations and public communication among scientists.

Investigations are conducted for different reasons, including to explore new phenomena, to check on previous results, to test how well a theory predicts, and to compare theories. 1B/H1

There are different traditions in science about what is investigated and how, but they all share a commitment to the use of logical arguments based on empirical evidence. 1B/H4*

Scientists in any one research group tend to see things alike, so even groups of scientists may have trouble being entirely objective about their methods and findings. For that reason, scientific teams are expected to seek out the possible sources of bias in the design of their investigations and in their data analysis. Checking each other's results and explanations helps, but that is no guarantee against bias. 1B/H5

In the short run, new ideas that do not mesh well with mainstream ideas in science often encounter vigorous criticism. 1B/H6a

New ideas in science are limited by the context in which they are conceived; are often rejected by the scientific establishment; sometimes spring from unexpected findings; and usually grow slowly, through contributions from many investigators. 1B/H7

Bias attributable to the investigator, the sample, the method, or the instrument may not be completely avoidable in every instance, but scientists want to know the possible sources of bias and how bias is likely to influence evidence. 1B/H10**

Common Core Standards

Math:  Statistics and Probability - S-ID

Make inferences and justify conclusions from sample surveys, experiments, and observational studies.

Use probability to evaluate outcomes of decisions.

Language Arts


Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

For literacy in History/Social Studies

(5)  Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.

(6)  Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.

(8)  Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author's claims.

For literacy in Science and Technical Subjects

(6)  Analyze the author's purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text, defining the question the author seeks to address.


Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.


Student Misconceptions 

Students of all ages find it difficult to distinguish between a theory and the evidence for it, or between description of evidence and interpretation of evidence (Atlas, Project 2061), although some research suggests students can start understanding the distinction between theory and evidence after adequate instruction as early as middle school (Roseberry et al., 1992).

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 (Atlas Project 2061).

There is a single scientific method, see this page.

Some students believe observations directly tell them how things work or that knowledge is "read off" nature, and not built (see: Scientists).


Animal Behavior inquiry

Note: The following project will depend on the location of the school in which it is done.  For rural schools, the duck project is outstanding and the ducks can be sent to a local farm at the end of the project.  For urban schools, the project can be modified to involve simpler organisms such as crickets, fruit flies, pill bugs, frogs, fish and even in creative circumstances, plants (especially effective are sensitive plants "mimosa" and Venus fly traps).

Today the students begin their animal behavior project.  Students work in pairs (as parents) in order to care for a 2-day old duckling during a 3 day weekend.  Students will be caring for the duckling but the duckling will be teaching the students the basics of bird behavior as students observe them and record all of their behaviors.  They are also instructed to teach the duckling some simple behaviors.

Before the project can begin, a frank discussion takes place on animal ethics and responsibility.  Past experiences from other classes are discussed and society's view of these are noted.  Students have a very candid discussion on what is considered humane and what is not.  They also discuss whether it is truly unethical or whether it is the perception of others that is important to the project.  The students research guidelines from "The Humane Society," "Poultry Concerns Incorporated," ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair) SRC (Scientific Review Committee) regulations, and other organizations that protect vertebrate animals.  What is ethical treatment?  How are the ducklings cared for and what happens to them at the end of the project?

ALTERNATIVE ANIMAL FOCUS:  Dissection.  This same discussion can be had as we discuss the validity of animal dissection (frogs, fetal pigs, cats) that is often done in biology classrooms.  Alternative assignments, such as computer programs of dissections, should be available but are they as effective?


Instructional Notes 

Suggested Labs and Activities  (Physical Science and Physics 9P2.2.2.1)

Activities involving the force of gravity.  Gravity is a universal force that functions the same according to a set of laws and equations, that are the same no matter where in the universe they are located and studied.  It may be good to take an historical approach to this.  The idea of universal gravity was developed by Isaac Newton as he pondered the motion of planets.  He wondered why they orbited the sun and did not fly off in a straight path.  According to legend, while he was thinking about this, he saw an apple fall.  He reasoned that the same force that pulled the apple down is responsible for keeping the planets in their orbits.  A good description is in Joy Hakim's Newton at the Center  [Hakim, Joy. The Story of Science: Newton at the Center. NSTA Press 2005.]   Blow and Go Parachute   Physical Science

Students make a skydiver and parachute contraption to demonstrate how drag caused by air resistance slows the descent of skydivers as they travel back to earth.  Gravity pulls the skydiver toward the earth, while the air trapped by the parachute provides an upward resisting force (drag) on the skydiver.  Global Warming  (Earth and Space Science

An Inconvenient Truth; A Global Warning by Al Gore.  After watching the video on global warming, students determine whether the timeline is truly predicting an impending disaster.  The students explore the data including ice cores, fossils, past records of global temperature and carbon dioxide levels, to try to test the predictions of current theories on global warming.  This provides an example of a science process in which a large amount of data from many sources is analyzed to develop an overarching explanation that can lead to a theory.  Sometimes a theory is developed and then additional evidence is sought to justify or possibly contradict the theory.  Several examples of differing methods of science, including accidental discoveries, ideas revealed in dreams, and mathematically deduced ideas, are described in the first chapter of What Science Is and How it Works. (Derry, G. (1999). What Science Is and How it Works. Princeton University Press.)   Fossil Wars   (Earth Science

Students read the book a T-Rex named Sue and/or visit the Field Museum and see the actual fossil. They then research the story of Peter Larson, the scientist who found Sue.  During the time following Sue's excavation, there were numerous legal wars over who was the "owner" of this very valuable specimen.  The outcome involved a nasty bit of science that truly shows some of the professional practice and its limitations that allow for misconduct and error.

This exhibit was created by The Field Museum, Chicago, and made possible through the generosity of McDonald's ® Corporation  (Life Science

Several popular movies can be very valuable for introducing students to bioethical issues.  Although showing all of them may not be the best use of classroom time, showing one and perhaps having students watch others at home is an outstanding way to start discussions involving bioethics.  Movies that have been especially worthwhile include Gattaca, The Island, My Sister's Keeper, and Jurassic Park.  Other excellent topics to explore include human testing, who gets a transplant, and cloud seeding for rain.  Students watch the movie and identify the ethical issues.  Following the movie, they debate the issues in a fish bowl forum.  Biology

Students watch Secret of Photo 51 and Race for the Double Helix.  They can use the "Checklist" to discuss the actions of the scientists involved in the discovery of DNA. Current events can demonstrate this benchmark well.  Examples include the recent findings that heart attacks in women display different symptoms than in men, resulting in compromised identification and treatment.  It may include climate change, the Gulf oil spill, and historically: an Earth-Centered Universe.  The outcomes of these incidents were in many ways due to the biases of the scientists involved.  Keeping a current events bulletin board is a good way to start daily "warm up" discussions of current events.

The checks lab

Students construct plausible scenarios to explain a series of bank checks.  As students examine additional canceled checks, they revise their original hypotheses with new evidence.  In the process, they learn how human values and biases influence observation and interpretation.   (Chemistry 9C2.1.1.1 and 9C2.1.1.2)

The history of the periodic table provides an excellent example of the changes in scientific knowledge that have occurred in incremental steps.  A time-line of the major changes in the periodic table can be created.  Students trace the events in the timeline and follow the changes and knowledge that have been built upon to come up with our present-day periodic table.  An excellent example of how changes in technology have changed our understanding of the periodic table can be found by examining the historical background of the discovery of the elements.  For example, after electricity was made common and usable, Sir Humphrey Davies applied it in the technique of electrolysis to discover several Group I and II metals.  Fossil Find

Students are taken on an imaginary fossil hunt and hypothesize as to the identity of the creature they discover.  Students revise their hypotheses as new evidence is "found."   (Atomic  Theory - Physical Science

Kean, S. (2010). The Disappearing Spoon. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.  A book about madness, love and other true tales about the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements.  This book begins a rollicking drama on the theory that is the atomic theory and how it has changed and been challenged and modified over time.  Students could do this as a book report or excerpts could be used to start a powerful discussion  Proposing the theory of Biological EvolutionHistorical Perspective

This activity uses evolution to introduce students to historical perspectives and the nature of science.  Students read short excerpts of original statements on evolution by Jean Lamarck, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Instructional suggestions/options

Current events are an excellent way to start the discussion of bioethics in scientific research.  Students can keep track of recent events on a bulletin board.  The Internet provides immediate media as news is made.  Science 360/current events provides a link to current events in science.

Many new movies, books and/or television shows base their plots on bioethical issues.  As students see or read them, they can report to the class and perhaps others can be assigned to view them also.  This provides a wonderful opportunity for students to explore the truth or fiction of movies or books.

Incorporate the nature and process of science throughout the year.  Re-emphasize the same ideas in multiple contexts so that students can see the general applicability of these ideas to all of science.

Use activities in which students apply/develop scientific processes themselves (i.e., How do I do science?) and activities in which students examine the workings of science from the outside in (i.e., How do they do science?).

Use examples from the history of science. Incorporate popular accounts of scientific discoveries that emphasize the nature and process of science.

Wherever possible, get students to ask and answer "How do we know this?"

For student investigations:

Avoid overemphasizing the term "experiment."  Many scientific tests do not take the form of experiments.  When discussing evidence garnered through these other sorts of scientific tests, be sure to make this explicit.

Take advantage of labs and activities that "go wrong."  De-emphasize the idea of the "right" answer and allow students to wrestle with ambiguity.

Instead of giving the "right" answer, direct student skepticism back at methods, evidence, and interpretation.

This Checklist provides students a set of questions that can help them apply critical thinking skills, evaluate media messages about science, and improve their own decision-making.

Instructional Resources 

Additional resources

ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair)  SRC (Scientific Review Committee):

List of guidelines for research involving humans, vertebrate animals, pathogens, controlled substances and others.

Understanding the flow of science - differentiation

Understanding Science Website has great background information and classroom activities.

Ozone Depletion: Uncovering the Hidden Hazards of Hairspray

Asteroids and dinosaurs: Unexpected twists and an unfinished story

The Structure of DNACooperation and Competition

Good background reading on the principals of science, process, characteristics and cultural content. Nature of Science

New Vocabulary 


  • Bias: Viewing scientific results based on a preconceived idea or previous known knowledge and then slanting that research to fit these ideas.
  • Empirical Criteria: A close connection to observation and experiment.
  • Ethics (Societal and Scientific): A judgment as to the essential good or bad of a experiment or treatment based on societal norms.
  • Law: A descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world behaves under stated circumstances and that carries the weight of scientific evidence (National Academy of Sciences, Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, [National Academy Press, 1998], 5)
  • Logical Argument: An argument based on a systematic method of reasoning.
  • Peer Review: Prior to publication, research results, analysis and conclusions are sent to "experts" in the field for collaboration and consensus as to the validity of the research and the worthiness of publication.
  • Rules of the Universe: are things and events in the universe that occur in consistent patterns that are comprehensible through careful systematic study," scientific theories and natural laws are the [American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2007], 5)
  • Systematic investigations: Investigation of the entire system involved in the problem.
  • Theory: A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences and tested hypothesis (National Academy of Science. (1998). Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. [National Academy Press, 5]).
Technology Connections 

An Inconvenient Truth - Al Gore  (DVD report) 

Drama videos: Jurassic Park, The Island, Gattaca, My Sister's Keeper  Commercially available.

Cross Curricular Connections 

Social Studies may study ethics in several units throughout their curriculum.  Communication with the social studies teachers may provide some nice opportunities for co-curricular projects.  Especially interesting would be topics concerning bioethics and medical research throughout history.  Examples include the death of George Washington after bloodletting, and experimentation by doctors in Nazi death camps during World War II.


Assessment of Students

(Summative)  When the smallpox virus was first tested, a similar virus called cow pox was injected into a young man.  Later the small pox virus was injected.  Would this experiment be approved today?  Why or why not? (

ANSWER:  Students may give a variety of answers, but most of them will indicate that to risk the young man's life was a breach of ethics that simply would not be accepted today.

(Formative)  Wikipedia is an information source which can be edited by anyone interested in the topic.  Science does not work that way.  Science has "peer review."  What is "peer review" and how does it ensure accurate reporting of science? (

ANSWER:   Wikipedia does not address peer review and therefore is open to revision at any time whether the information is established and correct or not.  Peer review is the attempt of the profession to keep it honest.  Experimental results and conclusions are sent to experts in the field for critique and ultimate approval before they are published.  In theory, this keeps the data "honest."

Assessment of Teachers

What are the guidelines that should be followed in your area for "animal research," "human research," and student safety?  Are these guidelines reasonable or do you believe they should be shortened or extended?

ANSWER:  Answers will vary depending on the school district in which one works.  However, all three (animal research, human research, and student safety) are generally based on guidelines put out by scientific review studies including ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair).  ISEF bases its criteria on a conservative interpretation of scientific protocols, including NIH (National Institutes of Health) and the Humane Society guidelines.

One theory that is often under discussion is the "Theory of Evolution."  How does bias affect this theory?  Does it keep us from rational and logical exploration of the topic?  Does this apply to other theories?  How?

ANSWER:  Answers will vary but will invariably have to do with religious preference and/or preconceived ideas of the topic.  Generally, it appears that these biases inhibit exploration of the topic and that misconceptions or knowledge limitations exist.

Science in all areas has much to offer but that information could be misused.  In the future, humans may carry a card with their genotype on it.  What are the ethical dangers and advantages of this practice?

ANSWER:  Answers may include insurance issues and rates if one has a high probability of a disease.  They may include concern for prejudice in a job based on genetic predispositions.  On the positive side, doctors will be able to prescribe a more appropriate drug designed for the individual and based on that individual's metabolic enzymes which will be more effective and reduce side effects.

After reading this checklist for teaching the nature of science, reflect on things you can incorporate/change in your lessons. 

Quick Quiz about the Nature of Science


Struggling Learners 

Struggling and At-Risk

Experience has shown that at-risk students can often relate well to many of bioethical issues. Depending on their situation, they often have more life experience than some of the other students and can offer some interesting perspectives.

English Language Learners 

ELL students will have many of the same issues as the multi-cultural group.  A working knowledge of the religion and culture of their country of origin may be helpful.

Extending the Learning 

Extensions in these areas are numerous.  Students could interview scientists and visit research facilities and then report back to the class on their findings.  They may, in fact, do an extension mentorship in which they earn credit for working in a research facility, if one is nearby.

Students could explore the publishing of a scientific article in a scientific journal such as Science or Nature.  What does it take to be published in these journals?  What are the guidelines and how long does it generally take?


There may be very diverse opinions on these issues depending on the culture in which the student was raised.  Religious issues relating to human research and animal research may arise more frequently with students from cultures with which the teacher is unfamiliar.  An open mind and respectful discussion of differences is important in these situations.  Generally, if students feel comfortable and secure, they enjoy talking about these topics.  It is imperative, however, to foster a classroom culture that is accepting, open, and non-judgmental.

Special Education 

Because this standard is so diverse and has so many avenues for discussion, a wide variety of products and thought processes are possible.  The learning can be adapted to a wide range of learning disabilities and special needs.  Tests may take the form of discussions or debates rather than written tests on which many special education students struggle.


Classroom Observation 


Administrators should see a healthy debate on the ethics of science.  They might see students discussing sensitive issues, researching current issues and/or viewing appropriate popular movies such as The Island.  


Discussions between parents and students can be especially beneficial at this time.  Care should be taken that parents understand it is an exploration and that there is room for disagreement.  The teacher must take care not to dictate their own thoughts and biases to the student but rather to keep the conversation open and respect differences.