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“Eureka!” Accidental Breakthroughs in Science Capability: Gather & Interpret data NoS achievement aims: Understanding about science Contextual strands: Living world Contextual strands: Material world Level : 3

Author: Rupert Alchin.  Connected 3, 1999, pages 26–29

This resource illustrates how an article from Connected can be adapted to provide opportunities for students to strengthen their capability to gather and interpret data in the context of science.

Curriculum Aims and AOs

The Nature of Science strand


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource

Understanding about science

Learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society.

L3 & 4:

Appreciate that science is a way of explaining the world and that science knowledge changes over time.

Identify ways in which scientists work together and provide evidence to support their ideas.

The Living World and Material World strands


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource


Understand how living things interact with each other and the nonliving environment.

L3 & 4:

Explain how living things are suited to their particular habitat and how they respond to environmental changes, both natural and human-induced.

Chemistry and Society

Make connections between the concepts of chemistry and their applications and show an understanding of the role chemistry plays in the world around them.

L3 & 4:

Relate the observed, characteristic chemical and physical properties of a range of different materials to technological uses and natural processes.

Learning focus

Scientists observe closely and make inferences based on their observations and prior knowledge.

Learning activity

The article consists of three examples of chance observations that led to breakthroughs in science. Two of these are medical breakthroughs that had repercussions for treating smallpox and bacterial infections. The third relates to the invention of safety glass.

Adapting the resource

For each scenario, students could:

  • Identify initial observations made by scientists (what did they notice/hear about);
  • Describe what was inferred from this (what did they think);
  • Explain what question they then had (what they wondered about);
  • Suggest things from their background and experience that helped them think about the meaning of their observations.

What’s important here?

Some important understandings about science that are embedded in this article are:

  • Good science is cumulative. Scientists’ theories are built on existing understandings as new observations are made.
  • Observations are surprising when they don’t match what you expect to see.
  • Observations that surprise can be instrumental in prompting scientists to wonder why. Throughout history, new inferences prompted by surprising events have resulted in some of science’s important understandings. 
  • Knowledge and experience have important roles to play in both noticing and making inferences.  Knowledge and observing are bound up together, so:
    • what we know affects what we see
    •  when what we expect doesn’t match what we do see, it makes us reconsider what we think.

It is important for students to realise this so they have the expectation that new theories occur when all the right conditions come together.  

Developing an appreciation of what counts as evidence in science supports students to become scientifically literate, i.e., to participate as critical, informed, and responsible citizens in a society in which science plays a significant role. (This is the purpose of science in NZC.)

What are we looking for?

When you ask, “What did the scientists notice?”

When you ask, “What did the scientists think?”

Do students limit their answers to things that are observable?

How much detail do they include?


Do students link scientists’ ideas to their observations?

Do they describe the scientists’ thinking process (or chain of events)?

Do they recognise the role of the scientists’ knowledge in enabling them to both notice and make inferences about surprising events?

Opportunities to learn at different curriculum levels

For suggestions about adapting tasks in ways that allow students to show progress in gathering and interpreting data see Opportunities to learn at different curriculum levels .

Exploring further

The capability 2 resource, A Bird in the Hand, is based on an article about the rediscovery of a bird that was thought to be extinct. This came about initially because of keen observation.

Ask students

  • What was noticed?
  • Why did their observations cause them to wonder about the bird?
  • What background/knowledge did the people have that helped them to notice important details?

Other resources for this capability

Key words

Connected, observation