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Watch This Space Capability: Gather & Interpret data NoS achievement aims: Understanding about science Contextual strands: Planet Earth and beyond Level : 5

Authors: David Hill & Marilyn Head. Applications, 2007

This resource illustrates how an Applications story can be adapted to provide opportunities for students to strengthen the capability of gathering and interpreting data in the context of science.

Curriculum Aims and AOs

The Nature of Science strand


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource

Understanding about science

Students will 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.


Understand that scientists’ investigations are informed by current scientific theories and aim to collect evidence that will be interpreted through processes of logical argument.

Planet Earth and Beyond


Achievement objectives relevant to this resource

Astronomical systems

Investigate and understand relationships between the Earth, Moon, Sun, solar system, and other systems in the universe.


Explore recent astronomical events or discoveries, showing understanding of the concepts of distance and time.

Learning focus

Students appreciate that when it is not possible to observe something directly, scientists can make inferences from other observations that they can make.

Learning activity

Watch This Space introduces students to past and current research methods and findings in the context of space. Pages 20-23 outline three different methods used by astronomers to figure out which stars might have planets in orbit around them, even though the actual planets are far too small for us to see, especially given the obscuring brightness of the stars themselves.

Extending inferences beyond contexts where direct observations are made might be the only way of shaping or refining science ideas about life, or events, in the past, when there are no direct equivalents today, or of building knowledge about far-space when direct observation is impossible. In this way “indirect observation” can be an important knowledge-building activity in science.

Adapting the resource

Although the closest match to the Planet Earth and Beyond strand is at NZC Level 8, students are often interested in space exploration from an early age and Applications resources were developed for middle school age students. This account can be used to introduce the idea that proposing carefully justified inferences can be the only way of building new science ideas in contexts where it is impossible to make direct observations.

After reading the article, students could be helped to explore the relationship between observation, inference, and justification by sorting the following statements (reproduced on cards) into observationsscience ideas, and inferencesThey then match the relevant groups of ideas as shown here. [The cards would need to be shuffled.]

Direct observation

Established science ideas

Inference (based on justified  indirect observation)

Stretching and bunching of light waves coming from a star can be measured. A slight wobble in a star can cause detectable changes to the light waves it emits. Wobbly stars in far space will have planets around them.
  Earth’s planets create a slight wobble in the sun’s movement.  
Blips in the brightening then dimming of light from a star can be detected. A nearer star can act like a lens for one further away that passes directly behind it. Changes in light intensity from a star acting as a lens will show blips if there is a planet in orbit around the star.
  When a star acts as a lens its light intensifies and dims in a smooth trajectory of change (unless some other object is also present).  
Very slight dimming of a star’s light can be detected with a photometer. When a planet passes in front of the sun (a transit) it causes the sun’s light to dim slightly. Slight temporary dimming of far stars is evidence they have orbiting planets.

What’s important here?

Sometimes inferences have to be made using indirect evidence. However students need to appreciate that this does not mean “anything goes”. Reasoning needs to be as robust and rigorous as it is when direct evidence can be gathered. A lot of hotly debated “cutting edge” knowledge claims will involve long chains of inference/observation reasoning. It is helpful for citizens to understand that this is to be expected, and not a sign that something dodgy is going on, or that someone is just expressing a personal opinion.

Developing an appreciation of the many ways that data might be gathered and interpreted 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?

Can students differentiate between what is observed and what is inferred?

Do they appreciate that building new knowledge about space relies on inferring from direct observations in near-space to shape methods for indirectly “observing” objects, processes or systems in far-space?

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 Learning at different curriculum levels.

Exploring further

Inferences are often made by building and manipulating models when the real thing can’t be directly investigated. The teachers’ notes for Watch this Space (pages 8-9) explain the activity Creating Classroom Craters. Students could also use this activity to notice and differentiate between when they are making observations and when they are drawing inferences.

Other relevant Applications activities include:

  • Pages 18-19 of Waka outline a range of observations made by seafaring Polynesians and identify the inferences they made from these that allowed them to navigate successfully. Students could make a list of all the observation/inference pairs they can find. 
  • Page 20 of Power to the People mentions that observations of today’s life forms in extreme environments can be used to make inferences about life forms on other planets or moons. Students could find out more about extremophiles and discuss what sort of inferences might be made, based on knowledge of how they live (the text does not say). 
  • Pages 2-4 of The History Makers explain how observations made by direct experience/experimentation can be used to make inferences about the challenges our ancestors faced when making stone tools. Students could discuss what is similar/different to investigating by modelling (e.g., the crater activity). The Teachers’ Notes (page 12) extend the idea to the context of population studies. When direct counts cannot be made for practical reasons, extrapolations are made from sampling studies. Students could debate the inferences on which these methods rest.
  • The use of fish hooks as evidence of past cultures on pages 10-11 of Discovering Our Ancestors could be compared to the experimental making of tools in The History Makers.  A similar but more demanding context (pages 6-7) is the use of radio-carbon dating as a method of ageing soils and artefacts. Which parts of this method rest on observations and which are inferences?

Giant ammonite (Tales from Te Papa, Episode 7) is a useful resource from outside of the applications series which discusses the observations scientists used to infer that this ammonite was killed during a volcanic eruption. How did they use knowledge of present day squid to make inferences about the lifestyle of the ammonite? (This resource can be accessed via the Digistore.)

Other resources for this capability

Key words

Applications, astronomy