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The world of the student and the world of the scientist

Students need to understand, at some level, the complexities of working science so they can draw on that understanding for socio-scientific decision-making in adult life.

The teacher is the mediator between the world of the student and the world of the scientist.

Your role as a teacher is to help students learn where the products of science originate. Make certain they understand how those products came into being as specific types of knowledge.

You need to simulate, as realistically as possible, the things scientists do.

Students need to understand, at some level, the complexities of working science (what scientists do) so they can draw on that understanding for socio-scientific decision-making in adult life.

Some students develop a sufficiently keen interest in science to extend investigations into questions of their own choosing. Others, whose only personal experience of "doing" science takes place in core curriculum classes, will most likely take into adult life quite different images of science than the more actively-engaged students.

Senior students conducting an experiment in science class.

The following are examples of areas of comparisons between the scientists' work and students'. These are necessarily broad generalisations.

The areas of comparison are:

  • Perceptions of purpose
  • Starting points
  • The planning process
  • Actions undertaken
  • Making meaning
  • When it doesn't work.

Perceptions of purpose

Scientists believe their purpose  is to contribute to new knowledge through scientific inquiries. They address authentic questions and have both an intellectual and an emotional stake in the answers they generate.

In regards to purpose, students may hope to just complete the task and "look busy’".

Students often follow a "recipe" for practical work, and this may lead to the belief that scientists already know what will happen. Thus, they might use experiments to confirm their expectations (unless they make a mistake in the design or in carrying out the process).

Starting points

Starting points for scientists are based in knowledge, experience, and skills.

Scientists have deep knowledge of their field, of conflicting theories, of previous investigations (their own and others'), and of multiple possibilities for interpreting their evidence.

Scientists are skilled in their use of instruments and materials.

Students usually start from a beginner's knowledge and understanding.

They may have a beginner’s knowledge of the basic theory relevant to the investigation.

They may have little experience in:

  • managing the relevant variables
  • recognising what is happening
  • using measuring and observing tools and conventions.

Students are unlikely to have knowledge or experience deeply connected to either the relevant theory in the field of enquiry or to previous similar experiences.

The planning process

Scientists bring to the task their sense of purpose, urgency of their questions, and deep knowledge of the field. Planning is often intellectually and practically challenging and compelling.

Regarding the planning process, scientists may:

  • draw on the work of their peers
  • debate, argue, or challenge explanations and evidence
  • use a range of trials and detailed theoretical justification before deciding how to control variables
  • take much longer to devise a robust plan than it takes to carry out the final investigation.

For students, the planning process may be a novel concept. Generally, they prefer to "get on with it" rather than spend time planning.
When undertaking an investigation – even a simple one –, students often struggle to:

  • make sense of what is being asked of them
  • formulate hypotheses
  • undertake anticipatory planning.

Actions undertaken

Scientists take whatever actions they perceive will maximise their chances of finding answers that will be convincing, both to themselves and to their peers.

Scientists aim for a robust result, and, if necessary, rethink, adapt, and modify plans as the investigation unfolds.

For students, on-going sequences of exploration are often impractical in the school situation, so each practical experience may have to stand alone.

Making meaning

Scientists recognise that data gathered may not make immediate sense. They are aware making meaning may require an understanding of the theory behind the design of the data-gathering instrument.

Even apparently "straight-forward" evidence may be fiercely debated as to its meaning, depending on the theory used to interpret it.

Students may assume that the correct meaning of scientific data will be obvious by doing the experiment. (School science experiments are typically designed to produce "evidence’" whose meaning seems immediately apparent and easy to interpret.)

When it "doesn't work"

Scientists use their deep experience of the field to help rationalise the most appropriate of a range of responses to anomalous data – findings that do not fit the hypothesised pattern.

When it "doesn't work", scientists may:

  • discount or ignore anomalous data
  • hold anomalous data in abeyance
  • make minor changes to the theoretical basis of the design
  • change their theory as a result of what they find.

Students tend to associate anomalous data with mistakes, with incomplete evidence, with missing evidence.

Students may think that scientists use their personal opinions to decide which data to accept or reject. Such thinking many lead them to rely on their own opinions when they are making meaning. 


Hipkins, R. & Booker, F. (2002). You can’t investigate in a vacuum. Set: Research Information for Teachers, 3.