Astrobiology and the nature of science - Education Matters

Astrobiology helps students understand the nature of science


As part of a new UNSW Sydney study, secondary students were introduced to the study of astrobiology to demonstrate “how science is done outside of a classroom”, with results showing it helped to instil a more accurate view of the nature of science: one that included the use of creativity and imagination.

Astrobiology is the study of life’s origins, distribution, and future in the universe. Based around the Mission to Mars program at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre, the study surveyed 483 students from Years 7-10 between May and September 2018.

Of the students, 143 responded to the presurvey, and of these 76 responded to the postsurvey. Analysis of their written responses revealed “cognitive conflict” – a sign that newly gained information is in tension with current knowledge. In this case, their understanding of the nature of science was being radically challenged.

Post-test trends highlighted an increase in student acknowledgement of how acts of interpretation, creativity and imagination operate in science.

The authors – PhD Candidate Isabelle Kingsley, Dr Carol Oliver, and Dr Eve Slavich – believe “this trend points to a shift in students’ views toward a more informed understanding that scientists’ interpretations are influenced by their background, experience, and creativity, suggesting a greater awareness of the subjective, tentative and creative nature of science.”

Both this study and previous ones attempted the same thing using quantitative data analysis but were unable to identify a shift in student understandings. The true results were “hidden in the figures”, only to be revealed when students wrote about their experiences.

“These results suggest that students were actively re-evaluating their existing ideas of the nature of science,” the researchers write, “but that those ideas had not been fully integrated into their knowledge structures. This may be evidence that students were engaged in the process of assimilation and accommodation – that is, adapting or altering their existing knowledge structures to integrate new information gained from the astrobiology experience.”

It might be reasonable to ask why we need to address students’ knowledge of the nature of science, given that the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (2018) designates it as part of the school curriculum and STEM is being strongly promoted.

According to the researchers, while students do learn about the nature of science, they “still consistently demonstrate inadequate conceptions”.

“Certain critical elements … are overlooked, in particular the role of creativity and imagination in scientific practice.”

Other explanations include the content-focused, rote learning approach adopted in schools, leading students to misconstrue the true nature of scientific work and science generally.

“Lectures, worksheets, and laboratory experiments that use a recipe-like method – the scientific method – result in students viewing science as rigid, linear, absolute, and uncreative.

“How students view the nature of science is considered fundamental to shaping their frame of reference for making sense of scientific knowledge, practice, and implications,” they said. “Science educator Harold Saunders was right to call it the most important purpose of science teaching”.

The researchers warn that their sample size limits the conclusions that should be drawn from their work. Nonetheless, they conclude that “astrobiology programs can effect some change in students’ views of the nature of science and may be useful in helping students to take their first steps toward comprehending how science is done.”