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A recent article in The Washington Times titled “Climate scientists to fight back at skeptics” discusses the ways in which key climatologists are feeling pressure to fight back and respond to their critics, in light of what has been referred to as “Climategate.” “Climategate,” which has painted climate scientists in an unflattering light, concerns the leaking of emails between two top climate research scientists. The emails appeared to indicate that the two scientists were “massaging data” in favor of a certain conclusion and ignoring other key data points to do so.

In the article, Stephen H. Schneider, a Stanford professor, says that he believes the “social contract” between policymakers and scientists has been broken and needs to be fixed. He is quoted as saying,

“What I am trying to do is head off something that will be truly ugly… I don’t want to see a repeat of McCarthyesque behavior and I’m already personally very dismayed by the horrible state of this topic, in which the political debate has almost no resemblance to the scientific debate.”

Schneider was a participant in an email conversation in which several other climate scientists associated with the National Academy of Sciences discussed organizing their fellow researchers to form a nonprofit group in order to raise funds for an ad in the New York Times which would respond forcefully to critics of the climatologists.

This latest twist in the story of “Climategate” leads us to question why the “social contract” between scientists and policymakers has been broken. Is it because the scientific facts given to us by the climate researchers are entirely flawed? Or could it be a result of policy makers who have relied on the “science experts” to tell them what to believe rather than using their own critical thinking skills to evaluate the conclusions proposed by the experts?

Science, at its most basic level, is all about argument, opposing viewpoints, and varied interpretations. One of the central requirements of any scientific theory is that its conclusions be falsified and tested, however what constitutes a “proven fact” is debatable. Because of this, scientists argue; that’s simply what scientists do. Scientists have disputes about everything; from evaluating data to how to conduct experiments. Many graduate students have been witnesses to heated conflicts over the interpretations of scientific data where scientists sometimes even attack one another’s reputations at conferences! So it’s no surprise that climate scientists vehemently disagree on the data and what the data mean. However, when one point of view ceases to be questioned, in a “this is the whole truth” perspective, science stops being scientific. “Climategate” is certainly the result of sloppy handling of data, but it is also likely the result of bias. When the theory that human CO2 emissions caused global warming became the sole cause for why polar ice caps were melting, scientific objectivity was shelved. This one, very narrow interpretation of data was presented as the entire reason behind climate change, while other facts, such as particulate matter by aerosols or the influences of solar activity were downplayed. It doesn’t take a climate scientist, or even a scientist, to see that to present one set of data as the only cause of a phenomenon while downplaying other data spells trouble. Anyone with a basic understanding of science and adequate tools in critical thinking can see this.

Politicians, journalists, and the general public need to learn to take responsibility for their own understanding about science and the scientific process. Awareness about the fundamentals of science and how science works are the keys to forming good opinions about climate science data. Anyone can achieve the ability to evaluate scientific claims. If first graders can learn physics and chemistry, then journalists and policymakers, as well as the average adult, can learn the basics and from there think critically about scientific conclusions.

Essentially, “Climategate” is a problem with education and politics, not science. The conflict between scientists is exactly the way science functions and is not out of the ordinary. There is a battle over climate data, as there should be. However, because policymakers viewed climate change from a narrow lens without critically evaluating counterarguments, errors in judgment were likely made. What we need is more science education for everyone, not necessarily more experts. If our policy makers had been taught to evaluate scientific claims for themselves and not merely rely on others to dictate scientific opinion to them, issues such as “Climategate” might have been avoided. However, if funding for education continues to be cut, as is currently happening in California to make up for the financial shortfall the state has experienced, this problem will only get worse. In order to re-establish the “social contract” between scientists and policymakers it might be a good idea to ask that both scientists and policymakers take responsibility for their own understanding of those scientific issues that impact politics.

In November of last year, e-mails between England’s University of East Anglia Professor Phil Jones, the head of the Climate Research Unit, and Professor Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University were publicized by computer hackers. These e-mails received a great deal of media attention because they seemed to imply that there was a degree of misconduct between the two scientists. The misconduct came in the form of data being hidden in order to influence the peer review process and ultimately to keep scientific papers which had dissenting points of view from becoming public. For example, in one e-mail, Dr. Jones noted, regarding the global climate status, “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” Jones has since stepped down as head of the Climate Research Unit.

Although Professor Jones has defended the content of his e-mails, most recently to BBC News in a question-and-answer format (see, there is no doubt that what he wrote has ignited a public outcry about how scientists treat data, especially as it relates to climatology.  Responding to his critics in the interview with BBC, he says that the “…’trick’ did not refer to any intention to deceive — but rather ‘a convenient way of achieving something’.”

This leads us to ask why and how something like “Climategate” could happen.  What do the data really reflect? If the periods studied do not show a warming trend of statistical significance, what does this mean? How well do the interpretations of the data reflect what is really happening with the climate? Was the need to “hide the decline” a scientific necessity or was it political? And if it was political how much should politics influence the representation of scientific data? Is there a “correct” way to interpret scientific data, and if not, how does one educate a young scientist to interpret data to reflect the best possible representation of reality?

First, there is no one right way for interpreting scientific data and predicting climate change. The science of climatology is complex because there are so many variables involved.  Jones notes just a few of the numerous data points a climate scientist must take into consideration: “human and natural influences… natural internal variability of the climate system… Volcanic influences… Solar influence…” Because of all the variables, it becomes necessary to take a solid look at the collected data from various viewpoints.

Second, when looking at the science of a highly politicized issue such as climate change, it is imperative that scientists not become influenced one way or another by political opinion.  In the case of “Climategate,” it appears as though Jones may have mixed science with politics, and then felt pressured to present the “right” data so that climate change would appear in one light, when in fact his records possibly showed otherwise.  When questioned by the BBC, Jones admitted that, although there has been some warming, there has not been significant global warming from 1995 to the present, and that “Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.” What this means is that Dr. Jones may have felt the need to stretch his data to appear sympathetic to the issue of climate change. His stretch has now cast doubts on all of his data, not just the statistics he referred to in these specific e-mails.

Last, the public is not well-versed in thinking critically when it comes to scientific matters. Science is not black and white and most scientific conclusions are complex and layered. Rather than looking at data objectively with a healthy dose of skepticism, sometimes the media and politicians will take their own point of view and then search for scientific data to back up their already-formed opinions.  This leads to an imbalance in the way scientific facts are presented to the public.

These are significant issues when it comes to science and how scientists present scientific data to the public, and these problems point to a desperate need to overhaul science education. It is not enough to rely on the “experts” and although there will always be need for expert opinion, everyone needs have a better understanding of science and the scientific process. What is being discussed in “Climategate” is the reason I wrote Real Science-4-Kids (RS4K). RS4K curricula help provide a foundation for science that kids can build on in the future.  With RS4K, children are given the tools they need to critically evaluate and interpret scientific facts. With the Kogs, kids are taught how science is connected to history, philosophy, technology and critical thinking. Better science education is not just a necessity for children who want to become scientists when they grow up, it is also imperative that politicians, journalists, and everyday readers who follow the news be educated to think critically and understand the limitations of scientific investigation.

The National Science Education Standards for Grades K-4 from the National Research Council are being presented in this blog in seven installments, with one “content standard” per posting. At the end of each Content Standard, we will look at how Real Science-4-Kids (RS4K) texts align with that section. Some Standards are a bit long, but Gravitas wants to present each to you in its entirety.

Science as Inquiry

As a result of activities in grades K-4, all students should develop

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Understanding about scientific inquiry

Developing Student Abilities and Understanding

From the earliest grades, students should experience science in a form that engages them in the active construction of ideas and explanations that enhance their opportunities to develop the abilities of doing science. Teaching science as inquiry provides teachers with the opportunity to develop student abilities and to enrich student understanding of science. Students should do science in ways that are within their developmental capabilities. This standard sets forth some abilities of scientific inquiry appropriate for students in grades K-4.

In the early years of school, students can investigate earth materials, organisms, and properties of common objects. Although children develop concepts and vocabulary from such experiences, they also should develop inquiry skills. As students focus on the processes of doing investigations, they develop the ability to ask scientific questions, investigate aspects of the world around them, and use their observations to construct reasonable explanations for the questions posed. Guided by teachers, students continually develop their science knowledge. Students should also learn through the inquiry process how to communicate about their own and their peers’ investigations and explanations.

There is logic behind the abilities outlined in the inquiry standard, but a step-by-step sequence or scientific method is not implied. In practice, student questions might arise from previous investigations, planned classroom activities, or questions students ask each other. For instance, if children ask each other how animals are similar and different, an investigation might arise into characteristics of organisms they can observe.

Full inquiry involves asking a simple question, completing an investigation, answering the question, and presenting the results to others. In elementary grades, students begin to develop the physical and intellectual abilities of scientific inquiry. They can design investigations to try things to see what happens–they tend to focus on concrete results of tests and will entertain the idea of a “fair” test (a test in which only one variable at a time is changed). However, children in K-4 have difficulty with experimentation as a process of testing ideas and the logic of using evidence to formulate explanations.

Guide to the Content Standard

Fundamental abilities and concepts that underlie this standard include:

Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry

  • Ask a question about objects, organisms, and events in the environment. This aspect of the standard emphasizes students asking questions that they can answer with scientific knowledge, combined with their own observations. Students should answer their questions by seeking information from reliable sources of scientific information and from their own observations and investigations.
  • Plan and conduct a simple investigation. In the earliest years, investigations are largely based on systematic observations. As students develop, they may design and conduct simple experiments to answer questions. The idea of a fair test is possible for many students to consider by fourth grade.
  • Employ simple equipment and tools to gather data and extend the senses. In early years, students develop simple skills, such as how to observe, measure, cut, connect, switch, turn on and off, pour, hold, tie, and hook. Beginning with simple instruments, students can use rulers to measure the length, height, and depth of objects and materials; thermometers to measure temperature; watches to measure time; beam balances and spring scales to measure weight and force; magnifiers to observe objects and organisms; and microscopes to observe the finer details of plants, animals, rocks, and other materials. Children also develop skills in the use of computers and calculators for conducting investigations.
  • Use data to construct a reasonable explanation. This aspect of the standard emphasizes the students’ thinking as they use data to formulate explanations. Even at the earliest grade levels, students should learn what constitutes evidence and judge the merits or strength of the data and information that will be used to make explanations. After students propose an explanation, they will appeal to the knowledge and evidence they obtained to support their explanations. Students should check their explanations against scientific knowledge, experiences, and observations of others.
  • Communicate investigations and explanations. Students should begin developing the abilities to communicate, critique, and analyze their work and the work of other students. This communication might be spoken or drawn as well as written. [See Teaching Standard B]

Understandings About Scientific Inquiry

  • Scientific investigations involve asking and answering a question and comparing the answer with what scientists already know about the world. [See Content Standard G]
  • Scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer. Types of investigations include describing objects, events, and organisms; classifying them; and doing a fair test (experimenting).
  • Simple instruments, such as magnifiers, thermometers, and rulers, provide more information than scientists obtain using only their senses. [See Standard C]
  • Scientists develop explanations using observations (evidence) and what they already know about the world (scientific knowledge). Good explanations are based on evidence from investigations.
  • Scientists make the results of their investigations public; they describe the investigations in ways that enable others to repeat the investigations.
  • Scientists review and ask questions about the results of other scientists’ work.

How Real Science-4-Kids Meets This Standard

All Real Science-4-Kids Pre-Level I materials support the National Standard for “Science As Inquiry” for Grades K-4, since RS4K student texts and lab workbooks are created from the perspective of science as inquiry. Below are just a few specific examples taken from Pre-Level I texts and workbooks that illustrate of the fulfillment of this National Standard as outlined in the above list of “Abilities.”

  • Ask a question about objects, organisms, and events in the environment. RS4K Student Texts for chemistry, biology and physics each have a companion Laboratory Workbook with an age appropriate activity (experiment) for each Text chapter. This allows hands-on use of the scientific knowledge imparted in the Text coupled with the student’s own “inquiry” and observations. For example, the first chapter of Biology teaches a logical way of using observation to sort and classify living things. It then goes further with the most basic information on the scientific classification system (taxonomy). The Teacher’s Manual explains how to gather a large assortment of items (mostly non-living) that the student can use in the Lab experiment that teaches how various “features” of one item might mean it could fit into more than one sorted group.
  • Plan and conduct a simple investigation. The Biology Lab Workbook has worksheets for the chapter 1 experiment described above. The sheets make it easy for a student to follow a process of systematic observation about the group of objects that were collected. In completing the forms, the student learns to notice details and make observations about similarities and differences. In words and drawings, the student learns to record data (descriptions). The experiment ends with questions designed to help the student summarize what was learned.
  • Employ simple equipment and tools to gather data and extend the senses. Because Pre-Level I books are for a range of ages, the parent or other teacher can decide which measurements for the experiments can be done by the student. A fun example of learning to use measurements is the lab experiment of “making goo” for Chemistry’s chapter 9 subject of understanding molecular chains and how a substance can change. The student measures specific amounts of glue and laundry starch to produce a goo that is no longer sticky like the glue and can be rolled into a ball.
  • Use data to construct a reasonable explanation. The Lab Workbooks for all three subjects guide the student to record observations logically. Questions designed to allow the student to use the gathered data to draw conclusions based on evidence follow the data gathering. There are spaces for the student to write (present) his or her conclusions. The experiment for chapter 5 in Biology is an excellent example. The student is asked to think about what might happen if a bean is placed in a cup of water for several days and to draw what is imagined (the hypothesis). Then there are instructions of how to place a bean in a clear cup of water. Spaces are provided for the student to draw what can be observed each day. The next section of the worksheets has questions that the student answers based on the accumulated drawings over time. The experiment ends with scientific information about how the bean seedling would behave if planted in soil. This allows the student to compare the results of his or her experiment with accepted scientific knowledge.
  • Communicate investigations and explanations. As described above, the Lab Workbook process takes the student through the process of summarizing data and stating (or drawing) a conclusion. In many experiments, there is additional scientific knowledge provided in the Lab Workbook or in the corresponding Teacher’s Manual.

The National Science Education Standards for Grades K-4 from the National Research Council are being presented in this blog in seven installments, with one “content standard” per posting. This is the second. At the end of each Content Standard, we will look at how Real Science-4-Kids (RS4K) texts align with that section. Some Standards are a bit long, but Gravitas wants to present each to you in its entirety.

Physical Science

As a result of the activities in grades K-4, all students should develop an understanding of

  • Properties of objects and materials
  • Position and motion of objects
  • Light, heat, electricity, and magnetism

Developing Student Understanding

During their early years, children’s natural curiosity leads them to explore the world by observing and manipulating common objects and materials in their environment. Children compare, describe, and sort as they begin to form explanations of the world. Developing a subject-matter knowledge base to explain and predict the world requires many experiences over a long period. Young children bring experiences, understanding, and ideas to school; teachers provide opportunities to continue children’s explorations in focused settings with other children using simple tools, such as magnifiers and measuring devices.

Physical science in grades K-4 includes topics that give students a chance to increase their understanding of the characteristics of objects and materials that they encounter daily. Through the observation, manipulation, and classification of common objects, children reflect on the similarities and differences of the objects. As a result, their initial sketches and single-word descriptions lead to increasingly more detailed drawings and richer verbal descriptions. Describing, grouping, and sorting solid objects and materials is possible early in this grade range. By grade 4, distinctions between the properties of objects and materials can be understood in specific contexts, such as a set of rocks or living materials.

See the example entitled “Willie the Hamster”

Young children begin their study of matter by examining and qualitatively describing objects and their behavior. The important but abstract ideas of science, such as atomic structure of matter and the conservation of energy, all begin with observing and keeping track of the way the world behaves. When carefully observed, described, and measured, the properties of objects, changes in properties over time, and the changes that occur when materials interact provide the necessary precursors to the later introduction of more abstract ideas in the upper grade levels.

Students are familiar with the change of state between water and ice, but the idea of liquids having a set of properties is more nebulous and requires more instructional effort than working with solids. Most students will have difficulty with the generalization that many substances can exist as either a liquid or a solid. K-4 students do not understand that water exists as a gas when it boils or evaporates; they are more likely to think that water disappears or goes into the sky. Despite that limitation, students can conduct simple investigations with heating and evaporation that develop inquiry skills and familiarize them with the phenomena.

When students describe and manipulate objects by pushing, pulling, throwing, dropping, and rolling, they also begin to focus on the position and movement of objects: describing location as up, down, in front, or behind, and discovering the various kinds of motion and forces required to control it. By experimenting with light, heat, electricity, magnetism, and sound, students begin to understand that phenomena can be observed, measured, and controlled in various ways. The children cannot understand a complex concept such as energy. Nonetheless, they have intuitive notions of energy–for example, energy is needed to get things done; humans get energy from food. Teachers can build on the intuitive notions of students without requiring them to memorize technical definitions.

Sounds are not intuitively associated with the characteristics of their source by younger K-4 students, but that association can be developed by investigating a variety of concrete phenomena toward the end of the K-4 level. In most children’s minds, electricity begins at a source and goes to a target. This mental model can be seen in students’ first attempts to light a bulb using a battery and wire by attaching one wire to a bulb. Repeated activities will help students develop an idea of a circuit late in this grade range and begin to grasp the effect of more than one battery. Children cannot distinguish between heat and temperature at this age; therefore, investigating heat necessarily must focus on changes in temperature.

As children develop facility with language, their descriptions become richer and include more detail. Initially no tools need to be used, but children eventually learn that they can add to their descriptions by measuring objects–first with measuring devices they create and then by using conventional measuring instruments, such as rulers, balances, and thermometers. By recording data and making graphs and charts, older children can search for patterns and order in their work and that of their peers. For example, they can determine the speed of an object as fast, faster, or fastest in the earliest grades. As students get older, they can represent motion on simple grids and graphs and describe speed as the distance traveled in a given unit of time.

Guide to the Content Standard

Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

Properties of Objects and Materials

  • Objects have many observable properties, including size, weight, shape, color, temperature, and the ability to react with other substances. Those properties can be measured using tools, such as rulers, balances, and thermometers.
  • Objects are made of one or more materials, such as paper, wood, and metal. Objects can be described by the properties of the materials from which they are made, and those properties can be used to separate or sort a group of objects or materials.
  • Materials can exist in different states–solid, liquid, and gas. Some common materials, such as water, can be changed from one state to another by heating or cooling.

Position and Motion of Objects

  • The position of an object can be described by locating it relative to another object or the background.
  • An object’s motion can be described by tracing and measuring its position over time.
  • The position and motion of objects can be changed by pushing or pulling. The size of the change is related to the strength of the push or pull.
  • Sound is produced by vibrating objects. The pitch of the sound can be varied by changing the rate of vibration.

Light, Heat, Electricity and Magnetism

  • Light travels in a straight line until it strikes an object. Light can be reflected by a mirror, refracted by a lens, or absorbed by the object.
  • Heat can be produced in many ways, such as burning, rubbing, or mixing one substance with another. Heat can move from one object to another by conduction.
  • Electricity in circuits can produce light, heat, sound, and magnetic effects. Electrical circuits require a complete loop through which an electrical current can pass.
  • Magnets attract and repel each other and certain kinds of other materials.

How Real Science-4-Kids Meets This Standard

Below are just a few specific examples taken from Pre-Level I texts and workbooks that illustrate of the fulfillment of this National Standard as outlined in the above “Guide to the Content Standard.”

Properties of Objects and Materials

  • The observable properties of objects are covered in the first chapters of both Pre-Level I Chemistry and Pre-Level I Biology (see second bullet point below). Chemistry approaches the subject of observable properties by explaining that these are based on atoms. Chapter 1 describes in basic terms why carrots are orange, for example, and the chapter ends with a section on how scientists make observations. Reactions are discussed in Chapters 3 and 5 of Pre-Level I Chemistry. The Physics Laboratory Workbook for Pre-Level I is set up to help students learn to make good observations with a three-step process of Observe It, Think About It, and Test It. They document the characteristics of various objects they compare with each other in the first experiment called “Falling Objects.”
  • Teaching that objects can be sorted based on characteristics is covered well in the first chapter of Pre-Level I Biology. It is in the Biology book, because it provides a hands-on way for students to learn about classifying things and then the text explains about the classification system for living things. The Teacher’s Manual explains how to gather a large assortment of items (non-living) that the student can use in the Lab Workbook experiment. Students learn how various “features” of one item might mean it could fit into more than one sorted group.
  • The concept of materials existing in different states is not covered as a specific topic in the Pre-Level I materials.

Position and Motion of Objects

  • Pre-Level I Physics explores motion in detail in Chapter 4 (When Things Move).
  • Two good examples of helping the student observe and work with motion are the Physics Pre-Level I Laboratory Workbook experiments for Chapter 3 (Moving Energy In a Toy Car) and Chapter 4 (Rolling Marbles).
  • Position and motion changed by pushing or pulling is taught in detail in Chapter 2 (Push and Pull) of Pre-Level I Physics. Students are introduced to “force,” “work” and “energy” through familiar situations they encounter.
  • Sound is discussed as waves of moving air molecules in Chapter 9 (Light and Sound).

Light, Heat, Electricity and Magnetism

  • Light and its properties are taught in Chapter 9 (Light and Sound) of Pre-Level I Physics. The corresponding Lab Workbook experiment helps students observe and record how light is split by a prism.
  • Heat is not covered as a specific topic in Pre-Level I materials.
  • Electricity is explained in Chapter 9 (Electricity) of Pre-Level I Chemistry.
  • How magnets and magnetism work and their properties are presented in Chapter 8 (Magnets) of Pre-Level I Physics. Students use two bar magnets to learn about magnetic poles in the Chapter 8 experiment.

In early January, the President announced several new public-private partnerships that would invest more than $250 million to help prepare more than 10000 new math and science teachers and provide extra training to more than 100,000 existing teachers.

The current administration’s campaign is called “Educate to Innovate” and is pursuing many avenues to increase U.S. students’ standing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There is a concerted push to have teachers who can confidently and enthusiastically teach science. (See the full White House news release for details on how universities and private companies are working on the problem.

“Passionate educators with deep content expertise can make all the difference,” President Obama said in a prepared statement, “enabling hands-on learning that truly engages students — including girls and underrepresented minorities — and preparing them to tackle the ‘grand challenges’ of the 21st century such as increasing energy independence, improving people’s health, protecting the environment and strengthening national security.”

All of this points out that our schools still lack in properly educating children in the science and math they will need to succeed in their adult careers. As reported in previous blog postings here, our students’ rankings in science continue to fall compared to many other countries, which does not bode well for our ability to innovate and compete in the future.

For those who teach at home or in private settings, it points out the need to use engaging science materials at an early age. To make sure both the students and the teacher are comfortable, use materials that include “how-to” manuals for non-scientist adults who are doing the teaching.

A case in point is that Gravitas Publications was begun in 2002 because one home-school mom – who actually was a scientist with a Ph.D. – could not find age-appropriate, engaging textbooks that built a real foundation for understanding science.

Home schoolers of all backgrounds must feel confident in being able to present the lessons and make it exciting for the student – just like the national effort to train professional teachers.

What about the President singling out the need to engage girls? Here’s just one statistic that points out that problem:  Only 17% of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women.

The National Science Education Standards for Grades K-4 from the National Research Council are being presented in this blog in seven installments, with one “content standard” per posting. This is the second. At the end of each Content Standard, we will look at how Real Science-4-Kids (RS4K) texts align with that section. Some Standards are a bit long, but Gravitas wants to present each to you in its entirety.

Life Science

As a result of activities in grades K-4, all students should develop understanding of

  • The characteristics of organisms
  • Life cycles of organisms
  • Organisms and environments

Developing Student Understanding

During the elementary grades, children build understanding of biological concepts through direct experience with living things, their life cycles, and their habitats. These experiences emerge from the sense of wonder and natural interests of children who ask questions such as: “How do plants get food? How many different animals are there? Why do some animals eat other animals? What is the largest plant? Where did the dinosaurs go?” An understanding of the characteristics of organisms, life cycles of organisms, and of the complex interactions among all components of the natural environment begins with questions such as these and an understanding of how individual organisms maintain and continue life. Making sense of the way organisms live in their environments will develop some understanding of the diversity of life and how all living organisms depend on the living and nonliving environment for survival. Because the child’s world at grades K-4 is closely associated with the home, school, and immediate environment, the study of organisms should include observations and interactions within the natural world of the child. The experiences and activities in grades K-4 provide a concrete foundation for the progressive development in the later grades of major biological concepts, such as evolution, heredity, the cell, the biosphere, interdependence, the behavior of organisms, and matter and energy in living systems.

Children’s ideas about the characteristics of organisms develop from basic concepts of living and nonliving. Piaget noted, for instance, that young children give anthropomorphic explanations to organisms. In lower elementary grades, many children associate “life” with any objects that are active in any way. This view of life develops into one in which movement becomes the defining characteristic. Eventually children incorporate other concepts, such as eating, breathing, and reproducing to define life. As students have a variety of experiences with organisms, and subsequently develop a knowledge base in the life sciences, their anthropomorphic attributions should decline.

In classroom activities such as classification, younger elementary students generally use mutually exclusive rather than hierarchical categories. Young children, for example, will use two groups, but older children will use several groups at the same time. Students do not consistently use classification schemes similar to those used by biologists until the upper elementary grades.

As students investigate the life cycles of organisms, teachers might observe that young children do not understand the continuity of life from, for example, seed to seedling or larvae to pupae to adult. But teachers will notice that by second grade, most students know that children resemble their parents. Students can also differentiate learned from inherited characteristics. However, students might hold some naive thoughts about inheritance, including the belief that traits are inherited from only one parent, that certain traits are inherited exclusively from one parent or the other, or that all traits are simply a blend of characteristics from each parent.

Young children think concretely about individual organisms. For example, animals are associated with pets or with animals kept in a zoo. The idea that organisms depend on their environment (including other organisms in some cases) is not well developed in young children. In grades K-4, the focus should be on establishing the primary association of organisms with their environments and the secondary ideas of dependence on various aspects of the environment and of behaviors that help various animals survive. Lower elementary students can understand the food link between two organisms.

Guide to the Content Standard

Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

The Characteristics of Organisms

  • Organisms have basic needs. For example, animals need air, water, and food; plants require air, water, nutrients, and light. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met. The world has many different environments, and distinct environments support the life of different types of organisms.
  • Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction. For example, humans have distinct body structures for walking, holding, seeing, and talking.
  • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger) and by external cues (such as a change in the environment). Humans and other organisms have senses that help them detect internal and external cues.

Life Cycles of Organisms

  • Plants and animals have life cycles that include being born, developing into adults, reproducing, and eventually dying. The details of this life cycle are different for different organisms.
  • Plants and animals closely resemble their parents.
  • Many characteristics of an organism are inherited from the parents of the organism, but other characteristics result from an individual’s interactions with the environment. Inherited characteristics include the color of flowers and the number of limbs of an animal. Other features, such as the ability to ride a bicycle, are learned through interactions with the environment and cannot be passed on to the next generation.

Organisms and Their Environments

  • All animals depend on plants. Some animals eat plants for food. Other animals eat animals that eat the plants.
  • An organism’s patterns of behavior are related to the nature of that organism’s environment, including the kinds and numbers of other organisms present, the availability of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment. When the environment changes, some plants and animals survive and reproduce, and others die or move to new locations. [See Content Standard F (grades K-4)]
  • All organisms cause changes in the environment where they live. Some of these changes are detrimental to the organism or other organisms, whereas others are beneficial.
  • Humans depend on their natural and constructed environments. Humans change environments in ways that can be either beneficial or detrimental for themselves and other organisms.

How Real Science-4-Kids Meets This Standard

Below are just a few specific examples taken from Pre-Level I texts and workbooks that illustrate of the fulfillment of this National Standard as outlined in the above “Guide to the Content Standard.”

The Characteristics of Organisms

  • RS4K Pre-Level I Biology begins with a chapter explaining that living things differ from non-living things in several ways and dependence on food and environmental factors is one of the differentiators. This chapter also introduces students to the idea of classifications and provides a fun experiment to help them use classification skills. Experiments in the Laboratory Workbook, such as “Who Needs Light?” reinforce how dependent living things are on various elements in their environment.
  • How structures within cells, animals and plants perform differing jobs is a theme illustrated throughout the biology student text and lab book, but the greatest concentration of that information can be found in chapter 4, Plant Parts, and chapter 3, Food for Plants. For example, chapter 3 explains that the green parts of plants are “food factories.” The corresponding experiments show students examples of how plants use light and water.
  • Chapters 6 through 9 focus on the life cycles of animals from protozoa to frogs. The chapter on butterflies (chapter _8) is especially relevant to an organism’s responses to internal and external cues such as a newly born caterpillar having the instinct to immediately begin eating the leaf that supports it.

Life Cycles of Organisms

  • The RS4K Pre-Level I Biology Student Text specifically explains in detail the life cycles of a plant, protozoa, butterflies and frogs. Lab workbook experiments for chapters 5 through 9 provide students with the opportunity to observe these life cycles.
  • Illustrating the life cycle of various organisms points out that each organism begets another like it, although “heredity” as a concept is not separately discussed. Chapter 5 points out, for example, that “It takes a flowering plant to make a seed of a flowering plant. And it takes a seed of a flowering plant to make a flowering plant.”
  • Differentiating inherited characteristics from learned features is not covered as a specific topic.

Organisms and Their Environments

  • The dependence of all life on light, air and water and the food cycle are most pointedly discussed in chapter 10 of the RS4K Pre-Level I Biology Student Text. A colorful illustration shows the food cycle from plants to an animal eating plants to an animal eating the plant-eating animal.
  • Chapter 10’s topic of life in a delicate balance addresses these issues in general terms but various other chapters illustrate the points with specifics. For example, chapter 3 explains that a tree’s reaction to less light in the fall is to have its leaves stop making chlorophyll so that the leaves die off.
  • An example in chapter 10 of plants “breathing in” carbon dioxide and expelling oxygen that humans can then breathe in illustrates this point for students.
  • Although the delicate nature of the balance of life on Earth is explored in some depth in chapter 10, Our Balanced Earth, the text does not go into specifics about human-caused effects on the planet.

Gravitas Publications’ teaching materials put a great deal of emphasis on relating scientific facts and concepts to students’ everyday life and to other courses of study. A December 2009 article on the Website of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) presented in detail how one professor successfully brought that teaching model into her college classroom.

Even though HHMI professor Catherine Drennan teaches introductory chemistry to roughly 200 students at MIT, she had been a student who did not enjoy chemistry at all in high school. The article describes how she is changing the perception of chemistry for her students:

Drennan discovered that many of the MIT freshmen she encountered harbored similar reservations about chemistry. “I talk quite openly about it in class,” she says. “I tell my students, you may not have discovered your love for chemistry yet, but I’m going to show you how it is applicable.”

She hopes that by showing her students how chemistry is related to other disciplines she can help them become better doctors or engineers or maybe even chemists.

While scientific research increasingly takes place at the interface of disciplines, most undergraduate classes are still taught within the confines of traditional science fields: physics, chemistry, biology. As a result, students often view disciplines as separate and unrelated.

So Drennan and her co-instructor developed examples and problem sets that “link specific chemistry lecture topics to biology. One example is electron exchange of oxidation/reduction reactions, a common introductory chemistry topic, and its link to the activation of vitamin B12 in the body. Hamilos’ favorite example relates to the wave-particle duality of light and matter, which Drennan and Taylor explained through quantum dot nanoparticles, small semiconductors that emit light when excited by UV radiation. They then showed how quantum dots can be used to help create images of tumors.”

Education researchers at MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory found that there was a statistically significant increase in student satisfaction with the course after the introduction of the cross-disciplinary examples in the lectures.

The Website article quotes researcher Rudy Mitchell on another impressive result:

“Even more interesting was the student attendance in the course,” Mitchell says. “Large lecture classes often suffer from poor attendance. But 85 percent of students reported attending 90 percent or more of the lectures. That’s unheard of in a lecture with 200 students, and it speaks to how enthusiastic the students are about the course.”

At Gravitas, this sort of cross-connection is made not only in student texts and laboratory workbooks, but it is also the basis for the Kogs-4-KidsTM series that relates chemistry topics to language, arts, technology, history,  critical thinking and philosophy.

The decline of serious science coverage in primary news media – and what that trend means for our future – was thoughtfully covered in an August 17 article in The Nation magazine entitled “Unpopular Science” by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. (see:

Good science coverage should report on immediate topics such as the spread of flu and medical discoveries for better health. It should also cover solid science news about climate change, technology advancement, and energy developments, because the public must understand facts about subjects like these in order to shape national policy and make informed judgments. To avoid accepting news straight off of a press release, we need reporters with the experience and specialized knowledge to separate important facts from “fluff.”

Mooney and Kirshenbaum point out that the decline in the number and size of newspapers has triggered cuts in knowledgeable science reporting. And in television, the proliferation of cable news channels has meant that the major broadcast networks have less of a captive audience and fewer financial resources to cover serious science topic in depth.

They write:

From 1989 to 2005, the number of US papers featuring weekly science-related sections shrank from ninety-five to thirty-four. Many of the remaining sections shifted to softer health, fitness and “news you can use” coverage, reflecting the apparent judgment that more thorough science or science policy coverage just doesn’t support itself economically. And the problem isn’t confined to newspapers. Just one minute out of every 300 on cable news is devoted to science and technology, or one-third of 1 percent. Late last year CNN cut its entire science, space and technology unit.”

The overall result is that, although there is a great deal of science information available online, we must search for it and use our own critical thinking abilities to discern what is important to know and what is today’s fad. Learning basic science concepts and how they apply to our daily life is an important step toward making sense of science “news’ in the future. Learning critical thinking skills and the discipline of the scientific method for determining facts will serve non-scientists as well as scientists throughout life.

National Science Standards, History and Nature of Science

This post relates to the History and Nature of Science content standards for grades 5 through 8 of the 2005 National Science Education Standards from the National Research Council. We’ll look at how Real Science-4-Kids (RS4K) and Kogs-4-Kids (K4K) texts align with these.

National Science Education Standards; HISTORY & NATURE OF SCIENCE

Science as a Human Endeavor

  • Women and men of various social and ethnic backgrounds – and with diverse interests, talents, qualities, and motivations – engage in the activities of science, engineering, and related fields such as the health professions. Some scientists work in teams, and some work alone, but all communicate extensively with others.
  • Science requires different abilities, depending on such factors as the field of study and type of inquiry. Science is very much a human endeavor, and the work of science relies on basic human qualities, such as reasoning, insight, energy, skill, and creativity – as well as on the scientific habits of mind, such as intellectual honesty, tolerance of ambiguity, skepticism, and openness to new ideas.

Nature of Science

  1. Scientists formulate and test their explanations of nature using observation, experiments, and theoretical and mathematical models. Although all scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change and improvement in principle, for most major ideas in science, there is much experimental and observational confirmation. Those ideas are not likely to change greatly in the future. Scientists do and have changed their ideas about nature when they encounter new experimental evidence that does not match their existing explanations.
  2. In areas where active research is being pursued and in which there is not a great deal of experimental or observational evidence and understanding, it is normal for scientists to differ with one another about the interpretation of the evidence or theory being considered. Different scientists might publish conflicting experimental results or might draw different conclusions from the same data. Ideally, scientists acknowledge such conflict and work towards finding evidence that will resolve their disagreement.
  3. It is part of scientific inquiry to evaluate the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical models, and the explanations proposed by other scientists. Evaluation includes reviewing the experimental procedures, examining the evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations. Although scientists may disagree about explanations of phenomena, about interpretations of data, or about the value of rival theories, they do agree that questioning, response to criticism, and open communication are integral to the process of science. As scientific knowledge evolves, major disagreements are eventually resolved through such interactions between scientists.

History of Science

  1. Many individuals have contributed to the traditions of science. Studying some of these individuals provides further understanding of scientific inquiry, science as a human endeavor, the nature of science, and the relationships between science and society.
  2. In historical perspective, science has been practiced by different individuals in different cultures. In looking at the history or many peoples, one finds that scientists and engineers of high achievement are considered to be among the most valued contributors to their culture.
  3. Tracing the history of science can show how difficult it was for scientific innovators to break through the accepted ideas of their time to reach the conclusions that we currently take for granted.

Real Science-4-Kids meets this standard in the following ways:

The National Standards for “history and nature of science” relate in many ways to the entire content of RS4K and Kogs. Because each level of the RS4K curricula covers subjects in the same order (with more depth added for higher levels), the following alignments are generally true for Pre-Level I and Level II as well as Level I. However, specific examples are taken from Level I texts and workbooks since that age range most closely matches that of the National Standards presented here. Kogs workbooks expand on the subject in the context of the book’s category (philosophy, critical thinking, history, etc.). Because information is built upon with each chapter, many types of knowledge in the standards show up in virtually all chapters. However, the key chapters for each section are shown below.

Science as a Human Endeavor

Inventors and scientists from numerous countries – including Sweden, Russia, Italy, Iran, Greece and the U.S. – are identified specifically throughout both Gravitas’ textbooks and Kogs workbooks. Examples of how discoveries and inventions have benefited societies, and often the inventors personally, are also plentiful. In the Chemistry Connects to History Kog in particular, readers see how early scientists – who often were not known as such but rather had jobs ranging from being king to writing plays to being a lawyer – built upon knowledge and theories to invent the discipline we now call science and further our body of knowlege. Explanations of how various scientists approached a question or problem demonstrate the qualities of good scientists.

Nature of Science

  1. In the Chemistry Connects to History Kog students take an entertaining look back at how early scientific theories evolved as experimentation and observation became more sophisticated and accurate. Readers learn that even in ancient times, people came up with the concept that there were a few elements that were the basis for all things. From Aristotle’s idea of air, water, fire and earth to Democritus’ theory of tiny particles he called “atoms,” students see the progression and refinement of science. Examples of important discoveries in a timeline illustrate in many cases just how scientists conducted experiments to prove their hypotheses.
  2. Chapter 4 in the Chemistry Connects to Philosophy Kog (How Do We Know What We Know?) deals very specifically with how science has developed by working through differing ideas. The chapter explains terms such as paradigm shifts in science and gives examples such as the story of Svante Arrhenius, who received a low grade on his dissertation about ions from the graduating committee. They did not agree with many of his conclusions. However, he was later proven correct and even received a Nobel Prize for his work.
  3. The scientific method is covered in various places in the RS4K and Kogs curricula, such as in the introduction for Physics Level I and in the Chemistry Connects to Philosophy Kog, where the Muslim philosopher Ibn al-Haytham is credited with the development and Roger Bacon with the refinement of the process. Bacon added “verification” to the cycle of observation, hypothesis and experimentation. Throughout the Laboratory Workbooks for each discipline, the importance of the method is stressed and illustrated. Helping students embrace a process to weed out statements not supported by evidence, RS4K builds critical thinking skills with numerous lessons and questions. An outstanding source for learning these skills very specifically is the Chemistry Connects to Critical Thinking Kog. The entire 10 chapters of this workbook are devoted to tools for objectively gathering facts and then using a “critical thinking lens” to make valid conclusions or ask further questions.

History of Science

A. through C. The Chemistry Connects to History Kog was created to specifically address the importance of students understanding the history of science and why the challenges faced along the way are important even today. Important figures and their ideas are often brought to life with brief and colorful explanations of their culture. That workbook even begins with an explanation of what “history” means and the tools used to understand and interpret artifacts. Students begin the workbook by creating their own short history or a history for a family member. Blank timelines that the student completes are used throughout. The Chemistry Connects to Philosophy Kog makes use of plays in which the students portray historical figures in science that are having discussions. The Kogs are more detailed extensions of the philosophy woven throughout the Student Texts, which is that students learn best if scientific concepts and facts are put into context. So several chapters in each subject text include information on the scientists who made certain discoveries and the diversity of their backgrounds and culture.

Americans are knowledgeable about basic scientific facts that affect their health and daily lives, but they are less able to answer questions about more complex science topics, according to a PEW study released in early July. These results support Gravitas’ long-standing philosophy that we learn and retain science information better when it is put into context and associated with our real-world experience.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society, conducted a general survey of opinions about the state of science and its impact on society. They also asked science knowledge questions in a separate survey of 1,005 adult members of the general public. Quoting from that section of the published report:

Fully 91% know that aspirin is an over-the-counter drug recommended to prevent heart attacks and 82% know that GPS technology relies on satellites. And topics covered in major news stories also are widely understood; 77% correctly identify earthquakes as a cause of tsunamis and 65% can identify CO2 as a gas linked to rising temperatures.

Slightly more than half (54%) knows that antibiotics do not kill viruses along with bacteria, and about the same percentage (52%) knows that what distinguishes stem cells from other cells is that they can develop into many different kinds of cells. And some high-school science knowledge is elusive for most Americans: Fewer than half (46%) know that electrons are smaller than atoms.

There were several other interesting results in the survey of opinions about the state of science and its impact on society, as the report presented points of agreement and disagreement between scientists who were surveyed and the general public.

For example, majorities of both groups point to advances in medicine and life sciences as important achievements of science. About half of the public (52%) cites medicine – including health care, vaccines, and medical cures – when asked to describe ways that science has positively affected society; by comparison, just 7% mention communications and computer technology. Similarly, most scientists (55%) mention a biomedical or health finding when asked about the nation’s greatest scientific achievement of the last 20 years.

The published report (Public Praises Science) also reveals percentages of opinions of the public versus scientists on topics such as natural evolution, belief in climate change from human activity, the relative standing of U.S. science achievements, and more.

Read or download the report at: