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Variables

03 Aug

imagesThe Fall Semester is starting soon and I have to say: ‘what a relief’. Going all summer without teaching is difficult, yet I always avoid summer classes because I’m worried that I will get myself into trouble with vacation plans or childcare responsibilities. But all that ends soon and I can get back in the classroom, start thinking (and writing) about science, and stop writing so much about movies and TV.

I’ve nearly finished one of my two iBook- format handbooks that I need to have ready for when classes begin. This year’s book is much more interactive, with review questions at the end of each chapter, keynote presentations of my lectures and some video animations. In writing it, I got a bit hung up on my day 1 material. Namely, the scientific method. This is the method developed by Descartes and others to help us figure out the difference from what is true about the world and what isn’t – although saying it that way makes it sound more clear and 100% accurate than it actually is. In reality, the scientific method is a way of thinking that is based on ‘verity and validity.’ What it is best at is determining what is NOT true. However, over time, that steps us ever so slightly closer to an accurate understanding of the way the universe works.

On the one hand, the scientific method is a very precious thing. It comes from the realization that our senses and our minds often fool us. We evolved in a world rife with danger and it made a lot of sense for us to see connections in the world – even when they were not really there. Because, as many evolutionary biologists will explain, the person who assumes there is a lion behind every bush tends to live longer than someone who does not – especially when there are occasionally lions lurking behind the bushes.

Once we escaped that world, created civilization and put an end to the lion problem, we started to wonder, “How does the world work?”

VariableTo answer that question, we could make up ideas and just cling to them so long as they appear to be at least make a consistent story (I’m thinking Aristotle), or, we could test our ideas and see what we get.Which brings us back to the scientific method.

For the most part, however, most scientists don’t really frame their ideas in the form of this method, but have internalized the method and just apply the principles. What I mean by this is, every introductory science book talks about independent and dependent variables, etc. but I have never actually heard anyone describe their experiments in these terms. Instead, we talk about conditions, controls, data and conclusions. Despite working in science my whole adult life, I still have to look up the difference between independent and dependent variables – and I don’t use these terms in my class unless someone asks about them. Instead, I spend much more time focused on setting up an experiment and thinking about what controls would be needed and how someone may interpret the data. I also spend a lot of time early on asking what data really tells us. What’s the difference between correlation and causation, are we reading too much into our data? Can there be other explanations for the same results?

But, having though about this a bit today, I wanted to ask (although I see that my readership has really died off over the summer) what people thought about these terms?

Do any of you actually think these terms are important to teach students? Do you regularly use them in your work? 

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Posted by on August 3, 2014 in Education

 

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