A Symposium on the Nature of Science


The Shocking difference between what scientists think, and what students think—and what to do about it.

Douglas K. Duncan
Watch the talk (Running time 1:05:46) Video

What is the nature of science, and how should we teach it? How do students' views of science compare to those of scientists and science teachers? For the last several years I've been teaching large numbers of first-year college students in the "Common Core" at the University of Chicago. During the first and last week of the course I systematically collect data about whether students like science, and what they think science is. The last week I ask if the course has changed their views in any way.

From hundreds of student comments some important patterns emerge, ones which initially shocked and frustrated me. Typical student views were very different from mine and from those of most scientists and science teachers I know. Understanding what my students were thinking led to some simple changes in how I teach, and the student response has been remarkable. Last year, for instance, 87% of the students changed their view of what science is during the course, almost always in a in a way which indicates they like science more and better understand its nature.

In my presentation I will quote from student comments, and demonstrate some of the simple, practical changes which made my own teaching better, which I hope will be of use to others who teach science. I expect lots of questions and discussion. My experiences in this class have been featured in a national magazine article (Mercury, Jan.-Feb. 1999) and by the National Institute for Science Education Peer Learning Study.

Douglas K. Duncan
Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics
University of Chicago

Douglas K. Duncan is a Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophyiscs of the University of Chicago and he serves as Education Coordinator for the American Astronomical Society. In the latter capacity he leads efforts for better teaching and public communication for astronomers throughout the United States.Prior to coming to Chicago, Dr. Duncan was an astronomer on the staff of the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. There he was responsible for one of the instruments of the Hubble Space Telescope. He and his research team currently study the composition of the oldest known stars—"fossil stars" which date back almost to the time of the Big Bang. Their discoveries have provided direct evidence for the explosive birth of our Milky Way galaxy and shed light on conditions at the time of the Big Bang which began the universe itself. He received his B.S. in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology and Astronomy and his Ph.D. in astrophysics from University of California Santa Cruz/Lick Observatory. Dr. Duncan is a national leader in presenting the excitement of scientific discoveries to the general public, and he is a very popular speaker. At the age of 19 he became the youngest planetarium speaker ever hired at the Griffith Observatory in Hollywood, California. He has appeared on BBC television and on the National Public Radio program, "All Things Considered" and has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution. He has led groups in photographing Halley's comet in South America, to total eclipses of the sun, and into the Artic to photograph the aurora. In the fall of 1992 he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, and also became Director of Astronomy for the Adler Planetarium, Chicago. In 1995 he was elected to the Board of Directors of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the country's largest organization for amateur and professional astronomers, and he appears regularly on the Chicago public radio station WBEZ.

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Last Update: August 11, 2000