What is Science

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Readers of this Page may also want to read the IAE Blog entries:

Teaching science and technology in the context of societal and personal issues.

Biology in the 21st century.

Modeling and simulation in science.


Science is one of the core curriculum areas in the elementary school, and all students are required to take a number of science courses in middle school and high school.

As students study a discipline such as science, they form a mental model of the discipline. This mental model grows in complexity and correctness as the student studies more science and gains in cognitive maturity.

Thus, it is interesting and instructive to ask students at various grade levels—as well as preservice and inservice teachers—the question, "What is science?"

When preservice elementary school teachers are asked this question, they typically respond by mentioning Scientific Method and can often give a definition or a brief outline of what that means. Their college education typically includes a year of science courses and a science methods course. The following 12 1/2 minute video discusses Science and Democracy and gives a view of scientific method that is quite different from what we teach in school: Lee Smolin on science and democracy.

This video is one of a large number of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) videos on science. Many of these videos are quite appropriate for use in preservice and inservice science education courses, and for use with secondary school students.

Some Definitions

Quoting from the New Mexico Public Education Department:

Science is both a body of knowledge and a set of processes for advancing that knowledge. More specifically, science is mankind's interconnected, internally consistent, growing body of knowledge about natural and man-made objects and phenomena of the past, present, and future; a body of knowledge that is based on repeatable experimentation with, or observation of, these natural and man-made objects and phenomena, that is organized and extended using logic and mathematics, and that is validated by the testing of hypotheses.

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

  • Science, in the broadest sense, refers to any system of knowledge which attempts to model objective reality. In a more restricted sense, science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on the scientific method, as well as to the organized body of knowledge gained through such research. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science
  • A method of reaming about the world by applying the principles of the scientific method, which includes making empirical observations, proposing hypotheses to explain those observations, and testing those hypotheses in valid and reliable ways; also refers to the organized body of knowledge that ... farahsouth.cgu.edu/dictionary/
  • The systematic study of humans and their environment based on the deductions and inferences which can be made, and the general laws which can be formulated, from reproducible observations and measurements of events and parameters within the universe. (Macquarie Dictionary) www.arc.gov.au/general/glossary.htm
  • A branch of knowledge based on objectivity and involving observation and experimentation. www.spaceforspecies.ca/glossary/s.htm

In brief summary, science involves carefully developed descriptions, classification, and predictions about nature and technology. The discipline of science has developed vocabulary and notation for use in description and prediction, and it makes extensive use of mathematics. Modern science makes extensive use of computer modeling—this is called computational science and it involves computational thinking.

What Is "Scientific Method?"

Many definitions of science, and many people answering the "What is science?" question mention Scientific Method. A useful follow-up question is, "What is the Scientific Method?" Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. It is based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.
Although procedures vary from one field of inquiry to another, identifiable features distinguish scientific inquiry from other methodologies of knowledge. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable in order to predict dependably any future results. Theories that encompass wider domains of inquiry may bind many hypotheses together in a coherent structure. This in turn may help form new hypotheses or place groups of hypotheses into context.
Among other facets shared by the various fields of inquiry is the conviction that the process must be objective to reduce a biased interpretation of the results. Another basic expectation is to document, archive and share all data and methodology so it is available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, thereby allowing other researchers the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of these data to be established.

Video of Kary Mullis Discussing What Scientists Do

Mullis, Kary (2002). What scientists do. TED Talks. 29 minute video. Retrieved 8/219/09: http://www.ted.com/talks/kary_mullis_on_what_scientists_do.html. Quoting from the Website:

Biochemist Kary Mullis talks about the basis of modern science: the experiment. Sharing tales from the 17th century and from his own backyard-rocketry days, Mullis celebrates the curiosity, inspiration and rigor of good science in all its forms.
Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a way to copy a strand of DNA. (His technique, called PCR, jump-started the 1990s' biorevolution.) … The process opened the door to more in-depth study of DNA -- like the Human Genome Project. Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing this technique.

Special Report: Evolution of Evolution

National Science Foundation (2009). Evolution of Evolution: 150 Years of Darwin's 'On the Origin of the Species.' Retrieved 11/29/09 from http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/darwin/.

Video and text explore some of the impacts of Darwin's work and how scientists have continued to explore and expand on Darwin's original ideas.

What Is Scientific Literacy?

The National Science Education Standards describes scientific literacy as follows: “Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.” (National Academy of Sciences, 1966. NSES, page 22)

Standard Graphical Notation

Computer graphics have come to be very important components of all of the sciences. The various science disciplines vary in the progress that has been made and in the development of standards for graphical notation and representation.

California Institute of Technology (8/11/09). Caltech Scientists Help Launch the First Standard Graphical Notation for Biology. Retrieved 8/14/09: http://media.caltech.edu/press_releases/13281. Quoting from the Website:

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and their colleagues in 30 laboratories worldwide have released a new set of standards for graphically representing biological information—the biology equivalent of the circuit diagram in electronics. This visual language should make it easier to exchange complex information, so that biological models are depicted more accurately, consistently, and in a more readily understandable way.
The new standard, called the Systems Biology Graphical Notation (SBGN), was published in the August 8 issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.
"Engineers, architects, physicists, and software developers all have standard graphical notations for depicting the things they work on, which makes it possible for everyone in those fields to be on the same page, as it were," says Hucka. "I think SBGN represents the first truly broad-based attempt at establishing the same kind of standardization in biology."Researchers use standardized visual languages to communicate complex information in many scientific and engineering fields. A well-known example is the circuit diagram in electrical engineering. However, until now, biology lacked a standardized notation for describing biological interactions, pathways, and networks, even though the discipline is dominated by graphical information.

Some Excellent Science-Related Videos

Ocean explorer Robert Ballard takes us on a mindbending trip to hidden worlds underwater, where he and other researchers are finding unexpected life, resources, even new mountains. He makes a case for serious exploration and mapping. Google Ocean, anyone?
Medical animator David Bolinsky presents 9 minutes of stunning animation that show the bustling life inside a cell. Built by his company, XVIVO, to teach Harvard medical students, the clip features sweeping cinematic values and even a little drama. It communicates not only the facts of life, but life's truth and beauty.
To date, there hasn't been an overarching theory of how the human brain really works, Jeff Hawkins argues in this compelling talk. That's because we still haven't defined intelligence accurately. But one thing's for sure, he says: The brain isn't like a powerful computer processor. It's more like a memory system that records everything we experience and helps us predict, intelligently, what will happen next. Bringing this new brain science to computer devices will enable powerful new applications—and it will happen sooner than you think.
Energy guru Amory Lovins lays out his plan for weaning the US off oil and revitalizing the economy in the process. It's the subject of his book Winning the Oil Endgame, and he makes it sound fairly simple: On one hand, the deadly risks of continued dependency, and on the other, some win-win solutions.
From NOVA, this four-part (roughly 4 hours) video series consists of:
What is space? First aired 7/11/2012.
The illusion of time. First aired 7/18/2012.
Quantum leap. First aired 7/25/2012.
Universe of multiverse. First Aired 8/1/2012.
  • Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED). A number of the TED talks are science-oriented. The talks are videos, usually about 20 minutes in length. See http://www.ted.com/index.php. Quoting from the Website: "TED … started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader."

Some Science Education Resources for Teachers

The resources in this list were contributed by Jasmine Dyoco at http://educatorlabs.org/.

• NSTA | Freebies for Teachers http://www.nsta.org/publications/freebies.aspx

• Science Fair Project Ideas, Answers & Tools http://www.sciencebuddies.org/

• The Science of Addiction: K-12 Integrated Prevention Curriculum http://www.newbeginningsdrugrehab.org/the-science-of-addiction-k-12-integrated-prevention-curriculum

• Exploratorium | The Science of Cooking http://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/

• The 10 Best STEM Resources http://www.nea.org/tools/lessons/stem-resources.html

• Calculators for Kids: Important STEM Tools http://www.mortgagecalculator.org/helpful-advice/calculators-for-kids.php

National Science Digital Library

The National Science Digital Library"NSDL is the Nation's online library for education and research in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. Quoting from About NSDL:

Mission. The National Science Digital Library (NSDL) was created by the National Science Foundation to provide organized access to high quality resources and tools that support innovations in teaching and learning at all levels of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.
Overview. The rapid acceleration of information available via the internet makes locating high-quality, accurate, and truly useful educational resources challenging for teachers and learners. Educators, in particular, need efficient and reliable methods to discover and use science and math materials that will help them meet the demands of instruction, assessment, and professional development.
NSDL was established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2000 as an online library which directs users to exemplary resources for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and research. NSDL provides an organized point of access to STEM content that is aggregated from a variety of other digital libraries, NSF-funded projects, and NSDL-reviewed web sites. NSDL also provides access to services and tools that enhance the use of this content in a variety of contexts. NSDL is designed primarily for K-16 educators, but anyone can access NSDL.org and search the library at no cost. Access to most of the resources discovered through NSDL is free; however, some content providers may require a login, or a nominal fee or subscription to retrieve their specific resources.

Notice the emphasis on K-16 education. K-6 Science Refreshers is a good example of the resources in this category. Here, materials can be accessed by grade level (K-2, 3-4, 5-6, K-6) and science area (earth science, astronomy, life science, physical science).

Lawrence Hall of Science Study

A 2007 Lawrence Hall of Science study gathered information from 923 elementary schools in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. About 80 percent of those teachers said they spent 60 minutes of less each week teaching science.

The report contains information that suggests many elementary school teachers do not feel they are adequately prepared to teach science, and that the amount of time devoted to teaching science has decreased substantially over the past decade.

Science Education

NEA (May 2008). Adequacy, and Equity in Education Technology. Results of a Survey of America’s Teachers and Support Professionals on Technology in Public Schools and Classrooms. Quoting from the Preface of this 72 page report:

As s public school educators face mounting pressure to uphold professional standards for themselves and academic standards for their students, they need the resources and support necessary to meet these challenges. Although technology is arguably one of the more important resources in education, we know far too little about how much access educators really have to adequate technology because technology is so variable and difficult to measure at the school level. Therefore, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) sought to examine the state of resources and the sup- port provided for education technology in public schools and classrooms nationwide through a joint membership survey. As advocates for educators, both organizations firmly believe that access, adequacy, and equitable distribution of technology across schools and classrooms is critical for educators to prepare their students for success in this changing global society. This collaboration between the NEA and AFT represents not only a desire to assess the realities of educational technology but also a declaration of our commitment to meeting the needs of educators and students.

Many people and organizations have worked diligently to develop scope and sequence for PreK-12 science education. Over past decades, the US National Science Foundation has funded a number of curriculum development projects and a substantial number of teacher inservice and preservice education projects. Science education is a major challenge because:

  1. The overall discipline of science and technology is very large and is growing quite rapidly.
  2. There are sharply differing opinions as to what should be taught, and when it should be taught. Evolution versus creationism is a widely publicized example of this situation.

The first of these two challenges is a particular challenge to elementary school teachers who must teach many different subject areas and who have only a modest level of preparation in science. Teachers of science at the secondary school level are more apt to have at least a minor in some field of science, and may well have major in one of the sub disciplines of science.

The second of these two challenges often involves people of sharply different religious or other ideological points of view. Teachers,parents, schools, and entire school systems or communities can get involved in very heated disagreements in these areas. The following reference is to ideas from Dean Kamen, an inventor whose achievements include developing the Segway.

Brennan, Morgan (8/27/09). Transcript: Teaching Innovation. Forbes.com. retrieved 8/28/09: http://www.forbes.com/2009/08/27/dean-kamen-education-thought-leaders-innovation.html. Quoting from the article:
As I said before, I am not sure you can teach innovation, but you can unteach it. I think every kid starts out as a scientist. Watch a baby. They poke themselves in the eye and then they learn, that wasn't pleasant. They stop poking themselves in the eye. They try some other experiment. They might not like that, they stop doing it. They try another experiment, like crying, and get parents to do whatever they want, and they like that experiment. Kids are very good scientists. They try something, they analyze the result, they learn from it, and they build a base of knowledge based on it. They throw away the stuff that doesn't work and build upon that which does work. That's what science is.
You get to school, and you learn a lot of stuff. You don't learn it either by the scientific method or as a science. Again, I'm not sure that it should be the job of schools to teach people to be creative. We should just be a little bit more realistic and say, school and business and government shouldn't use their forces to eliminate creativity. And while you might as a knee-jerk reaction say, "Well nobody does that. That's not true." When they tell you, answer this question and they give you a bunch of choices of which they've presumed one is the best, and you're supposed to be confined to what was and what is, and you're being tested on whether you can recapitulate a static situation.
We want kids to be standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before them. So education, bringing people up to speed, giving them the tools, giving them, maybe, the right set of problems to think about. That's what a good education can do. And maybe give you some encouragement to try to go new places.

What Is Physics?

The following video contains an excellent introduction to some of the accomplishments in the field of physics.

Kaku, Michio (2012). The Universe in a Newton. The Floating University. Retrieved 2/14/2014 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NbBjNiw4tk. 42 minute video.

Linguistics: The Science of Language

Pinker, Steven (2012). Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain. The Floating University. Retrieved 2/14/2014 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-B_ONJIEcE. 50 minute video.

The Limits of Understanding

Berreby, David (8/1/2010). The limits of understanding.TheScientist.com. Retrieved 8/12/2010 from http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/57588/. Quoting from the article:

Mathematics is no match for evolution of consciousness. Is that a temporary problem?
Do mysteries and gaps in scientific knowledge arise from things we don’t know yet? Or from things we won’t know, ever? Human ignorance might be just a matter of accident and circumstance. Perhaps science is like a passenger waiting for a bus with no schedule handy—she doesn’t happen to know when the next one will arrive, but with enough time and effort, she certainly will.::
In the 20th century, though, more than a few scientists concluded that there is no cosmic bus schedule—that, in fact, some things are fundamentally unknowable.

Understanding Science Project Berkley

This site in mainly designed for teachers at the K-16 levels. Quoting from the project materials:

To understand what science is, just look around you. What do you see? Perhaps, your hand on the mouse, a computer screen, papers, ballpoint pens, the family cat, the sun shining through the window …. Science is, in one sense, our knowledge of all that — all the stuff that is in the universe: from the tiniest subatomic particles in a single atom of the metal in your computer's circuits, to the nuclear reactions that formed the immense ball of gas that is our sun, to the complex chemical interactions and electrical fluctuations within your own body that allow you to read and understand these words. But just as importantly, science is also a reliable process by which we learn about all that stuff in the universe. However, science is different from many other ways of learning because of the way it is done. Science relies on testing ideas with evidence gathered from the natural world. This website will help you learn more about science as a process of learning about the natural world and access the parts of science that affect your life.
Science helps satisfy the natural curiosity with which we are all born: why is the sky blue, how did the leopard get its spots, what is a solar eclipse? With science, we can answer such questions without resorting to magical explanations. And science can lead to technological advances, as well as helping us learn about enormously important and useful topics, such as our health, the environment, and natural hazards. Without science, the modern world would not be modern at all, and we still have much to learn. Millions of scientists all over the world are working to solve different parts of the puzzle of how the universe works, peering into its nooks and crannies, deploying their microscopes, telescopes, and other tools to unravel its secrets.

Among other things, this site contains a very useful list of links to great resources.

Science and Supercomputers

Computer modeling lies at the heart of much of frontiers of modern science. Computer models get better through research (on the underlying science and models) and through use of faster computers.

Most people find it challenging to imagine the amount of computation being done in some of the models. Weather forecasting provides a good example. Quoting from the 9/28/08 issue of the Government Computer News:

“The limiting factor to more reliable climate predictions at higher resolution is not scientific ideas but computational capacity to implement those ideas,” said Jay Fein, a program director at NSF’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences.
To produce a picture of a single day of the world’s climate, the model must perform 700 billion calculations, according to NCAR. But all that computing power produces a picture with a peak resolution of only 1 degree by 1 degree, or an area of about 3,900 square miles.
One of the tools that will be available for that type of work is Roadrunner, the NNSA supercomputer being set up at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. As the first computer to break the petaflop barrier, it more than doubled the speed of the next-fastest computer, the IBM BlueGene/L housed at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Although Roadrunner’s primary mission will be to simulate the decay of nuclear materials for weapons research, scientists will also use it for research into climate change, astronomy, energy and human genome research.

Here is a quote about a supercomputer being built in Australia:

A $100 MILLION supercomputer capable of processing 400 trillion pieces of information a second to help scientists accelerate their research into diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's will be built in Melbourne.
The powerful machine will be able to generate, manage and manipulate enormous amounts of information — such as extensive patient records or genetic databases — and make it easier to map the spread and treatment of viruses.
When it is completed in 2011, Victoria will be home to the largest supercomputer in the world dedicated to the study of life sciences.

A list of various supercomputer-based projects being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy is available at http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/research/4247057.html. Quoting from the 1/30/08 article:

The DOE recently awarded 265 million processor-hours to 55 scientific projects ranging from climate change to fusion power. For a sense of scale, a project receiving 1 million hours could run on 1000 processors for 1000 hours, taking about 41 days. Running the same million-hour project on a dual-processor desktop computer would take more than 57 years. This is the fifth year the DOE has opened its supercomputers to the scientific community. And the program is expanding; this year’s processor-hours triple last year’s awards. “Access to supercomputers speeds up innovation,” says Barbara Helland, the manager of the program. “One team doing climate research was able to run a 100-year model in three days instead of many months.”

Here are a few of the projects:

  • Seeking Fusion Energy; Principal investigator: Jeff Candy, General Atomics; Title: “Gyrokinetic Steady State Transport Simulations.”
  • Finding a Cure for Parkinson’s; Principal Investigator: Igor Tsigelny, University of California—San Diego; Title: “Simulation and Modeling of Synuclein-Based ‘Protofibril Structures’ as a Means of Understanding the Molecular Basis of Parkinson’s Disease.”
  • Predicting Climate Change; Principal Investigator: Warren Washington, National Center for Atmospheric Research; Title: “Climate-Science Computational End Station Development and Grand Challenge Team.”
  • Cleaner Fuels for New Engines; Principal Investigator: Jacqueline Chen, Sandia National Laboratories; Title: “High-Fidelity Simulations for Clean and Efficient Combustion of Alternative Fuels.”
  • Harnessing Molecular Machines; Principal Investigator: Benoit Roux, Argonne National Lab & The University of Chicago; Title: “Gating Mechanism of Membrane Proteins.”

Science and the Web

3/12/09. What's the score? Science inspired the world wide web. Two decades on, the web has repaid the compliment by changing science. economist.com. Retrieved 3/19/07: http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13277389. Quoting from the article:

“INFORMATION Management: A Proposal”. That was the bland title of a document written in March 1989 by a then little-known computer scientist called Tim Berners-Lee who was working at CERN, Europe’s particle physics laboratory, near Geneva. Mr Berners-Lee (pictured) is now, of course, Sir Timothy, and his proposal, modestly dubbed the world wide web, has fulfilled the implications of its name beyond the wildest dreams of anyone involved at the time.
In fact, the web was invented to deal with a specific problem. In the late 1980s, CERN was planning one of the most ambitious scientific projects ever, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. (This opened, and then shut down again because of a leak in its cooling system, in September last year.) As the first few lines of the original proposal put it, “Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the question—‘Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?’ This proposal provides an answer to such questions.”

Computer Modeling in Science

Scientists make use of theoretical, experimental, and computational approaches in their disciplines. The third approach involved creating and using computer models and computer simulations of the science being studied. SeeComputational Thinking.

There are a variety of general-purposed software packages for developing computer models. In addition, a particular science discipline may develop software that is specific to its discipline, or to a part of its discipline. Complex Pathway Simulator is an example from Biology. Quoting from the Website:

BLACKSBURG, Va., August 16, 2010 - A software package developed by a professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) and his colleagues to help researchers better understand the workings of biochemical networks now features an open source license, offering an ever wider range of benefits to its users.
In development for over a decade, COPASI(Complex Pathway Simulator) involves an international collaboration between VBI Professor Pedro Mendes' research groups at Virginia Tech and the University of Manchester and Professor Ursula Kummer's group at the University of Heidelberg. Allowing users with limited experience in mathematics to develop models and simulations of biochemical networks, COPASI supports the Systems Biology Markup Language (SBML) standard for systems biology software and provides researchers the computational tools needed to investigate how a system is working through the construction of biochemical models. COPASI is also used by advanced modelers since it includes sophisticated algorithms. One of COPASI's main features is the ability to automatically adjust model parameters to reproduce experimental results, which helps to justify the validity of the chosen model.


Barry, R. (2008). Computational biochemist uncovers a molecular clue to evolution. Florida State University. Retrieved 10/7/08: http://fsu.edu/news/2008/09/10/molecular.clue/. Quoting from the article:

A Florida State University researcher who uses high-powered computers to map the workings of proteins has uncovered a mechanism that gives scientists a better understanding of how evolution occurs at the molecular level.
"This also represents a big step forward in our efforts to create computational simulations of biological processes," Yang said. "In this case, we first made a prediction of the enzyme structure via computer and later verified it through direct observation in a laboratory, rather than the other way around. This is a most unusual accomplishment, and one that indicates we are becoming more advanced in our ability to answer questions relating to biological functions at the molecular level."

LHS (2007). The status of science education in Bay Area elementary schools. Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkley. Retrieved 10/266/07: http://www.lawrencehallofscience.org/rea/bayareastudy/. NCSE (n.d.). National Center for Science Education. Retrieved 8/13/09: http://ncseweb.org/. Quoting from the Website:

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a not-for-profit, membership organization providing information and resources for schools, parents and concerned citizens working to keep evolution in public school science education. We educate the press and public about the scientific, educational, and legal aspects of the creation and evolution controversy, and supply needed information and advice to defend good science education at local, state, and national levels. Our 4000 members are scientists, teachers, clergy, and citizens with diverse religious affiliations.

Author or Authors

David Moursund and Ray Hull.