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  1. 1. HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND OUR WATER RESOURCES?Teaching The ScienceProcess SkillsWhat Are the Science Process Skills?Science and teaching students aboutscience means more than scientificknowledge. There are three dimensionsof science that are all important. The firstof these is the content of science, the basicconcepts, and our scientific knowledge. Thisis the dimension of science that most peoplefirst think about, and it is certainlyvery important.The other two important dimensions of sciencein addition to science knowledge are processesof doing science and scientific attitudes. Theprocesses of doing science are the scienceprocess skills that scientists use in the processof doing science. Since science is about askingquestions and finding answers to questions,these are actually the same skills that we alluse in our daily lives as we try to figure outeveryday questions. When we teach studentsto use these skills in science, we are alsoteaching them skills that they will use in thefuture in every area of their lives.The third dimension of science focuses on thecharacteristic attitudes and dispositions ofscience. These include such things as beingcurious and imaginative, as well as beingenthusiastic about asking questions andsolving problems. Another desirable scientificattitude is a respect for the methods andvalues of science. These scientific methods andvalues include seeking to answer questionsusing some kind of evidence, recognizing theimportance of rechecking data, and under-standing that scientific knowledge and theorieschange over time as more informationis gathered.SIX BASIC PROCESS SKILLSThe science process skills form the foundationfor scientific methods. There are six basicscience process skills:• Observation• Communication• Classification• Measurement• Inference• PredictionThese basic skills are integrated together whenscientists design and carry out experimentsor in everyday life when we all carry out fairtest experiments. All the six basic skills areimportant individually as well as when theyare integrated together.The six basic skills can be put in a logicalorder of increasing sophistication, althougheven the youngest students will use all of theTEACHING THE SCIENCE PROCESS SKILLS 6/5
  2. 2. HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND OUR WATER RESOURCES?skills alongside one another at various times.In the earliest grades students will spend alarger amount of time using skills such asobservation and communication. As studentsget older they will start to spend more timeusing the skills of inference and prediction.Classification and measurement tend to beused across the grade levels more evenly,partly because there are different ways to doclassifying, in increasingly complex ways, andbecause methods and systems of measuringmust also be introduced to children graduallyover time.Integrating the basic science process skillstogether and gradually developing abilities todesign fair tests is increasingly emphasized insuccessive grade levels, and is an expectationof students by fourth grade. The VirginiaStandard of Learning (SOL) 4.1 for fourth-graders includes, for example, creatinghypotheses and identifying and manipulatingvariables in simple experiments. At this level,the students are beginning to really ask andanswer their own questions in a scientificsense. The following Designing an Experimentand Analyzing Experimental Data sections willfocus on using the integrated science processskills to design experiments and reachconclusions.In the Virginia Standards of Learning, the firstscience SOL (x.1) at every grade level K – 12tells which of the science process skills shouldbe introduced and emphasized at that gradelevel. For grades K–6, where the SOL at eachgrade includes content from all areas ofscience, organized in strands across thesegrade levels, the science process skills SOLfalls in the Scientific Investigation, Reasoning,and Logic strand. For grades 7–12 (LifeScience, Physical Science, Earth Science,Biology, Chemistry, then Physics) the SOL areno longer organized in vertical strands, but thefirst SOL at each of these grade levels stilldefines the science process skills to be taughtand practiced at that grade level. For all gradelevels K – 12, the intention is that the scienceprocess skills be taught and practiced bystudents in the context of the content SOLfor that grade level. Students will work ondifferent content areas of science during theyear, and all year long they will continue touse and develop further the science processskills for their grade level.SCIENCE BEGINS WITH OBSERVATIONObserving is the fundamental science processskill. We observe objects and events usingall our five senses, and this is how we learnabout the world around us. The ability tomake good observations is also essential tothe development of the other science processskills: communicating, classifying, measuring,inferring, and predicting. The simplest obser-vations, made using only the senses, arequalitative observations. For example, the leafis light green in color or the leaf is waxy andsmooth. Observations that involve a numberor quantity are quantitative observations. ForTEACHING THE SCIENCE PROCESS SKILLS 6/6
  3. 3. HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND OUR WATER RESOURCES?example, the mass of one leaf is five gramsor the leaves are clustered in groups of five.Quantitative observations give more preciseinformation than our senses alone.Not surprisingly, students, especially youngerchildren, need help in order to make goodobservations. Good, productive observationsare detailed and accurate written or drawndescriptions, and students need to be promp-ted to produce these elaborate descriptions.The reason that observations must be so full ofdetail is that only then can students increasetheir understanding of the concepts being stud-ied. Whether students are observing with theirfive senses or with instruments toaid them, we can guide them to make bettermore detailed descriptions. We can do thisby listening to students’ initial observationsand then prompting them to elaborate. Forexample, if a student is describing what he orshe can see, they might describe the color of anobject but not its size or shape. A studentmight describe the volume of a sound but notits pitch or rhythm. We can prompt students toadd details to their descriptions no matterwhich of the five senses they are using. Thereare other ways that we can prompt studentsto make more elaborate descriptions. For exam-ple, if something is changing, students shouldinclude, before, during, and after appearancesin their observations. If possible, studentsshould be encouraged to name what is beingobserved.OBSERVATION AND COMMUNICATIONGO HAND IN HANDAs implied already, communication, thesecond of the basic science process skills,goes hand in hand with observation. Studentshave to communicate in order to share theirobservations with someone else, and thecommunication must be clear and effectiveif the other person is to understand theinformation. One of the keys to communicatingeffectively is to use so-called referents, refer-ences to items that the other person is alreadyfamiliar with. For example, we often describecolors using referents. We might say skyblue, grass green, or lemon yellow to describeparticular shades of blue, green, or yellow.The idea is to communicate using descriptivewords for which both people share a commonunderstanding. Without referents, we open thedoor to misunderstandings. If we just say hotor rough, for example, our audience might havea different idea of how hot or how rough. If astudent is trying to describe the size of apinecone they might use the size of his or hershoe as a referent. The pinecone could beeither larger or smaller than his shoe.The additional science process skill of meas-uring is really just a special case of observingand communicating. When we measure someproperty, we compare the property to a definedreferent called a unit. A measurement state-ment contains two parts, a number to tell ushow much or how many, and a name forTEACHING THE SCIENCE PROCESS SKILLS 6/7
  4. 4. HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND OUR WATER RESOURCES?the unit to tell us how much of what. Theuse of the number makes a measurement aquantitative observation.Students can communicate their observationsverbally, in writing, or by drawing pictures.Other methods of communication that areoften used in science include graphs, charts,maps, diagrams, and visual demonstrations.CLASSIFYING INTO GROUPSStudents in the early grades are expected to beable to sort objects or phenomena into groupsbased on their observations. Grouping objectsor events is a way of imposing order based onsimilarities, differences, and interrelationships.This is an important step towards a betterunderstanding of the different objects andevents in the world.There are several different methods of class-ification. Perhaps the simplest method is serialordering. Objects are placed into rank orderbased on some property. For example, studentscan be serial ordered according to height, ordifferent breakfast cereals can be serial orderedaccording to number of calories per serving.Two other methods of classification are binaryclassification and multistage classification. In abinary classification system, a set of objects issimply divided into two subsets. This is usuallydone on the basis of whether each object hasor does not have a particular property. Forexample, animals can be classified into twogroups: those with backbones and those with-out backbones. A binary classification can alsobe carried out using more than one property atonce. Objects in one group must have all ofthe required properties; otherwise they willbelong to the other group.A multi-stage classification is constructed byperforming consecutive binary classificationson a set of objects and then on each of theensuing subsets. The result is a classificationsystem consisting of layers or stages. Amulti-stage classification is complete wheneach of the objects in the original set hasbeen separated into a category by itself. Thefamiliar classifications of the animal andplant kingdoms are examples of multi-stageclass-ifications. A useful activity for youngerchildren could be to create a multi-stage clas-sification of some local animals using physicaland/or behavioral similarities and differences.The Virginia Science SOL match the differentclassification skills to the different gradelevels. In kindergarten, children are expectedto sequence a set of objects according to size.The kindergarteners are also expected toseparate a set of objects into two groups basedon a single physical attribute. (See ScienceSOL K.1.) In first grade, students shouldclassify and arrange both objects and eventsaccording to various attributes or properties(1.1). In second grade, students should classifyitems using two or more attributes (2.1). Inthird grade, students should classify objectswith similar characteristics into at least twosets and two subsets, and they should alsoTEACHING THE SCIENCE PROCESS SKILLS 6/8
  5. 5. HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND OUR WATER RESOURCES?asking students questions about their observa-tions we can encourage the students to thinkabout the meaning of the observations.Thinking about making inferences in this wayshould remind us that inferences link whathas been observed together with what isalready known from previous experiences. Weuse our past experiences to help us interpretour observations.Often many different inferences can bemade based on the same observations. Ourinferences also may change as we makeadditional observations. We are generallymore confident about our inferences whenour observations fit well with our past exper-iences. We are also more confident aboutour inferences as we gather more and moresupporting evidence. When students are tryingto make inferences, they will often need togo back and make additional observationsin order to become more confident in theirinferences. For example, seeing an insectrelease a dark, sticky liquid many timeswhenever it is picked up and held tightlywill increase our confidence that it does thisbecause it is up-set and trying to defend itself.Sometimes making additional observationswill reinforce our inferences, but sometimesadditional information will cause us to modifyor even reject earlier inferences. In science,inferences about how things work are contin-ually constructed, modified, and even rejectedbased on new observations.sequence natural events chronologically (3.1).In fourth grade, students should classifydata to create frequency distributions (4.1);in fifth grade, students should identify rocks,minerals, and organisms using a classificationkey (5.1); and in sixth grade, students shoulddevelop a classification system based onmultiple attributes (6.1).MAKING INFERENCES AND PREDICTIONSUnlike observations, which are direct evidencegathered about an object, inferences are expla-nations or interpretations that follow from theobservations. For example, it is an observationto say an insect released a dark, sticky liquidfrom its mouth, and it is an inference to state,the insect released a dark, sticky liquid from itsmouth because it is upset and trying to defenditself. When we are able to make inferences,and interpret and explain events around us,we have a better appreciation of the environ-ment around us. Scientists’ hypotheses aboutwhy events happen as they do are based oninferences regarding investigations.Students need to be taught the differencebetween observations and inferences. Theyneed to be able to differentiate for themselvesthe evidence they gather about the world asobservations and the interpretations or infer-ences they make based on the observations.We can help students make this distinctionby first prompting them to be detailed anddescriptive in their observations. Then, byTEACHING THE SCIENCE PROCESS SKILLS 6/9
  6. 6. HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND OUR WATER RESOURCES?Making predictions is making educated guess-es about the outcomes of future events. We areforecasting future observations. The abilityto make predictions about future eventsallows us to successfully interact with theenvironment around us. Prediction is basedon both good observation and inferences madeabout observed events. Like inferences, predic-tions are based on both what we observe andalso our past experiences the mental modelswe have built up from those experiences. So,predictions are not just guesses! Predictionsbased on our inferences or hypotheses aboutevents give us a way to test those inferences orhypotheses. If the prediction turns out to becorrect, then we have greater confidence in ourinference/hypothesis. This is the basis of thescientific process used by scientists who areasking and answering questions by integratingtogether the six basic science process skills.In summary, successfully integrating thescience process skills with classroom lessonsand field investigations will make the learningexperiences richer and more meaningful forstudents. Students will be learning the skillsof science as well as science content. Thestudents will be actively engaged with thescience they are learning and thus reach adeeper understanding of the content. Finallyactive engagement with science will likely leadstudents to become more interested and havemore positive attitudes towards science.RESOURCES• A Key to Science Learning. Yockey, J. A.(2001). Science & Children, 38(7), 36-41.An article at the elementary school level,describing a simple writing technique to helpstudents communicate the important scienceconcepts they have learned.• Centimeters, Millimeters, & Monsters.Goldston, J. M., Marlette, S., & Pennington,A. (2001). Science & Children, 39(2), 42-47.An article at the elementary school level,describing a humorous way to teachmetric units.• Drawing on Student Understanding. Stein,M., McNair, S., & Butcher, J. (2001).Science & Children, 38(4), 18-22.This article, at the elementary school level,describes how children can use drawingsto communicate their understanding ofanimals. In the process, student learningabout the animals is reinforced, as thechildren are encouraged to think deeplyabout what they know and have observed.• Learning and Assessing Science ProcessSkills. Rezba, R. J., Sprague, C. S., Fiel, R.L., Funk, H. J., Okey, J. R., & Jaus, H. H.(3rd Ed.). (1995). Dubuque, IA:Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.TEACHING THE SCIENCE PROCESS SKILLS 6/10
  7. 7. HOW CAN WE UNDERSTAND OUR WATER RESOURCES?A comprehensive text describing both thebasic science process skills and the inte-grated science process skills in detail, alongwith suggestions of activities incorporatingthe skills with science content and approp-riate assessment methods.• Oh Say Can You See? Checkovich, B. H., &Sterling, D. R. (2001). Science & Children,38(4), 32-35.An article at the elementary school level,describing a simple strategy for improvingstudents’ observation skills.• Teaching & Learning The Basic Science Skills:Videotape Series. Rezba, R. J. (1999). Officeof Elementary and Middle School Instruc-tional Services, Virginia Department ofEducation, P.O. Box 2120, Richmond, VA23218-2120. Call media office for copies ofvideotapes at 804-225-2980.• When a Hypothesis is NOT an EducatedGuess. Baxter, L. M., & Kurtz, M. J. (2001).Science & Children, 38(7), 18-20.An article at the elementary school level,discussing the difference between making aprediction (an educated guess about the out-come of a test) and forming a hypothesis (aneducated guess about why the outcomesoccurred).TEACHING THE SCIENCE PROCESS SKILLS 6/11