Why educate “little scientists?” Examining the potential of practice-based scientific literacy


  • D. Kevin O'Neill,

    Corresponding author
    1. Faculty of Education, 8888 University Drive, Simon Fraser University, Bumaby, BC V5A 1S6, Canada
    • Faculty of Education, 8888 University Drive, Simon Fraser University, Bumaby, BC V5A 1S6, Canada.
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  • Joseph L. Polman

    1. College of Education, University of Missouri–St. Louis, 8001 Natural Bridge Road, St. Louis, Missouri 63121
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In recent years, a number of curriculum reform projects have championed the notion of having students do science in ways that move beyond hands-on work with authentic materials and methods, or developing a conceptual grasp of current theories. These reformers have argued that students should come to an understanding of science through doing the discipline and taking a high degree of agency over investigations from start to finish. This stance has occasionally been mocked by its critics as an attempt to create “little scientists”—a mission, it is implied, that is either romantic or without purpose. Here, we make the strong case for a practice-based scientific literacy, arguing through three related empirical studies that taking the notion of “little scientists” seriously might be more productive in achieving current standards for scientific literacy than continuing to refine ideas and techniques based on the coverage of conceptual content. Study 1 is a classroom case study that illustrates how project-based instruction can be carried out when teachers develop guidance and support strategies to bootstrap students' participation in forms of inquiry they are still in the process of mastering. Study 2 shows how sustained on-line work with volunteer scientists appears to influence students' success in formulating credible scientific arguments in written project reports following an authentic genre. Study 3, using data from three suburban high school classes, suggests that involving students in the formulation of research questions and data analysis strategies results in better spontaneous use of empirical data collection and analysis strategies on a transfer task. The study also suggests that failing to involve students in the formulation of research can result in a loss of agency. The implications of these findings for future research and practice are discussed. © 2004 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 41: 234–266, 2004