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School science or scientists’ science?

Anderson (2003)* defines the work of scientists as making sense of the material world. By “material world,” he means natural and technological phenomena. Anderson describes the work of scientists as collecting many experiences, looking for patterns and developing a small number of explanations. He refers to this process as EPE:

E – Experiences – To scientists, experiences are observations that they can verify. Scientists spend the majority of their time collecting these observations, taking measurements and collecting data.

P – Patterns – From these observations, scientists begin to look for patterns that repeat themselves in the data. These patterns are generalizations that are expressed in graphs, tables, mathematical formulas and laws.

E – Explanations – Scientists then develop theories and models that explain the patterns seen in the experiences (observations).

Explanations answer the “how” and “why” questions of science; they account for many patterns that are seen in a greater number of observations. Scientific explanations are supported by a large evidence base and explain a diversity of phenomena.
When scientists look for patterns in experiences and then develop explanations from those patterns, they are engaging in inquiry. But scientists also use explanations to move back down the triangle to understand patterns and make sense of experiences. This process is called application. Anderson uses the triangle in Figure 1 to represent the EPE model of scientists' work.

Now consider what science looks like in school. How do students learn science? How do your students learn science? What do they do? Take a moment to write down your ideas or discuss them together.

Anderson describes school science as an upside down EPE model. In school, science typically focuses on learning explanations, often through memorization. Most students in school learn a large number of explanations, see a few patterns, and have even fewer experiences. Figure 2 shows the typical school science triangle.

Scientists' science is complex. The work does not happen in isolation. Scientists pool experiences, work together to find patterns and work collectively to develop explanations.

The typical school science version is ineffective. Too many students experience science as the dull memorization of scientific facts and concepts. They don’t engage in the practices of inquiry and application.

Anderson suggests that school science might begin to look more like scientists’ science if we teachers paid attention to the experiences that we give our students, the patterns that they see and the explanations that account for those patterns. We need to engage our students in inquiry and application.

For your next unit, consider using the following table to help you think about and organize the experiences you want your students to engage in, the patterns you will help them see and the explanations that they will learn or develop to account for those experiences. Also think through the application process and consider how your students will then use the explanations to make sense of other patterns and experiences. If your table has lots of entries under the explanations column and few entries under the experiences column, think about what you might be able to do to provide more experiences for your students. In this way, you can make your science classes begin to look more like scientists’ science and less like school science. If you have many experiences and few patterns or explanations, you may want to think more deeply about why you are having students do the activities you have chosen.

Example: How do shadows form?




In what experiences will you engage students?

Shadow scavenger hunt outside – what makes shadows?

Making shadows with flashlights.

Trying to make shadows with objects of different opacities.

Modeling the path of light with yarn.

Predicting shadows at different times of the day – where will my shadow be?

Prediction of shadows at different times of the day and in different places--when do I not see my shadow?

What patterns from the experiences will students see or learn?


Shadows only form when there is light.

Shadows are formed by opaque objects.

Shadows are not formed by translucent objects.

What explanations will students learn or develop to account for the patterns?

Example: Shadows form when light, traveling in a straight line, is blocked by an opaque object.




*Anderson, C. W. (2003). Teaching Science for Motivation and Understanding. East Lansing: Michigan State University.

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