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Students get in touch with their inner scientist

 14 05 11physics class01
June 11, 2014

For sophomore Theatre Arts major Josh Harding, “The Nature of Science” is unlike anything he has ever taken before. As he worked with his classmates to locate epicenters of earthquakes and estimate the amount of sandwiches made in the dining hall every day, Harding learned that scientists are not the stereotypical white-lab-coat-wearing elites, but rather, critical thinkers and analysts – and so was he. 

“You can do anything you put your mind to, and nothing illustrates that more than this class,” said Harding, who hails from Federalsburg, Md. 

Physics professor Jeffrey Marx wants his students to feel empowered to “do science,” but also to challenge their ideas and beliefs about what science is and how scientists work.

He developed the course – which is organized around interactive “modules” with themes like Measurement Uncertainty and Experimental Design – when he won a $170,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant with Karen Cummings of Southern Connecticut State University. 

“They’re not following a recipe,” said Marx. “The important component for me is that the answers to the questions that the students are engaged in are not known to the students in advance, and sometimes not even to me.”   

The class, divided into small groups, came together to discuss whether the door-close buttons on campus elevators have any effect, and many students were surprised to find there was no consensus or clear answer – a parallel to what often happens in real-world scientific communities, explained Marx. 

When students weren’t timing the rate at which differently sized coins sink to the bottom of Harlow pool or wandering the Hill to discover how many species of trees grow on campus, they were engaged in metacognition – considering the changes in their thought processes since the start of the semester.

Cody Nadeau (below, about to toss a baseball), a junior from Marion, Mass., says the class has challenged his worldview. He always thought of science as rigid and exact, but not anymore – especially when it comes to estimation, which is considered sound within a factor of ten.

Students get in touch with their inner scientist
Students get in touch with their inner scientist
Cody Nadeau '15 participates in a class experiment to determine whether there is a statistical difference between the distances two groups of students can throw – those who have perfect vision and those who wear glasses or contacts.

“(Marx) knows we have certain biases or understanding of something, and then he allows us to make the mistake,” he said. 

Drawing a comparison to his own field of Philosophy, Nadeau called on Socrates to summarize his take on the class: “Bettering yourself though the act of gaining knowledge is better than the actual knowledge gained.” 

Indeed, the students demonstrated shifts in their attitudes about the nature of science by the end of the semester, a feat which has been repeated in each of the course’s seven iterations and one that Marx intends to research further as part of the NSF grant.

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