Summer School – Day 1 – The Process of Science

The first day of a new semester can be a bit nerve-wracking . . . wondering what the students will be like, how the group dynamic will develop. Wondering if they’ll laugh at my stupid jokes. After my introductory lecture, though, I had a really good feeling about this group. Just ten students, and all of them jumped in right from the start.

I started out the same way I always start out my introductory bio classes – a lecture on “What is Life?,” and then we walk through the process of science, using calico cats as the context for exploring the scientific method: “Why haven’t I ever seen a male calico cat? I hypothesize that there aren’t any.” (SPOILER: there are male calicos; just not very many of them. We’ll answer that mystery when we get to inheritance). We also do a root word exercise where students use a glossary of root words, prefixes, and suffixes to decipher biology words, and the scientific names of a couple of animals: Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and Phascolarctos cinereus .Can you figure out who they are? (The root word glossary I hand out to my students can be found here).This reinforces the importance and usefulness of learning root words, particularly when dealing with big “scary” science words. Plus, it’s fun.

That took us through until lunch, after which I gave my Good Science/Bad Science lecture, which focuses on recognizing the characteristics of legitimate scientific studies, and the red flags that suggest that a “scientific” claim might not be based in actual scientific evidence. The lecture was followed up by a trip to the library, where they did a quick research project investigation some advertising claim they’ve seen that struck them as being dodgy. (Almost always, they’re able to discover for themselves that there’s not any science backing up most of the crap we see advertised on TV).

This year, I decided that I wanted to include more naturalist skills in the curriculum, so to round up our day, I took them on a naturalist walk. I didn’t give them a lot of guidance this time around . . . I just took them walking through campus, with the instruction to make a list of any living organisms that they recognized, and could put a name to (we’ll revisit this on the last day of class). Then, over near the campus lakes, I asked them to sit quietly for 5 minutes, and just look and listen, and write down their observations. Usually, when I’ve asked an entire class of students to do something like this, at least a few of them blow it off, obviously not interested. But this time around, every single one of my students took it seriously. They also seemed to really enjoy it, and were interested about learning more.

It didn’t hurt that we saw some really cool things. Probably the most spectacular was this fungus that we saw in several places on campus – I’d never noticed it before, and it’s CRAZY WEIRD and cool! (I think it’s the latticed stinkhorn, Clathrus ruber).


Their lists were mostly what I expected – they know things like flowers and trees and grass, but not a lot of specifics. (I’ve included some of them below).

My mission for the next four weeks: to help them understand a lot more about the natural world around them than they know right now. I think we’re off to a really good start!

Selected Materials

List of Root Words
Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science
Good Science/Bad Science Worksheet

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