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Chelsea Colatriano

March 1


Michael Russell, Chair of Mathematics and Science Departments

Science educators have long sought to create learning environments in their classrooms which make use of the seven steps of the scientific method. The reason for this is clear: Science is inherently an inquiry-based field in which students posit hypotheses, develop methods for testing those hypotheses, analyze the results of those tests, and ultimately compare their hypotheses to their results in order to formulate new understandings of the world around us. Unfortunately, in light of various education trends including an increasingly competitive college application process, the focus in science classes has shifted toward fact memorization and away from allowing students to "do science" in structured learning environments through inquiry-based investigations that ultimately may lead to "failure," or the perception of failing as a result of not reaching the correct conclusion or getting the right answer.

The results of this shift speak for themselves. A 2013 National Math + Science Initiative study found that a mere 36% of U.S. high school students are adequately prepared for collegiate-level science courses, and the U.S. Department of Education found that an alarming 48% of students entering S.T.E.M.-related bachelor's programs changed their majors to non-S.T.E.M. fields prior to graduating. Anecdotal evidence provided by both groups and others shows that students were overwhelmed by the complexity of their introductory science courses, with many simply unable to draw connections between memorized facts and their applications to multi-faceted, often ill-structured, problem scenarios and laboratory assignments.

Quality science education that results in both effective citizenship and sound college preparation needs to create environments in which failure is perceived by students as an opportunity for self-assessment and improvement as they tackle increasingly complex objectives. In many ways, creating such a learning environment would mimic the instantaneous feedback loop found in some of the complex commercial video games on the market today. How? While the questionable violent content of many popular games has deservedly received considerable scrutiny for the negative impacts they might have on children, some games - particularly those in the role-playing, simulation, puzzle, and adventure genres - have drawn the interest of educational researchers like J.P. Gee because they create learning systems that invite players to discover at their own pace, learn from non-disruptive failure states, and synthesize knowledge in ways that best fit their particular strengths.

In these games, players "get better" through a series of increasingly complex objectives and refine their decision making process thanks to near-constant reinforcement from the game. Many games provide the player scaffolding in the form of guided tutorials, contextual clues, and new tools with which to accomplish their goals. Player inquiry is rewarded with hidden items, achievement badges, extra missions, and bonus abilities. Perhaps most impressively, the developers of these games have created environments in which the "punishment" for a player's failure is to reflect on what went wrong, consider alternatives, and try again. Though the emphasis may occasionally be placed on achieving the highest score, rarely does a modern video game treat failure as a negative. Instead, the complexity of these games creates a learning environment where autonomy, curiosity, and a growth mindset are rewarded.

In order to properly experience scientific inquiry and deploy the scientific method, it is important for students to inquire, fail, and reflect on that failure much in the same way they do in today's video games. In both there is often no such thing as a "right answer," but rather multiple thought processes based on prior knowledge that may lead to newfound comprehension. In scientific inquiry, Wynne Harlen called this process an "exploration based on emerging ideas" toward the purpose of "discussing findings in relation to initial expectations." This formative aspect to a student's development into a scientifically literate citizen not only provides opportunity for true growth, but also reaffirms the importance of the student's role in their own education. It challenges the learner to be involved in assessing their mastery of content much in the same way a video game compels the player to try a new path toward completing a quest. The focus remains on "leveling-up" through constant progression, and there is almost no limit to their curiosity-driven explorations.

Afterall, it is often the most seemingly absurd paths of inquiry that lead to the most profound discoveries. In the 1982 Atari video game Pitfall, players who dared to defy the traditional, industry convention of running to the right on screen by instead running left discovered an entirely new way to beat a side scrolling adventure game. Similarly, in 1905 Albert Einstein dared to assume that all physical measurements except for the speed of light are relative to a frame of reference. The result of this assumption, the Special Theory of Relativity, fundamentally changed modern physics and quantum mechanics.

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