Pupils' views of science prove cloudy

1st May 2009 at 01:00
Study finds children's understanding is often contradictory and lacks coherence

Vegetarian dinosaurs, aliens and sand in the desert are all proof of nature's complexity. But one thing is certain: if you pray regularly, God will protect you from lions.

Academics from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, interviewed 26 Year 7 pupils to discover their views about science and the natural world - part of a broader study intended to help science teachers address pupils' needs.

They found that children had a firm idea of the work that scientists do. "They use chemicals in their lab," one pupil said. "And then maybe some other scientists work with technology - like, make computers and stuff like that."

Another was more explicit: "People sometimes think they've found an alien in their house. Then scientists do tests on it, to tell that person if it is an alien or not."

But, while pupils appreciated scientists' paranormal-detection skills, they were also aware that science was something of a twilight zone. "Like, who told my dad that there was just blackness in space?" one child asked. "Probably his last science teacher. And now a new science teacher is saying there are stars and stuff like that . That's an example of facts changing."

The pupils did, however, realise the difficulty of the scientists' endeavour. For example, it is particularly hard to determine the nature of outer space or prehistoric creatures if scientists are not able to observe these things for themselves.

One said: "With the things called the pterodactyl, it's a flying bird and they said it eats a lot of plants . But what if he ate meat? Because in movies they mostly make, like, dinosaurs like eating machines . Maybe they use their imagination."

Seeing things for oneself was, they said, the best way to determine science from science-fiction.

"We can find out things about nature from the internet and books," one said. "We can experience it ourselves - like, by going to the jungle or somewhere."

But, ultimately, the mysteries of nature would always outweigh what could be understood.

"There are things that happen in nature that's quite strange," one pupil said. "Like the desert. How did all that sand get there? It's not simple and ordinary."

Another pupil pointed out: "If a dog dies, you can't put him back to life. So nature cannot be repaired."

This led pupils to suspect that greater forces were at work. One said: "My ma normally tells me every day - and I believe my ma - that if you pray a lot and you thank God for your food and don't just take it, then if a lion came to your house one day, God would put the barrier around you and the lion won't interfere with you. I see nature as the work of God."

Such thoughts led, inevitably, to much prepubescent philosophising. "Nature is things that man didn't make," one pupil said. "It has just been there all the time, like, before we were born . We can die, but the planets will still be alive."

The researchers concluded that the children's understanding of science was often contradictory and lacked coherence.

"Some aspects of nature are confusing, and there are parts that remain undiscovered," they said. "Perhaps there exists a need for science educators to consider how they present the natural world to students."

r.garlick@uct.ac.za.

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