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Inquiry: Learning Science by Doing Science

Author(s): Nancy Moreno, PhD

Understanding of How Science Works

When students learn science through inquiry, they also develop understandings about the nature of science.  In particular, students learn to distinguish between a scientific question that can be tested or investigated and questions that are not scientific. Some non-scientific questions can be reframed as questions that can be investigated scientifically. For example, the question, "which toothpaste is best?" is non-scientific because "best" cannot be measured. However, the question could be reformulated to focus on a measurable quality of toothpaste, such as tooth whitening, prevention of cavities, etc. "What is the meaning of life?" is a question that falls outside the realm of science.

Scientists use different approaches, depending on the questions they are investigating. Many scientists study natural phenomena instead of conducting controlled experiments. Geologists, epidemiologists and astronomers, for example, often must rely on detailed observations to uncover complex mechanisms or cause-and-effect relationships. Others, such as ecologists, frequently make comparisons between similar or dissimilar systems.

Even though the vast body of scientific knowledge is relatively stable, all scientific explanations are considered to be tentative. Each explanation is based on a specific set of evidence. There are no absolute scientific truths.