How Do You Begin To Engage Students In Scientific Explanation?

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Mixing things together, building things, and observing interesting phenomena keeps your room abuzz with enthused and engaged students. Have you noticed that the when you ask students to use data to support claims and explain what they’ve done the engagement tends to make a quick exit? They love the hands-on but often loathe supporting what they’ve done with evidence and explaining the how  and why. You’re probably well aware that producing explanations, using evidence, and participating in argumentation are necessary elements of developing proficiency in science.  Where might you start to get them engaged in in the process of writing claims, generating evidence, and supporting them with reasoning?

Stopping at 123 Student Place

As a way to engage them with the process before jumping into the science content, pay a visit to 123 Student Place.  That is, start in their world first. Have them consider situations that would directly impact them such as sharing the following scenario:  Your friends are planning to go to the mall on the weekend.  If your parents would allow you, it would be the first time you could go to the mall without an adult. You then go to your parents and say, “My friends want me to go to the mall with them”.  Your parent says,” Do you think you are old enough to take the public transit to the mall with your friends?” How would you respond?

After having them discuss during pair/share or whole group, highlight one response which is vague or lacks strong evidence to support it such as “ If I didn’t go I would be the only person in my grade who can’t go to the mall without parents”.  Engage them in a whole class discussion/debate regarding whether their reasoning would be enough to support their claim that they can go.  Said differently, challenge them to provide evidence that is not only the right type of evidence (appropriate) but is enough (sufficient) to support their claim to go on a parentless mall trip.

How Do I Know Where to Begin?

You may be thinking, “What sorts of topics can I begin with?”, or “How do I know what topics are from “their world?”  I have developed a simple checklist in which I use the acrostic, S.E.L.F. which helps ensure that the engagement is there in the lesson.  It  asks about what they have Seen, Experienced, Like, or Felt.    For example,

o   Do you think you’re old enough to ride a bike to the park without your parents?

o   Are you ready to begin drivers training?

o   Should you receive a raise in your weekly allowance?

o   Should you receive the pet of your choice?


Transitioning to Claim-Evidence-Reasoning

Share with them that throughout their lives they will continuously hear or read claims and have to evaluate how valid they are. Explain that scientists explore the how and why things occur in our world and that they will continuously think like scientists in this class by constructing arguments, evaluating evidence, critiquing claims, etc. to achieve that goal.

Helping your students become proficient in constructing scientific explanations can be both daunting and intimidating tasks in the science classroom.  Students, like adults, are often resistant to engaging in tasks that they perceive as immensely challenging and have little chance to be successful with. Introducing them to the process by using something from their world is often an engaging beginning and helps ease the transition into learning to develop scientific explanation.

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