Science is not a mystery novel

One of the skills we learn early in writing is suspense – providing just enough information to keep the reader wanting more. And it is easy to see why students might want to transfer this skill to, say, a lab report – the exciting part is presumably the great reveal at the end, whether or not the “hypothesis was proven”.  However, science doesn’t tend to work like that. The mystery is enjoyed by the researcher, but once the mystery is solved, that answer is written first and foremost in both the abstract and the introduction, so there is no doubt, even before you begin reading, that the butler did it.

The importance of early full disclosure in a scientific report is a difficult concept to convey sometimes, and it takes patience and repetition before it fully sinks in. But there is another side to this as well. We, as teachers, must also follow this principle of not making science a mystery.

I know there are times when we feel that a little mystery is engaging, that it keeps the students “hooked”, and can’t help but feel that students who look ahead are “cheating”. But think about it – why on earth would we consider students who take the initiative to learn something a bad thing?

Even in labs, where we want students to come to a conclusion based on their data, peaking at “the answer” is not a problem. Some years ago when I first experimented with modeling in my physics class, I had students derive an equation for the period of a pendulum. Most managed something akin to T^2=4L (give or take…), while one intrepid student was very pleased to present the “correct” T = 2π √(L/g). I congratulated her on her research, and then asked her to show the lines of evidence she used to arrive at that answer. Which, of course, she couldn’t*. I explained to the entire class that I was quite happy to have students look things up, but that it was far more important to be able to interpret and understand their own data, and use the “known” values for comparison. As long as they can use their own evidence to demonstrate their conclusion, I am more than happy to have students “peek” ahead – in fact, those students tend to use that information to refine their techniques and gather even more data in an effort to be more “correct”.

Every once in a while I come across a student as sneaky as I was in high school, who can reverse-engineer an experiment and produce a dataset with a small (but not zero) error without ever doing the lab. Is this “cheating”? Well, lying about data is academic dishonesty, so yes it is. But if I know students are that good, I don’t make them do the lab, since they have little to learn from it. I either recruit them to help other students with their technique, or give them a more challenging lab that they can really sink their teeth into.

Real science is based on evidence and honesty, not mystery and obfuscation. Let’s model that in our classrooms.

*This student was not permanently traumatized by the experience. She continued on in science, and in fact is now a marine biologist.

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