Science Reasoning Center - Philosophy

For years, the ACT Corporation has been polling college professors, asking them what are the biggest needs for tomorrow's college students. Year after year, survey after survey, the results always indicate the following: Incoming students need to be able to read. To be able to read means more than simply deciphering the symbols written on the page. Reading ability involves making meaning of the material. Many students have difficulty with making meaning of scientific material. Like the college professors surveyed by ACT, many of us physics teachers would share the same lament: Our students need to be able to read. They (first of all) need to be willing to read and they (second of all) need to able to read carefully and skillfully enough to make meaning of that which they have read. From an early age through adulthood, being able to read opens more doors and better doors. It is the pathway to further learning and to greater opportunity.

As mentioned, being able to read involves more than deciphering the words. In science, reading involves understanding the big ideas of the reading section and following the logic used by the author. It includes the ability to analyze numerical information, to identify relationships among variables, and to understand the implications of formulas that relate two or more quantities. The ability to read scientific literature involves understanding the empirical basis for a model, the limitations of a model, and the implications of a model. The ability to read scientific information is tied to the ability to understand the design of an experiment, the hypothesis that underlies an experiment, and the methods and tools used in the experiment. These abilities are the very abilities that effective science teachers attempt to nurture within their students everyday they enter the classroom. The skills that are required to effectively read scientific literature are essentially the same as the skills that are emphasized daily in good science teaching. Literacy in science, the kind discussed here in the Science Reasoning Center, involves the ability to do the types of tasks that scientists do.

The ACT test targets these science literacy skills. The ACT's version of science literacy is expressed in a short document known as the College Readiness Standards (CRS). The test that the ACT Corporation administers to students is not called the Science test. It is called the Science Reasoning test. The test includes seven reading passages and a collection of 40 carefully crafted questions that target most of the College Readiness Standards. The passages on the ACT Test span a variety of topics from biology to chemistry to physics, to earth and space science. Each passage presents data in the form of tables, graphs and illustrations, or summarizes a research study, or describes an issue that two or more scientists are arguing about. The questions target students' ability to interpret data, to understand the design of an experiment, and to evaluate models, inferences and experimental results. The test does not assess student knowledge of scientific ideas. Rather, the test assesses the ability of students to read and reason within the context of a scientific topic.

The Science Reasoning Center takes the same approach as the ACT test - attempting to assess students' science reasoning abilities using a reading passage accompanied by some carefully crafted questions. The goal is not to improve the students' ACT test scores. The goal is to foster students' ability to read scientific literature, to understand the scientific process, to effectively read and interpret presentations of scientific data, and to evaluate scientific models and theories. Good science teaching is centered on this goal. The topic we teach, the labs that we do, the material we present change from day to day and week to week. But the one thing that should never change is the passion of the science teacher to improve the scientific literacy of the students. Improving the ability to read and reason scientifically should be the macro-goal of every science teacher as they enter the classroom everyday. This is the passion that has birthed the Science Reasoning Center at The Physics Classroom website.

The passages provided at the Science Reasoning Center are intended to be tools in the hands of teachers who wish to nurture and assess the ability of students to read and reason in science. There are nearly 40 passages on various topics in physics that are ready to use within the classroom. The passages and accompanying questions are part of a larger bank of passages, each of which has a larger number of questions. This larger bank - accompanied by answers, explanations, usage suggestions, citations, and more - will be made available to teachers on a for-purchase CD.