Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It's (All) About Data

Lab: it's all about data. From beginning to end, the focus is in one manner or another on data. Scientists begin with a question that they hope to answer. And from then on, the focus is on data. And our physics students should participate in the same type of data-centered activities as those of scientists.  Here is a sampling of the type of data-centered activities which characterize most labs.
  • Deciding on what data to collect. 
  • Deciding how to gather the data. 
  • Collecting the data. 
  • Deciding how to record data. 
  • Recording the data. 
  • Determining what the data mean. 
  • Determining if the data mean anything at all. 
  • Evaluating the trustworthiness of the data. 
  • Comparing the data with the data of other experimenters. 
  • Comparing data with previous experiments. 
  • Graphing the data. 
  • Analyzing the data. 
  • Presenting the data in various forms.  
  • Deciding what forms would be best for presenting the data. 
  • Drawing conclusions based on the data. 
  • Collecting better data. 
  • Deciding what new data to collect. 
  • Deciding on better methods of collecting the data. 
  • Using the data as evidence. 
  • Referring to the data in support of conclusions.

Clearly labs are data-centered activities - activities in which a wealth of decisions about data must be made in order to pave a logical trail from the question to the answer.

It is at this point that science is distinctly different than the other disciplines which our students study. In many of the other disciplines, opinions prevail.  In science, data prevails (or at least should prevail).  As we all know, there is not a lot of room in science for opinion.  Scientists follow the data towards their logical conclusions and make every effort to build models which both assimilate the data and explain the data. In science classes, our students should be doing the same types of activities. They should be given an abundance of opportunities to collect, analyze, evaluate, and draw conclusions from the data.  When it comes to labs, its all about data.

An article titled Using Levels of Inquiry in the Science Classroom, written by Jeff Rylander, was posted previously on this blog. In his article, Jeff provided a framework for thinking about scientific inquiry lab activities.  The framework centered around the division of a lab task into the formulation of a testable question, the development of a method or procedure for answering the question, and the formulation of a solution or answer to the question.  In the framework presented by Jeff, higher levels of inquiry are characterized by activities in which students have a greater degree of control in the various stages of the lab task.  (Jeff's ideas regarding levels of inquiry originated from an article published in The Science Teacher by Michael E. Fay and Stacey Lowery Bretz. The article is available online at NSTA's Science Store.)

When I think about the centrality of data in a physics lab, I think about Jeff's article. Particularly, I think about the locus of control in the various data-oriented decisions which must be made during the course of a lab.  As an instructor, I need to be thinking about what data-related decisions students will be left to make. I need to think about whether I make the decision about what data they collect or whether they decide on what data must be collected.  I need to be thinking about whether I decide on the methods by which students will collect the data or if I will leave that decision to them.  I need to be thinking about whether I decide on how students will organize and present the data or if I will leave them to decide on this matter.  Consistent with Jeff's framework for levels of inquiry, the more the locus of control is shifted from the instructor to the student, the higher the level of inquiry which the lab will assume. And one way to think about scientific inquiry is to think about how many of the data-oriented decisions are being made by the instructor and how many are being made by the student.

As I write this article, I am one day into summer vacation.  School ended yesterday. The summer months allow time to relax and to rest (and to catch up on the honey-do lists), but also time to reflect, rethink and retool. For me, much of my summer reflections will be focused on how I can improve the scientific inquiry skills of my students.  And for starters, I will be thinking about the types of revisions which I can make to the lab program in order to foster improved inquiry skills.  I will be looking at the labs which my students do through the lens of data.  I will be pondering each lab which my students do and asking:  When it comes to data-oriented decisions, where is the locus of control for this particular lab activity? The more that the control lies upon the student side of the equation, the higher the level of scientific inquiry.

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