Scientific Inquiry

Science is often taught in school in the form of small slices of knowledge, drawn from a vast pool of ‘facts’, ‘models’, ‘principles’ and ‘theories’ that have made their way into textbooks. In reality, though, an educated person should understand science not for its vast body of extant knowledge, or its utility, but because of how this knowledge was acquired. Scientific findings are derived from multiple and diverse modes of inquiry that together inform our understanding of the universe, its history, and its constituent pieces (which include us). Science is not provably correct, but it is progressing to an understanding of our universe that is at least ‘asymptotically true’. This is suggested not just by the increasingly powerful predictive abilities of science, or the practical utility of so many of its discoveries, but by the self-consistency of its philosophical foundations and by the burgeoning observations that support its conclusions.

Scientific Inquiry is taught across two semesters. In each semester, the focal point is a single broad question that begins with “How do we know that?” (Or perhaps “How did humans figure that out?). The goal is not to develop expertise in an area of science, but to think about what an observation or data set actually means. To that end, we think like scientists: What is the lens (paradigm) through which this data is being interpreted? How else might it be interpreted? Are there outliers or exceptions that serve as evidence of a problem with the theory? Why or why not? What might it take to reject our current understanding and replace it with something new?

In Scientific Inquiry 1, we introduce students to the basic modes of inquiry by looking into a scientifically well-established topic. We ask how we know that evolution explains the diversity of life on the planet, that natural selection is a key mechanism for evolution, and that we humans are ourselves the products of evolution by natural selection. Students address these questions as a scientist would, and as scientists have. In Scientific Inquiry 2, students develop a deeper appreciation for the scientific way of thinking by tackling questions about a theme that may still be under debate. For instance, we ask how we know that climate change is happening, and that humans are responsible for the changes. Students come to understand how to use scientific methods to approach a complex question, and discern which aspects of the science are still under debate, and why.

Whether students come to the Common Curriculum with an advanced or basic background in scientific knowledge, Scientific Inquiry aims to bring a fresh perspective to the nature of knowledge and the importance of scientific investigation in attaining that knowledge.