Constance Clark elicits discussion around a central theme using a provocative statement

Filed in engaging students in class, first day of class by on October 17, 2016 0 Comments

constance landscapeIn B-term of 2016, I am offering a seminar on the history of science in public and science popularization.  I always try to start the first class with an activity that gets people introducing themselves to each other and then talking through a theme that will be central to the course.  For the class this year, I’m going to begin by projecting on the screen a provocative thought with which the historian of science Steven Shapin began an essay called “Science and the Public.”

A remarkable feature of present-day science of that we know, or think we know, with self-evident certainty who is a scientist and who is a layperson, where science ends and where other forms of culture begin.  And it is no less remarkable that the judgments of scientists and the laity on such matters display such a measure of agreement.[1]

I will ask the students to get together in small groups, introduce themselves to each other (find out something interesting about one another), and then talk about Shapin’s statement.  What, exactly do we mean by science, how is it different from other forms of knowledge or investigation, and how do we know it when we see it?  How do we distinguish science from pseudoscience? How do we know who has scientific authority and who does not?

After they have had time to talk, I will ask the class to reconvene.  Everyone will introduce someone in his or her group to the class and tell us something interesting about them.  Then the groups will report to the rest of us on their discussion.

I’ll ask them to brainstorm about things that they think may be pseudoscience, or about scientific controversies, and write these things on the board, and try to keep asking questions and stimulating discussion.  One of the questions will be “How would you define ‘scientific method”?”  Previous experience leads me to anticipate that even though they think they know what it is, it will turn out that they don’t agree about what it is.

It’s a two-hour class, so once they agree that they are more confused than they were when they arrived in class, I’ll let them take a little break and when they come back I’ll do a slide show and talk more about the kinds of things we’ll be doing in class.  (But if they really have a lot to say during the discussion, I’ll let them keep going and dispense with the slide show.)

[1] Steven Shapin, “Science and the Public,” in Olby, Cantor, Christie & Hodge, editors, Companion to the History of Modern Science (London & NY, Routledge, 1990), p.990

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