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Respected teachers, I have this question for quite some time and I need your ideas.

When we teach physics we can have a lot of brainstorming sessions and adopt the "scientific method" ( Observation, Hypothesis, Experiments, Conclusion ). I do this regularly in my physics class. Recently I was asked to take a course in elementary biology. I find that most biology books are filled with facts instead of stimulating questions, observations and experiment opportunities which I find in good physics books. In biology, we find less opportunity for real demonstration and conducting experiments- e.g. how to do an experiment on the digestive system as clear as we do to demonstrate and understand Newton's laws in physics. You might suggest using models but all models are inaccurate. On the other hand Netwon's laws can be directly observed without aid or model ( though that is also possible).

So my question is

1- Fundamentally how the two teachings differ, and what could be the most appropriate and meaningful strategy for teaching biology that keeps the students motivated and curious to know living beings?

2- Can we still use scientific methods as we do in physics? (But I see a narrow opportunity for observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion.)

I think someone who is experienced in the teaching of biology, as well as physics, might explain how he/she shifts strategy when moving from one to another.

Thank you very much for your valuable suggestions.

Edit: By 'fact' I mean rote learning. You just remember what is Newton's third law without bothering to know how Newton discovered it and how in general scientists discover and invent things. I am talking about the lowest level in Bloom's taxonomy. If that is the best learning experience in science, we could not have come where we are today. In my class, I prefer Questioning, inquiry and challenging the set notions instead of accepting and forcing things as Gospel truth. In my opinion, all famous scientists work like this. Galileo did this and was punished by Church but was ultimately proved right.

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    Physics can also be taught as a set of facts... Perhaps this lack of vision is yours...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 5:23
  • @SolarMike Yes it can be. By 'fact' I mean rote learning. You just remember what is Newton's third law without bothering to know how Newton discovered it and how in general scientists discover and invent things. I am talking about the lowest level in Bloom's taxonomy. If that is the best learning in science, we could not have come where we are today. In my class, I prefer Questioning, inquiry and challenging the set notions instead of accepting things as Gospel truth. In my opinion, all famous scientists work like this. Galileo did this and was punished by Church.
    – gpuguy
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 5:56
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    Biologist here...I definitely did not learn biology through rote memorization of facts.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 6:09
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    Either you don't find biology interesting or you need a different book.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 6:19
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    biologist here who went for PhD in applied physics. Undergrad biology is merely memorizing facts. Botany, Zoology, Evolution, Micro and Molecular...in first 4 years was only memorize.
    – SSimon
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 7:20

4 Answers 4

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See Eric Lander's introductory biology OCW course lecture videos for a refreshing take on biology from someone who was trained as a mathematician. The way Prof. Lander (and likely many others) teaches biology is similar to the 'hard sciences' (chemistry and physics), but the history of the science takes a larger role than it usually does in (say traditional introductory) physics and math courses.

Maybe a reason for this is that the ways that important biological processes take place are way too complicated for us to easily derive them from Newton's laws and some calculus, and so to bring people to speed in basic cell biology, one really needs to rely on a large amount of collected observations on non-intuitive, less widely observed phenomena than one does in classical physics to begin doing meaningful studies. One way to do this, is to just say such-and-such is the way things happen, now memorize it. Another approach however, is to explain how the existing models came to be. The second takes (much) more work.

At the most basic level, in either case one tests whether the conclusions/predictions that come from the models are consistent with what is observed, so the distinguishing of intro biology and intro physics on this point seems artificial. A real fundamental difference between the two again is that the type of things which are discussed in the intro biology course are much more complicated than those covered in a basic physics course, and so one must rely on more 'hand-waving' or historical references at certain points. To quote the famous mathematician von Neumann, 'If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.'

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Biology and physics are more diverse subjects than you give them credit. Biology is more diverse than physics in a way that there is "soft" knowledge like the names of plants and such, knowing their environments and more behaviour. There is also physics in the way of biomechanical anatomy, there is chemistry in the form microbiology. Physics is closer to math and there are not many soft things.

What makes them teaching vice most distinct is the desired learning outcomes. The society considers knowing the names of the native plants important. I think the best thing is trying to give them also the big picture and make them think for themselves a bit. As an example: take three pieces of liver, one just a chunk, another one bit grinded or sliced, and the last one absolutely pulverized with the help of sand. Put hydrogen peroxide on them and ask what happened and why.

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Neither physics nor biology is my field of study so I can't help you with books. But I can suggest a bit of perspective.

There are facts about both that every educated person should learn, no matter what they choose for a career. Early schooling is intended to cover quite a lot of that at appropriate age levels. So, a book could focus more on those general knowledge facts than on the scientific method appropriate for each field. That is probably fine for much of general education, but not for the education of a future scientist.

Moreover, in some fields, accessible experimentation is subject to more ethical constraints than others. You can drop solid and hollow balls without ethical considerations, but you can't boil live frogs. And, in some fields, and some parts of fields experimentation is extremely difficult. Biological experimentation often depends on statistics which may not be a skill the students have at the time. But astronomical experimentation is very difficult also.

However, if you want to train people in the scientific method appropriate to a field, you can find a way to do that. But you don't need to apply that method to everything the student learns, provided that the tools and techniques are similar. Let me give an example, from ecology.

Some quite young students have carried out a long term longitudinal study of the health of the ecosystem of a stream (sorry, no citation). Students visit the stream periodically and count things and make note of changes. They count frogs and salamanders and various aquatic plant life and such. They can track temperature and humidity and such also. They make graphs and do some simple statistics to track how things change from season to season and from year to year. This is pretty simple but you can, as a teacher, frame this around the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, (natural) experimentation, and conclusion. Some of these studies have gone on for a number of years with each new student group adding to what was learned from previous iterations.

You can also teach scientific ethics around such things. We don't boil the frogs and we don't interfere with the stream flow just to see what happens.

And if the scientific method can be taught in such simple ways then thought experiments alone can inform students about many, though not all, related aspects of the field.

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All the science methods courses I have been a part of have had future science teachers of all science fields. This is because more or less the research-based best practices are applicable across domains. I will generalize some of the most important ones that specifically fit things mentioned in your question.

Spend the time necessary to identify fundamental content knowledge. Ensure students have the necessary prerequisite knowledge and consider where you want students to go. Use this to guide how you prioritize content.

Begin with concrete experiences, decontextualized if possible, and scaffold students students to abstract understanding. Experiences come first, then concept development, then application and readings. (See: Karplus & Butts 1977)

Teaching through and as inquiry is a great method for science education. You point out how you enjoy questioning and inquiry. This is good.

Specifically addressing digestion: I have been part of an activity where students come to class hungry (very hungry) and food has been brought/delivered. Before eating, ask the students questions to identify salivary glands and other bodily signals (stomach can be turning, knees can be weak, etc.). If students are hungry enough, they’ll be quick to point out the correct areas and symptoms. As they finally eat, ask them to count the number of times they chew, which teeth they’re using for what kinds of foods, the role of the tongue, lips, cheeks, and other questions. Again, students are quick to identify these things when asked the right questions under the right conditions (created by you the teacher). ... this goes on and on, but what I want to draw your attention to is now when the “rote memorization” and vocabulary terms are introduced, students have experiences to connect the readings to. Just because you can not necessarily do structured empirical studies does not mean you can’t teach through inquiry.

That’s semi-contextualized, but still begins with the concrete. A better starting point may even be an assembly-line design process. An M&M hunting example is a popular decontextualized activity to begin a natural selection unit with. Creating a city can be transitioned into cell structure and function. Lessons like that separate effective teaching from the too common rote memorization when teaching concepts.

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