It’s a jungle out there

The myth of the orderly scientific method hides the adventure of STEAM learning

By Gwen Soderberg-Chase

We humans like order. Even the most adventurous among us like to think there are some pillars of continuity in our lives, some reliable systems that give us the assurance of control.

One place where we assume rationality reigns is the world of science. In school, students learn the steps of the scientific method. This is a set of techniques, a logical order of steps, through which scientists reach conclusions about their environment. The number of steps and how they are classified depends on who is leading the method, but the basic idea is the same. We observe, we make a hypothesis, we test it through experiments and then confirm or deny the hypothesis. Sometimes, this leads to a theory.

If only it were all that tidy.

The fact is, the scientific method is not quite the linear process we imagine, in which white-coated technicians serenely chart results in a sterile lab filled with gently bubbling beakers. It’s true that the way we talk about the scientific method is organized and sequential. But the process rarely is. Science is chaotic. It’s messy.

But that’s exploration and it’s important that we all cultivate some level of what Neil deGrasse Tyson calls “scientific literacy.”

In the fields of medicine, education and social sciences, breakthroughs have come about only after countless failed or even bungled experiments. Consider this: Penicillin, X-rays, and yes, Viagra, all were byproducts of research that either went awry or was in pursuit of some other result.

So even if science and the other disciplines that are part of STEM education – technology, engineering and math – are perhaps less straightforward than we might expect, that factor actually adds to its appeal. Knowledge and discovery in STEM fields don’t follow a script. And isn’t that what we want for our children? They’ll be far more engaged in a process that calls for individual contribution. That’s why there’s an “A” in Umpqua Valley STEAM Hub. It stands for art, that being the artistic component of creative thinking.

These principles are being reinforced through a series of professional development trainings the Umpqua Valley STEAM Hub is sponsoring at Umpqua Community College. Participants are learning how to expand STEAM learning experiences for youth across Douglas County. Educators from inside and outside the classroom are finding out how to deliver opportunities through the Next Generation Science Standards and related resources.

The initial training drew more than 30 participants who engaged in hands-on activities and picked up new ideas for presenting STEM subjects. The series will continue April 18 and June 13.

Tidy is great for closets, but less desirable in the world of scientific learning. I’ll leave you with this thought, a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

Gwen Soderberg-Chase is the Project Coordinator for the Douglas County Partners for Student Success.She grew up in Douglas County and graduated from South Umpqua High School. She attended the University of Oregon for post-secondary education. She returned to Douglas County and worked as a teacher and Director of Educational Services for the Roseburg Public Schools until 2011 and has worked at UCC and in the nonprofit sector since. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Umpqua Valley, Saving Grace Pet Adoption Center and SMART.