Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Science-Mystery Connection

As we introduce more nonfiction in the classroom, I have great hopes that more science books will be read and discussed across the grades.  But not just any science book will do.  If we truly want to help students understand the nature of science as scientists know it, then the books we select have to reveal authentic contexts for scientific inquiry. That means that at least some of the books students read and discuss should show scientists engaged in problem solving, collaboration, and the development of new scientific knowledge. Readers need to see what scientists do.

One promising way to introduce  science books is through the idea mystery. Perhaps you have noticed that many science books use words like mystery, detectives, clues, and evidence in their titles and in the written text. I think there is a good reason for this. Scientists are like detectives in many ways. They deal with puzzling questions, collect and analyze evidence, and work collaboratively with other scientists. If you have read The Case of the Vanishing Frogs: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle you know what I mean. Right from the beginning, the author shows readers that they are dealing with a true mystery: What is causing the Panamanian golden frogs to die?

In the past, teachers and classroom researchers have reported that even very young readers like mystery stories—that is, realistic fiction mystery stories. They enjoy thinking about puzzling situations, considering the clues, evaluating the evidence, and reaching conclusions. I suggest that we capitalize on this enthusiasm by showing these same readers that nonfiction science books share these enticing features. Like crime detectives, scientists, too,  deal with puzzling situations, gathering and evaluating evidence, and coming to conclusions.

Of course, there are also significant differences between fiction and nonfiction mysteries. The most significant difference is that scientists can never completely solve a mystery. As they answer one question, new questions arise. So the enjoyment readers get when they read science mysteries comes from participating in a continuous process, not one that is wrapped up and solved for good. A second difference is that authors of nonfiction science mysteries are obliged to tell the truth. They can’t make up any “facts” or distracting details in order to make a better story. Aside from that, the parallels between fiction and nonfiction mysteries are strong and, in my opinion, provide a very useful foundation for teaching.

Below are several titles you can use to introduce the science-mystery connection. I have written the “mystery” connection in each title in bold.

Berger, Lee R., & Aronson, Marc. (2012). The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
Hague, Bradley. (2012). Alien Deep: Revealing the Mysterious Living World at the Bottom of the Ocean. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Hodgkins, Fran. (2007). The Whale Scientists: Solving the Mystery of Whale Strandings. Boston, MA: Houghton.

Jurmain, Suzanne. (2009). The Secret of the Yellow Death: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing. Boston, MA: Houghton.

Kirkpatrick, Katherine. (2011). Mysterious Bones: The Story of Kennewick Man. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Thimmesh, Catherine. (2009). Lucy Long Ago: Uncovering the Mystery of Where We Came From. Boston, MA: Houghton.

To discuss these books, consider raising the following “mystery” questions:
   What is the problem that scientists are trying to solve?
   Who is working on the problem? How do they work together?
   What evidence have they collected?
   What have they learned?
   What else would they like to know?

The science-mystery connection captures the role of scientists as active problem solvers. As we teach more content—which is a good thing—we should also keep in mind that science is a human endeavor. It is the result of wondering, pursuing possibilities, and making tentative claims. It’s about dealing with the mysteries that surround us.

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