Monday, September 14, 2015

Exciting Discoveries Reveal the Nature of Science

             The recent discovery of a new species in the human family—Homo naledi—identified by anthropologist Lee Berger and his team of researchers in South Africa reveals how science works. That is, our understandings are tentative and, therefore, subject to change. You can read a New York Times article about this groundbreaking discovery at This find not only helps us understand how we evolved as humans, it also illustrates what Dr. Berger means when he said, “There is no substitute for exploration.”

            We have an exciting opportunity to connect this new discovery to previous work by Dr. Berger. In the book The Skull in the Rock, published in 2012, authors Lee Berger and Marc Aronson describe how a different fossil discovery in South Africa changed our understanding of evolution. In this case, Matthew Berger, the scientist’s son found a fossil of a bone from a species previously unknown to scientists. That species, Australopithecus sediba, provided a new window on the past. You can read the Classroom Bookshelf’s review of Skull in the Rock as well as their numerous ideas for teaching and suggestions of useful resources at

            When used together—the new information about Homo naledi and the older information about Australopithecus sediba--clearly show the nature of science in action. This material illustrates these big ideas:
·      Science is tentative, yet reliable. While generally reliable and durable, scientific knowledge is subject to change over time. It can be expanded or discarded.
·      Science is the product of observation and inference. Scientists gather evidence by making observations in the natural world. They make inferences based on a combination of observation and prior knowledge.
·      Scientists use creative and imaginative methods. There is no single, lock-step method for doing science.

            We teachers have a grand opportunity here for developing scientific literacy. First, there is material readily available about both discoveries on the Internet. Constructing text-sets incorporating nonfiction books, journal articles, newspapers articles, and videos will be easy. Second, the immediacy of this find makes it exciting. And, third, we get to show the true nature of science. It's a gift.

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