IslandWood Thinking Like a Pirate
Image courtesy of IslandWood.

How Do Scientists Think?


Field Notes:  Clancy Wolf, IslandWood    

What do you think of when you think of “science?” Do you get all nervous and think about chemistry class and trying to get the right answers on the labs?

Forget the word “science” for a minute, and go back in your memory. Can you remember a time when, say as a young child, you played in a field, beach or barn?  Maybe you spent a whole day figuring out how to skip a rock across a lake. Or what exactly you had to do to stay balanced on your two-wheeled bicycle. Those memories are what “science” is all about – asking questions, and working out ways to answer them.

As far as “The Scientific Method” goes, I’ll borrow a line from Pirates of the Caribbean: “They’re more like guidelines.” It turns out that when researchers take a look at what professionals in science really do, they do several things – but not in any specific sequence. Scientists

  • Ask questions,
  • Develop and use models,
  • Plan and carry out investigations,
  • Analyze and interpret data,
  • Use mathematics and computational thinking,
  • Construct explanations,
  • Engage in argument from evidence, and
  • Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.

But – and this is where the inner pirate comes out – they jump around among these practices, and even ignore some at times.

Scientific Thinking and the New Standards

As a result of this new understanding of how scientists work, a better understanding of how students learn, and major advancements in our collective scientific knowledge — we are being forced to rethink how we do science education.

Image courtesy of IslandWood.

Over a two year period, twenty six states worked together with a 41-member writing team and other partners to develop a set of “standards” – the science practices and content that all K-12 students should master in order to be fully prepared for college, careers and citizenship. These Next Generation Science Standards were published just this April. (Note: The last major effort to define science education standards was in 1996 when the National Research Council developed the National Science Education Standards (NSES) which have influenced science education in many states.)

I find a notable part of these new standards to be the inclusion of elements of engineering. I find this exciting because it helps us think about the need to take action and work to solve problems. It’s the practical side of why we want to know stuff. It’s how we “practice” our scientific understanding.

A few years ago, Washington State’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction adopted Environmental and Sustainability Learning Standards describing what all students in our public schools should know and be able to do to be environmentally and sustainability literate. These standards complement the Next Generation Science Standards in that they require understanding not only key ideas and concepts, but also the behaviors – “practices” – we all need to live responsibly within our society.

Education for Sustainability

So how do we help our children (and ourselves) learn to think scientifically and practice sustainability? One part is to make sure school districts, schools, and teachers have the necessary resources to support integrated environmental and sustainability education learning opportunities for each student. That includes opportunities for teachers to learn about the issues as well as explore how others have created learning experiences for children around these issues.

IslandWood Water Quality Monitoring
Image courtesy of IslandWood.

At IslandWood, an outdoor residential learning center on Bainbridge Island where I work, we run the Sustainability Education Summer Institute (SESI) every July. Our goal for the SESI Conference is that educators will gain the skills and knowledge they need to effectively provide students with experiences both in and out of school that lead to science and sustainability literacy. This year, teachers will be learning about and exploring issues around our State’s Learning Standards, gaining more insight on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, and how we can work on STEM goals and Sustainability goals at the same time. (Know a teacher who might be interested attending the institute July 29-31, 2013? Send them to )

This is hard, complex stuff, though. Those we charge with helping shape future citizens – our teachers – need to have strategies to help our learners develop ways of understanding the concepts and taking action on them. The admirable goal of living sustainably (and teaching others to live sustainably) requires plenty of thinking on an ongoing basis; whether it’s thinking like a pirate or a scientist.

Additional Links

Thinking Like a Pirate – or a Scientist 2 October,2015Clancy J. Wolf

  • Sharol Nelson-Embry

    Great article and good news for Science Standards and our nation’s kids! Hopefully the Next Gen. Science Standards will enliven science teaching and inspire teachers.


Clancy J. Wolf

Clancy J Wolf. , ED.D., is Senior Faculty for Science & Technology Education, Islandwood. Clancy has worked with students, teachers, and researchers from Forks, Washington to Key West, Florida, exploring how technology helps students learn and challenging students to think about their role in the world around them. He is the past President of the Northwest Council for Computer Education, the country’s oldest organization for teachers who use technology in the classroom.

Clancy holds a B.A. in Mathematics/Physics from Whitman College; and M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction, Secondary Education, Bowling Green State University; and an Ed.D. in Science Education, University of Michigan.

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