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Nature of Science

Performance Benchmark N.8.B.2
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Nature of Science
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Science, Technology, and Society
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Nature of Science (NOS)
Life Science
Earth Science
Physical Science

Students know scientific knowledge is revised through a process of incorporating new evidence gained through on-going investigation and collaborative discussion. E/S

One of the challenges faced in teaching science is overcoming the misconception – held by many students, parents, the public, and even some teachers – that science is a dry, fact-based discipline in which everything is already known. As just one example, many know that gravity was first explained by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and, since we still use his law of universal gravitation today, believe that nothing has changed.

To learn more about Newton, go to

Figure 1. Sir Isaac Newton

In fact, this perception of science as unchanging is far from accurate. While Newton’s equations of gravity and of motion are still very helpful for us today, we also know that there is still much to be understood. Albert Einstein, in the early 20th Century, showed that gravity is more complex than what Newton formulated. Even so, scientists still seek to understand the fundamental cause of gravity and to unify our understanding of it with that of the electromagnetic force.

Figure 2. Albert Einstein

To learn more about Albert Einstein, go to

To learn more about attempts for a “grand unified theory” of all fundamental forces, go to

There are many examples (too numerous to list here) of scientific ideas which may appear to be well-known and unchanging but which are still active areas of research. Scientists today work on problems old and new, continually adding to our knowledge base in a gradual progression. “Revolutions” of overturning old ideas for something completely new are rare (though not impossible); more often, scientists gather evidence from multiple sources over long periods of time.

So how is it that new evidence can come to light from what might at first appear to be a fairly objective, straight-forward experiment or calculation? One of the most common reasons is technological advances in gathering or analyzing data. As we continue to develop new instruments and processes and to increase computing power, additional evidence can be obtained to support or refute current scientific theories. Sometimes this new evidence is subtle, only a minor change from what we have seen before; sometimes it can be completely new and cause us to reconsider our ideas.

Another cause of science changing over time is the people working on various projects. Just as Einstein was able to look at gravity in a way that was significantly different than Newton, new researchers may bring novel ideas to the table or have unique interpretations of old data. Likewise, new research priorities (such as those set by federal funding support) can improve progress in one field while another may lag behind.

Because of new technologies, people, and emphasis, scientific understanding is forever changing. This isn’t all, however – the practice of science is changing as well. Newton and Einstein worked in relative isolation compared to today’s scientists. More often than not, scientists now work with collaborators that may range from down the hall to across the world, in order to maximize resources and share expertise. As just one example, a recent publication about results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), an instrument that studies the residual light from the early universe, has more than 20 authors.

Science is ever changing as the result of scientists working together to create new investigations, look at old ideas with new technologies, and revisit our trusted theories with alternate interpretations. Unlike the dry memorization of facts that we may once have been exposed to, science is a dynamic and exciting field.

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Performance Benchmark N.8.B.2

Students know scientific knowledge is revised through a process of incorporating new evidence gained through on-going investigation and collaborative discussion. E/S

Common misconceptions associated with this benchmark

The article by William McComas (1996), Myths of Science: Reexamining What We Think We Know… provides an ample overview of misconceptions held by students regarding the nature of science. This article can be accessed at

1. Students incorrectly believe that scientific laws and theories never change.

Scientific laws and theories can change when faced with new evidence. Although “school science” often presents those laws and theories about which we are most certain, ongoing investigations are continually taking place across disciplines and topics. As scientists observe the natural world with new and better instruments, evidence may cause us to change or adapt the theories that we had previously believed to be complete.

2. Students incorrectly believe science is objective and well-scrutinized.

Although science as a field does strive to achieve these goals, the reality is that science is done by humans, individuals who are susceptible to their own desires, prejudices, and goals. Outside pressures, such as those created by a changing funding landscape or the need to publish results, can lead to scientific results that are, perhaps, not as carefully reviewed as others. Sometimes an idea put forth by a very young scientist or one who is outside of the normal structures such as universities or scientific societies may not be accepted early on.

3. Students inaccurately believe evidence accumulated carefully results in sure knowledge.

Science, especially as a new discipline or research line begins, can often progress in fits and starts. Data collection, analysis, and interpretations are subject to the limitations of both our instruments and the scientists themselves, and so it is therefore possible that certain evidence may be inaccurate or inapplicable.

4. Students incorrectly think that knowledge is static and unchanging.

If knowledge were static and unchanging, there would be no need for the scientific enterprise. However, scientific research is the backbone of many universities, and research companies and laboratories are continually looking for opportunities for expansion and growth. New areas of research ensure that knowledge is dynamic.

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Performance Benchmark N.8.B.2

Students know scientific knowledge is revised through a process of incorporating new evidence gained through on-going investigation and collaborative discussion. E/S

Sample Test Questions

1st Item Specification: Describe that scientific knowledge is constantly changing as scientists continue to investigate and share new information.

Depth of Knowledge Level 1

  1. Which of the following statements best describes science? Science is
    1. static and unchanging, requiring only a memorization of established facts.
    2. static and unchanging, requiring only confirmation of old experiments.
    3. dynamic, with new investigations and knowledge developing over time.
    4. dynamic, with old experiments being confirmed and verified in new ways.
  1. Which of the following is NOT an example of an active scientific research area?
    1. Understanding the human genome.
    2. Trying to convert lead into gold.
    3. Searching for the youngest galaxies.
    4. Looking for new fundamental particles.
  1. Which of the following is NOT an example of how scientific knowledge has changed with the discovery of new evidence?
    1. The development of Einstein’s theory of relativity after observing Mercury’s orbital motion around the Sun.
    2. The acceptance of the heliocentric model of the solar system after Galileo’s observations with a telescope.
    3. The acceptance of Darwin’s natural selection after the use of radioactive dating to determine Earth’s age.
    4. The development of Aristotle’s ideas about the natural motions of the elements fire, air, earth and water.
  1. Which statement below would BEST describe the process of science?
    1. Scientists are always completely objective and free of prejudice.
    2. Scientists generally discover new ideas without the help of others.
    3. Scientific ideas frequently evolve or change over periods of time.
    4. New ideas in science generally result from planned experiments.
  1. If you were to ask a modern scientist about how she works, she would likely say that she
    1. collaborates with other scientists on a regular basis.
    2. never works with any other scientists on her research.
    3. talks to other scientists only at scientific conferences.
    4. builds only on the work of deceased scientists.
  1. Scientists are likely to share detailed information about their research
    1. only when they are required to do so by their funding agency.
    2. only through posting the information on their webpage or blog.
    3. regularly through scientific conferences and publications.
    4. regularly through televisions shows such as on PBS or Discovery.
  1. Which of the following was NOT considered evidence that supported Darwin’s theory of natural selection?
    1. Age of Earth determined to be very old from radioactive dating.
    2. Variety of new species found in isolated locations like islands.
    3. Mendel’s theory about offspring inheriting traits from parents.
    4. The laws of conservation of matter and energy.

Depth of Knowledge Level 2

  1. Galileo is credited with being the first person to use a telescope to look at astronomical objects and to record and publish those observations. Why were Galileo’s observations so important?
    1. His observations showed that the planets and moons orbited in ellipses, supporting Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion.
    2. They provided evidence that heavenly bodies were not perfect spheres, and led the way for acceptance of the heliocentric model.
    3. The observations showed the objects evolving over time, and provided the main basis for Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
    4. His observations provided evidence for motions on the surface of the Sun, which was the basis for the theory of plate tectonics.
  1. The idea that matter could be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces was discussed by Indian and Greek philosophers in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE, but it wasn’t widely accepted until revamped by John Dalton in the 19th Century. Which of the following is NOT likely to be a reason this idea took so long to become a standard belief of science?
    1. The technology to break apart small pieces of matter did not exist in ancient times.
    2. Ancient philosophers discussed ideas but did not require evidence to support them.
    3. The ancient ideas came from religion, which has to be kept separate from science.
    4. There were no scientific observations that hadn’t yet been explained by other ideas.
  1. The discovery of antibiotics to treat disease is relatively new. Why is it that scientists continue to develop new antibiotics rather than just use those discovered early on, such as penicillin?
    1. As bacteria change, new antibiotics must be discovered or developed to continue to be effective.
    2. Penicillin is likely to run out soon, and so we need to have alternate ways of fighting diseases.
    3. Some people are allergic to penicillin, and scientists are still trying to find a good replacement.
    4. New evidence shows that penicillin doesn’t kill bacteria, it only causes them to hibernate.

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Performance Benchmark N.8.B.2

Students know scientific knowledge is revised through a process of incorporating new evidence gained through on-going investigation and collaborative discussion. E/S

Answers to Sample Test Questions

  1. C, DOK Level 1
  2. B, DOK Level 1
  3. D, DOK Level 1
  4. C, DOK Level 1
  5. A, DOK Level 1
  6. C, DOK Level 1
  7. D, DOK Level 1
  8. B, DOK Level 2
  9. C, DOK Level 2
  10. A, DOK Level 2

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Performance Benchmark N.8.B.2

Students know scientific knowledge is revised through a process of incorporating new evidence gained through on-going investigation and collaborative discussion. E/S

Intervention Strategies and Resources

The following is a list of intervention strategies and resources that will facilitate student understanding of this benchmark.

1. Evolution and the Nature of Science Institutes

The ENSI website contains several different lesson plans to illustrate aspects of the nature of science, as well as the limitations of science, pseudoscience, and social contexts.

To access lessons from Indiana University’s ENSI project, go to

2. Modeling the Universe activity

This activity, developed by the educators and scientists in the NASA Structure and Evolution of the Universe missions, helps demonstrate how we go about developing models of the universe as a whole. It is particularly useful to see how many different models can be developed by different individuals.

To access the Modeling the Universe activity, go to

3. Pseudoscience Lessons from Dr. Doug Duncan, University of Colorado

These lessons are designed to help students distinguish between science (such as astronomy) and pseudoscience (such as astrology). Dr. Duncan uses these for introductory astronomy courses, but the materials could be adapted to the high school level.

To access Dr. Duncan’s lessons on pseudoscience, go to

4. “Science Is” Activity: How Science Ideas Change Over Time

This activity has students investigate historical scientists to look at the opposition they faced for their work when it was originally published, and how the ideas were eventually accepted by the scientific community.

To access this “Science Is” activity, go to

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Benchmark Related Vocabulary

Scientific knowledge