Doing Science in Science Education Courses

Tiffany-Rose Sikorski, The George Washington University


One of the most valuable lessons I learned as physics teacher-in-training at Boston University was how to get students doing science using historical scientific documents. Over time, two documents became my favorites: Alexander Graham Bell’s Family Papers on tetrahedral kites and Franklin’s New Experiments and Observations on Electricity.1 Now, at The George Washington University, I engage future science teachers in doing science using historical science documents. In the conversation below, three teacher candidates — Martin, Susan, and Chris — study an excerpt from Franklin’s work on static electricity:

1. A person standing on wax [Susan], and rubbing the tube, and another person on wax drawing the fire [Martin]; they will both of them, (provided they do not stand so as to touch one another) appear to be electrised, to a person standing on the floor; that is, he [Chris] will perceive a spark on approaching each of them with his knuckle. 2. But if the persons on the wax touch one another during the exciting of the tube neither of them will appear to be electrised. 3. If they touch one another after exciting the tube, and drawing the fire as aforesaid, there will be a stronger spark between them, than was between either of them and the person on the floor.2

Martin: I think Chris’s idea is right. By us being close enough, somehow, charge goes from me to you.

Susan: But is it me to you, or is it the tube to you?

Martin: Well if you’re losing charge, the charge would have to be coming from me to you. And then from you into the tube.

Susan: But then where would the shock come from then?

Martin: The shock would come from the observer in either scenario because we both have less negative charge than the observer.

Susan: But isn’t it in part 1, we’re shocked?

Chris: I think what makes this confusing, at least to me, is between 1 and 3. Where it talks about how in 1, if I come up to either of you guys, I get a shock. But then it says that you guys would shock each other if you guys touch.

Much of our time is spent this way, trying to understand what exactly the scientists did and observed in their experiments. Conversations like these exemplify what we mean by doing science in pedagogy coursework at GW.

Rationale for Doing Science

The National Science Teachers Association recommends teacher education programs “create a learning environment that encourages inquiry “and offer coursework where teacher candidates can “construct science concepts with understanding and reflect on the history and nature of science.”3 To address these and other needs related to Next Generation Science Standards, GW’s post-baccalaureate (M.Ed.) teacher education program began integrating doing science experiences into pedagogy courses in the fall of 2012.

In Susan’s cohort, all five science teacher candidates had undergraduate degrees in the content area for which they sought licensure (biology, chemistry, or physics); three had advanced degrees in their content area; all had undergraduate or graduate research experience; and two had professional science experience in the university or private sector along with peer-reviewed publications in science. Given these strong science backgrounds, one might argue that our pedagogy courses ought to be strictly focused on issues of pedagogy. Indeed, “in the usual model, it is assumed that physics teachers learn physics in the physics department and then learn how to teach in their certification program.”4

We integrate doing science into our science education courses for many reasons. First, in our experience, we cannot assume that students who earned ‘As’ in undergraduate science programs developed the sophisticated understanding of scientific concepts, practices, and inquiry needed for science teaching. Second, our teacher candidates’ identities as “physics (or biology or chemistry) people” are a valuable resource for engaging in questions of science pedagogy. Third, doing science offers us an opportunity to demonstrate some of the techniques that we would like teacher candidates to implement in their future classroom, such as planning lessons that work with, rather than against, students’ ideas. Finally, in doing science together, we develop shared experiences that we can refer back to throughout a teacher candidate’s coursework and clinical experiences.

Design of Doing Science Experiences

Doing science generally begins in one of four ways: It can start with close reading and discussion of a science text like Franklin’s letters on electricity. It could also start with an open-ended question, like “How does movement affect heart rate and blood pressure?” Eleanor Duckworth describes starting by having teachers explore science with simple materials like balloons and string.6 Doing science can also begin spontaneously while teacher candidates discuss examples of student work collected from K-12 classrooms.

We work on the same question or text for the entire semester, spending approximately a third of our class time, or one hour per week, on doing science. Instead of following any pre-set curriculum, we choose how to spend our time in each session with an overarching goal of arriving at an evidence-based, consensus model or explanation that we all understand.7 While facilitating, I am careful to emphasize aspects of science that may have been overlooked in teacher candidates’ prior science courses. For example, even if they “know” the currently accepted model of a phenomenon, teacher candidates are challenged to develop multiple models and explanations. They compare these models for usefulness, plausibility, coherence, causality, predictive power, and other criteria central to the work of science. Each doing science session includes a reflection on progress made, the challenges encountered, options for what to do next, and takeaways for 7th-12th grade classroom teaching.

Evidence of Impact

Through their course reflections and evaluations, our teacher candidates indicate that doing science is a significant part of their program experience:

...The Ben Franklin letter activity was by far the most influential due to the ability of everyone to form ideas based on their own understanding and the nature of the discussion that was facilitated in the class.

Chris, the sole physics teacher in Susan’s cohort, spontaneously asked for a copy of Franklin’s letters, which he later used during his teaching internship. In asking Chris to describe how he used the materials, he wrote:

...we had students explore electrostatics through the use of household items -- styrofoam cups, fur/cloth, glass and plastic rods, straws, aluminum pie plates, string, styrofoam, and other items. We asked students to record observations and develop claims regarding charge -- the build up of charge, the transfer of charge, and the conservation of charge. After students developed their claims, we had students examine the writings by Ben Franklin...Students developed claims as to what Benjamin Franklin was observing and writing about...We then reflected as a class on how science develops…

Within science education research literature, Emily van Zee and colleagues noted that while doing science, teachers began to use language more precisely, became attuned to distinctions between different ideas, and began to try out competing models and explanations of phenomenon.8 After an entire course of doing science, Leslie Atkins and Irene Salter noticed changes in teacher candidates’ qualitative reasoning about magnification and the focusing of light rays.9 Their teacher candidates also reported more strongly valuing and using scientific ideas in their everyday lives, as compared to their traditionally taught counterparts. Through analyzing video recordings of our doing science experiences at GW, we have observed similar changes in how our teacher candidates describe and work with ideas.

Resources for Doing Science in Science Education Courses

Multiple published descriptions and videotaped examples of doing science are available to teacher educators seeking questions, texts, and problems to launch doing science in their pedagogy courses.10 However, doing science by design does not follow a set of pre-formulated activities, so it helps to work with an experienced facilitator to learn how to make in-the-moment decisions during doing science. At GW, we have also explored a co-teaching model, where science education and science faculty work together to facilitate doing science. In this way, doing science becomes a nexus of collaboration, a PhysTEC key element, between Schools of Education and Arts and Sciences.


Thank you to Susan, Chris, and Martin (pseudonyms) and classmates for participating in a study of doing science in science teaching methods course at The George Washington University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE 1439819. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Tiffany-Rose Sikorski is Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at George Washington University. She is a former high school physics teacher and a graduate of Boston University (BA, Physics and Astronomy, 2005; MAT, Secondary Physics Education, 2006) and University of Maryland-College Park (PhD, Science Education, 2012).


1 A. Bell, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers (Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1862-1939).

2 B. Franklin, (1754). New Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America 2 (Henry & Cave, London, UK, 1754), pp. 14.

3 National Science Teachers Association. NSTA Position Statement: Science Teacher Preparation (Arlington, VA, 2004). Available from

4 S. Vokos and T. Hodapp, “Characteristics of thriving physics teacher education programs,” in Recruiting and Educating Future Physics Teachers: Case Studies and Effective Practices, edited by C. Sandifer, and E. Brewe (APS, College Park, 2015), pp. 11.

5 E. Close, “Becoming physics people: Development of physics identity in self-concept and practice through the Learning Assistant experience,” Am. Phys. Society April Meeting (Salt Lake City, 2017).

6 E. R. Duckworth, E. R. Tell me more: Listening to learners explain (Teachers College Press, New York, 2001).

7 P. Hutchison and D. Hammer, Sci. Ed. 94, 3 (2010).

8 E. H. van Zee, D. Hammer, M. Bell, P. Roy and J. Peter, Sci. Educ. 89, 6 (2005).

9 L. Atkins and I. Salter, in Recruiting and Educating Future Physics Teachers: Case Studies and Effective Practices, edited by C. Sandifer and E. Brewe (APS, College Park, 2015).

10 See for example endnotes 6-9.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.