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Introduction to Science, Conversation & Understanding

 Page Under Construction
This page was authored by Wilfred Franklin of the Bryn Mawr College Biology department as the first set of activities to an Introductory Biology lab course. It was inspired most recently by a collaboration with Dr. Paul Grobstein running a three week summer workshop for K-12 teachers: Brain, Science, and Inquiry-Based Education 2010
Primary Learning Goals of Introductory Biology Lab:
This biology laboratory course is designed as an opportunity to engage in and learn the process of generating meaning and constructing empirical explanations within biological systems.
In other words, the lab course is a chance to learn how to make observations and develop interpretations about life and all that gives rise to it or emerges out of it. One reason to highlight the generation of meaning is because new information grows at ever increasing rates and the ability to access and share information becomes easier and easier. Thus, learning how to generate, interpret and creatively use information is of much more importance.
Perhaps the most basic and profound property of life is the vast diversity associated with it.  It is both a fundamental property and a result of biological processes. 

Lab journal prompt: Where does the diversity come from? Is variation in life forms perfectly continuous or clumpy? (Does there exist every possible subtle intermediate?)  Why is diversity structured like it is?
Activity #1: Explore the math model simulation "Evolution as Reproduction with Variation" by Dr. Paul Grobstein.
Activity #2: Share with the class, the important similarities with others that you posses and the important differences - things about you that make you unique.
Principles of co-constructive dialogue (see also Dialogue and  On dialogue, culture, and organizational learning)

  • everyone has expertise, no one has authority
  • everyone needs to speak meaningfully, listen attentively, and be willing/able to change their existing understandings
  • differing understandings are to be valued and explored rather than corrected
  • sharing existing understandings leads to new and different understandings
  • the task is to achieve new understandings, individually and perhaps collectively as well

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
- Rumi (1207-1273)

"Problem-solving is to new understandings as environment is to natural selection."  from conversations in the 2010 Brain, Science and Inquiry-Based Education summer institute.
Lab journal prompt: Explain and elaborate on the above statement in your own words.

Activity #3: Share your ideas in small groups in preparation for a class discussion.
Summary thus far....

  • Diversity is both an essential ingredient and primary product of biological evolution
  • Dialogue/conversation is a specialized process that makes use of diverse understandings to create new understandings both within an individual and collectively between individuals
  • Problems/Questions in supplying a context give dialogue a purpose, which serves to measure the usefulness of different understandings.


Science as Construction versus Discovery

  • No authority
  • No Truth
  • No Right or Wrong
  • Only useful explanation/models in particular contexts. (Does it help solve a problem/provide a solution/answer a question?)

More on the "Crack"
Our nervous system/brain creates both our sense of self and our sense of the world.  The brain is what it is due to some evolutionary history of what has worked in the past, the interaction between this innate structure and the current physical environment as well as the cultural environment of other brains.  Historical properties, environmental interactions and cultural inputs all influence the brain and the way we "see" the world.  The crack is each of our own unique perspective of the universe we find ourselves in at this moment in history.
Experiencing the Crack

  • ambiguous figures - our culture affects how we see things? the mind can see things in more than one way and must choose between them
  • optical illusions - brain heuristics with evolutionary advantage, but is it a lie?

The Brain as an informed guesser - observations as constructions
The blind spot
Visual illusions
The color problem and "reality"
Perception as construction
 Two point discrimination - ultimately limited by the architecture of our nervous system
More on our sensory systems and "out there/reality" by Laura Cyckowski and Paul Grobstein
Role of Imagination in Science
"In science, the obvious role of imagination is in the context of discovery. Unimaginative scientists don’t produce radically new ideas. But even in science imagination plays a role in justification too. Experiment and calculation cannot do all its work. When mathematical models are used to test a conjecture, choosing an appropriate model may itself involve imagining how things would go if the conjecture were true. Mathematicians typically justify their fundamental axioms, in particular those of set theory, by informal appeals to the imagination."
-- from Reclaiming the Imagination by Timothy Williamson
Lab journal prompt: What do the above experiences reveal to you about your brain and how that relates to the function and goal of science?
Summary thus far....

  • blind spot reveals that our brain can "make things up"
  • optical illusions demonstrate that our brain can lie to us
  • ambiguous figures show that our brain can construct more than one interpretation, but we can be conscious of only one at a time
  • two pt. discrimination reveals that our brain is ultimately limited in it's ability to construct meaning by the sensitivity of our sensory system. Some information "out there" is lost on the way "in" to our brains.
  • imagination is an essential cognitive skill used in developing empirical understandings about the natural world



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