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Inquiring Minds

A unique course prepares students for scientific evaluation and for life.

In an age of information overload, it often seems impossible to know what to believe. From gluten
to vaccinations, media outlets abound with proponents and opponents weighing in from a multitude of
perspectives. The consumer is left adrift to distinguish the proven claims from the hot air. A topic that is no stranger to this type of rhetoric is climate change, and a newly-developed course at UMHB addresses just that: how does one know what to believe?

In 2008, a faculty committee was formed with representatives from each of the colleges to evaluate the core curriculum and recommend needed changes or additions. The co-chair of that committee, Dr. William Tanner, Professor and Chair of Computer Science, Engineering, and Physics, said committee members decided to be very expansive in terms of their thinking. “We wanted to go beyond the typical cafeteria-style curriculum and design a course that would help our students be more successful in their upper-level courses,” he said.

Committee members knew critical thinking would be a priority of the course because it is a skill necessary for both classroom success and life. One of the courses they recommended was called “Scientific Inquiry”—a class designed to teach students how to use the scientific method. “We wanted a course that would demonstrate not just that critical thinking is important to scientific investigation, but also, that we become acquainted with our worlds through experimentation,” Tanner said.  The course is taught by different professors in different ways: Dr. Cathleen Early’s course is oriented toward research in biology; Dr. Aaron Baggett’s course concerns research in psychology; and Dr. Isaac Gusukuma’s addresses research in social work. All of these options are for science majors.

Offered as an alternative to a lab science course, Tanner’s course is titled “Effects of Climate Change.” A primary goal of the course was to counter the idea that science is just for scientists. Tanner takes the position that any student, regardless of strengths or interests, can engage in scientific inquiry, and that good critical thinking skills will underpin and strengthen faith-informed decision making, helping students know how to make good judgments about life in general. Understanding that many students are nervous about taking science courses, he says he begins each semester by breaking down the six steps of scientific evaluation:

  1. Observe real world events.
  2. Formulate a model to explain what is happening.
  3. Use the model to create predictions.
  4. Experiment to test predictions and analyze the data.
  5. Determine whether the data support the model.
  6. If the data reject the model, create a new model that fits the data.

“Once they understand those six steps, students can analyze almost any scientific article,” Tanner said. “They can go to a scientific document and make judgments on their own.  Does the evidence cited by the scientist support the model that the scientist advocates?  Can the evidence be repeated and observed by others?  If the answer is yes to both questions, the scientist’s conclusions are more likely to be reliable.”

Students then use these steps in exploring a multitude of various real-world topics. “We talk about the double helix model of the DNA molecule, identifying both the claims and counterclaims involved in the process of its discovery. We examine Ptolemy’s theory of the universe, investigating why it was overthrown by Copernicus: both scientists used the same data, but Copernicus’s model fit the data better.” Tanner believes this is an approach that empowers students to believe they are capable of reading anything that is scientific and becoming aware of the truth or falsity by its own standard. “The logic is designed within the theory itself,” he said. “It must hold. We work through that in a very legitimate way for several weeks, and then we say, ‘Okay let’s apply this to something we care about.’”

In the present course formation, which is designed for flexibility, to allow for any number of over-arching themes, students investigate climate change. “There’s a lot of data out there and very good explanations, some pejorative and some outlandish,” Tanner said. “So I go through the remaining weeks, plodding along and engaging them through readings.” He acknowledges that the life of a current student is one saturated with information; they can find answers to almost anything very quickly. He uses this to his advantage by encouraging them to go to the internet and bring information to class. “The students divide into groups and I assign a specific question. They discuss and then respond,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for them to look at the experiences they have had with a particular claim and then apply those six steps to see if the claim stands up.”

Students have responded positively to the course—something that is evidenced by enrollment numbers alone. Tanner began the course a few years ago with only eleven students. That number has grown to sixty students this fall. Beyond numbers, students admit to being changed by the course. “Before the class, I believed in climate change, but not so much in global warming,” said one student. “This still holds true more than not, but I have a greater understanding of the human impact on climate change and the misconception of global warming in the way it is presented to the people.”

Tanner says this impression is typical, and he believes it is a result of the course’s direct approach to analysis. “We start with the natural climate change component, meaning there are things that vary over 100,000 years, 40,000 years, and 20,000 years,” he said. “All of those variations can maximize at the same time. Those are the natural effects of climate change that are seen in the data, and if you add up those naturally-occurring climate changes and compare them to the present-day earth, you see small measurable differences between the readings you would expect to see and the data that are actually being gathered today. That’s the human contribution, and it causes the predictions of climatologists to be less certain.”

Tanner attributes much of the course’s popularity to the ways students feel empowered. “Once they have completed the course, students indicate that their ability to read and understand science has been changed,” he said. “They believe they now have access to information that before seemed a little like alchemy to them. Things happen—and they may not know how they happen or quite what the process is—but now they at least understand this is a very direct way to analyze the world.”

Tanner said they also tackle big-picture issues of science and religion.  “Students want to discuss why, in certain circumstances, science seems to threaten religion,” he said.  “The threat comes from the sense of the unknown.  When they learn how science functions and see that it has limitations, science no longer seems threatening.”

He hopes this course, while specific to science and scientific evaluation, will provide training that helps students make good judgments throughout their lives. “I think that’s the positive influence of science: it encourages one to aspire to be logically correct, skilled at making judgements, and experienced in good, faith-informed discernment,” he said. “It is important that we bring every possible source to bear on an issue, not just a single thread that persuades us. Affirming a legitimate claim . . . that takes a very careful examination.”