Chad Dorsey

Perspective: Science Starts with Wonder

While many groundbreaking discoveries can be expected—from the ultimate revelation of an elusive particle to the confirmation of an essential genetic or molecular structure—the moments that truly matter can be tantalizingly elusive. A fleeting glimpse opens the door to a new paradigm. A tiny deviation causes one to question all that has come before. As Isaac Asimov famously noted, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka,’ but ‘That’s funny…'”

There are countless historical precedents for such discoveries. In the late 17th century, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered a world of wonder in a simple drop of water—a teeming universe of life previously unknown to all, both within the realms of science and beyond. Spurred by this unexpected discovery, he cataloged this previously invisible world for the illustrious ranks of the academy. Yet his bold claims—of countless omnipresent, minuscule living creatures—fell on skeptical ears. Unfortunately, the uneven development of microscopy tools precluded the ability of most others to see these “animalcules” for themselves. His discoveries were banished from the science mainstream for over a century and a half.

Just after the turn of the 20th century, another pioneer stumbled upon an unexpected moment of wonder. Charles Henry Turner, long fascinated by the actions of insects and other animals, moved a bottlecap next to a small hole he had dug. As an ant proceeded into this new, false burrow, Turner recognized the significance—the ant was navigating based on landmarks in the world around it, incontrovertible evidence that the insect was learning. Although Turner was the first Black man to publish a paper in Science, racial discrimination stood as a constant barrier to wide airing of his discoveries. For many decades, his trailblazing ideas proved too forward thinking for the narrow-minded ranks of the more traditional scientists of his time.

Common threads bind these stories together—the pure surprise of the unexpected, the beckoning pull of the unknown, and the deep inspiration of wonder. Just as these experiences have pushed scientists forward for generations, they serve as equally powerful forces in our own personal experiences. Their universal attraction makes them valuable guideposts as we consider what, and how, to encourage future generations to learn about science.

Leaning into the unexpected

Encountering the unexpected is a clear and compelling inspiration for scientific investigation. When a beaker suddenly foams or changes color, when a ring appears around the moon on a frosty evening, or when an animal moves in a seemingly unnatural way, the jolt of the unexpected provides a revelation that one’s concept of the world is incomplete.

Pedagogically, this is highly useful. Science teachers routinely leverage surprising demonstrations to hook students’ interest, often to great effect. Our data science education research shows that students examining data attend more carefully to unexpected features, and that they will spend considerable time working to understand the nature and origins of such anomalies.

Oddities present lessons and opportunities far beyond the classroom and into the scientific enterprise as a whole. Stanford professor Garry Nolan, a renowned cancer researcher, inventor, and co-founder of seven companies, states the importance of heeding this lesson. “It’s not the data that falls in line that’s so interesting,” he explains. “It’s the spot off the graph that you want to understand. When something is way off the graph, that’s the interesting thing, because that’s usually where discovery is.”

While examining anomalies, learners exercise important habits of mind for scientific critical thinking. And when supported in maintaining and honing these habits over time, learners can gain the inclination, and develop the fortitude, to stop and notice the unexpected, pose the right questions, and follow where the data leads. To get there, however, we must explicitly encourage this impulse.

Following the unknown

Sadly, exploring the unknown is miles removed from most students’ classroom experience. In far too many cases, we reduce education to a game in which teachers and students learn early on that success comes from closely following well-established rules and behaviors. In this traditional game of science learning, the sage teacher holds the answers and diligent students obediently follow along, remaining in their proverbial seats and prescribed roles until they are granted the appropriate knowledge and learn to parrot it back.

Just as frequently, this pattern pervades laboratories as well. Investigations abound whose goal is for students to confirm what is already known and to generate lab reports that conform to the composition rules of a carefully defined genre. These commonplace practices rob students of the most important aspect of science—the experience of the truly unknown.

Fortunately, this cycle can be broken. Rather than follow a preordained process for laboratory investigations, teachers can provide students with the goal and let them reason out their own paths, just as scientists do. Contrary to the popular notion of an archetypal “scientific method,” scientists tinker, explore, hit dead ends, and retrace their steps. They work out problems through noisy debates with colleagues and on long, solitary walks. Discovery of the true unknown comes through persistence, patience, and puzzling. To provide students a taste of true science, we need to make room for true discovery.

When confronted with the unexplained, an honest scientist digs in, chooses a path, and persists, following the data to uncover the wonder it reveals. Yet as history has shown, doing so can prove daunting, especially when pursuit of the unknown collides with the stigma of narrowly defined societal expectations. Whether in a professional laboratory or a high school classroom, fostering true scientific discovery requires us to remain open. Teachers must expand norms, provide students with open-ended technology tools that enable broad investigation, and encourage the early “messing around” stages that are central to the scientific process. Teaching today’s students to follow their own scientific north stars may be one of the most crucial learnings we can provide. One such innovative teacher tells the story of her journey in this issue.*

Welcoming wonder

Across time immemorial, humans have looked up at the night sky and mused about the deepest questions of existence. Such innate human wondering binds us together and inspires new exploration and scientific discovery.

This is the overarching lesson for teachers of the next generation. We cannot realize the wonders of the world for our learners. However, we can guide them thoughtfully, giving them space to follow the unexpected glimmers that speak to them individually. We can provide learning environments that value what they know and encourage them in chasing that wonder wherever it leads. We can and must work to ignite the spark for all students.

Doing this begins by acknowledging and welcoming wonder, in its many places and forms. The Concord Consortium believes that its mission—to innovate and inspire equitable, large-scale improvements in STEM teaching and learning through technology—holds the key to discoveries that could change the course of history. In doing so, we hope learners experience the inspirational power of wonder. Only in this way can we uncover answers to the unexplained.

Science is among the most fundamental of all pursuits, engaging us in elemental questions that capture and motivate us. Wonder at the world’s unexpected surprises and curiosity about the unexplained galvanizes our irrepressible drive for understanding. This natural inclination holds significant potential for science education.

Wonder at the world’s unexpected surprises and curiosity about the unexplained galvanizes our irrepressible drive for understanding.

* Learn more about Julia Wilson’s inspirational teaching in our Teacher Innovator Interview.