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Natural Sciences Education Abstract - Notes

Teaching the Nature of Science in a Course in Sustainable Agriculture


This article in NSE

  1. Vol. 42 No. 1, p. 36-42
    unlockOPEN ACCESS
    Received: June 26, 2012
    Published: March 20, 2013

    * Corresponding author(s): cessnas@emu.edu
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  1. Stephen Cessna *a,
  2. Douglas Graber Neufelda and
  3. S. Jeanne Horstb
  1. a Dep. of Biology, Eastern Mennonite Univ., Harrisonburg, VA 22802
    b Dep. of Graduate Psychology and The Motivation Research Institute, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA 22801


Claims of the (non-)sustainability of a given agricultural practice generally hinge on scientific evidence and the reliability of that evidence, or at least the perception of its reliability. Advocates of sustainable agriculture may dismiss science as purely subjective, or at the other extreme, may inappropriately elevate scientific findings to the status of pure objective truth. Thus, students of sustainable agriculture and natural resource management would benefit from gaining a better understanding of expert notions of the nature of science (NOS); students should learn that science is empirical, inferential, theory-laden, tentative, and creative; there is not one specific foolproof scientific method by which scientific knowledge is uncovered; and, probably most importantly in the context of sustainability, student should learn that science influences and is influenced by its wider social/cultural context. Thus, we have designed a course in sustainable agriculture that emphasizes NOS understanding. Course design elements include a rich real-world context, an inquiry setting (i.e., involving students in small-scale gardening research projects), explicit instruction in NOS concepts, and ample reflection on the intersection of NOS concepts with ideas of sustainability and farming. Student learning of NOS concepts was assessed before and after the course using a modified version of a questionnaire called Student Understanding of Science and Scientific Inquiry (SUSSI). Here we present our preliminary findings, which suggest that significant learning gains in the understanding of NOS occur during the semester, particularly in understanding the social/cultural aspects of science.

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