‘Think Like A Scientist’ is a course designed to improve critical thinking and encourage independent thought for students. The program uses short, impactful talks on science topics to bring new information to the class.
Through dialogic teaching methods and guided by a critical thinking framework, the students are taught to analyse research and feel connected to the outside world through learning about space missions, climate change, natural hazards, the Universe, the science of sleep, and artificial intelligence.
The course started in 2019 in the UK prison system and has since expanded to different restrictive education settings (online and in person). The success of the course is based around the creation of a classroom dynamic that is accessible, inclusive, and relatable to students from all backgrounds.
Think Like A Scientist is currently run by Phil Heron (University of Toronto Scarborough) and James Williams (education specialist with Spectrum First). If you would like to work with Think Like A Scientist please get in touch.
In a world where ‘fake news’ is a real danger, the course offers students the basic building blocks required to think like a researcher, guided by the scientific method as a tool to gain understanding (e.g., what are we trying to find out? how do we test that? can we confirm a result? what else do we need to know to be sure of our findings?).
Presently, being a scientist is a lot more than testing a hypothesis – you are required to be able to understand how robust your findings are through data analysis, and also be able to present your work in a clear and concise manner.
Think Like A Scientist teaches the students how to use the scientific method alongside applying analytical and communication skills.
By visiting successful education programs during the development of Think Like A Scientist, it was clear that learners engaged best when the material was relatable to the students. Although some topics of our class are directly applicable to daily life (e.g., sleep), the majority of the course focuses on how we think about a subject – a process which is inherently relatable.
Think Like A Scientist teaches the ‘the scientific method’ – a framework where we explore what we do not know about a subject and discuss how we can find out more (highlighting that failure is important in the pursuit of science).
By shifting the focus of the program to be about how we think about a subject rather than what we know, the material is applicable to everyone.
A key part of Think Like A Scientist is that it is not taught in the standard education classrooms – an arena where many of the target students have had previous negative experiences. A common place to hold the course is in the library, which is not only sufficiently neutral ground to engage difficult to reach learners, but is also often carpeted to help with any sensory issues.
Although a certificate from a university is offered on completion of the course, there is no formal assessment strategy linked to the program. By breaking down the barrier of grading, an environment of open expression can begin to be created and allow for more potential students to engage. Through the main focus of the course being on how an individual’s mind works to tackle a problem, we are able to tailor the learning experience and bring education to the student.
Group discussion of opinions on topics are fundamental to the class. In Think Like A Scientist, students are asked to give their thoughts on current topics (after reading recent research) with which there is no scientific consensus (e.g., should we colonize Mars? Is there life outside our Solar System?). As there is no right or wrong answer, the students are given a voice on cutting edge science – the impact on this on student’s confidence can be significant.
Each class lasts around 2 hours and has the same basic framework:
- introduction to the main science topic;
- activities surrounding the main topic;
- assignment of main topic reading to be summarized and analyzed;
- analytical skills best practices;
- and a section on improving communication skills.
The current main science topics are:
- the science of sleep (week 1);
- the atmosphere and the air we breathe (week 2);
- earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate tectonics (week 3);
- planetary science and missions to Mars (week 4);
- the universe (week 5);
- artificial intelligence (week 6)
- and topics related to guest lecturer (week 7).
In terms of course output, the students give a presentation (comprehension and communication skills), a study of their sleep and health (analytical skills), weekly summaries of articles (comprehension, analytical, and communication skills), and a creative writing exercise on planetary science (communication). There will also be questionnaires given at the beginning and end of the course to measure distance travelled.
By the end of the course, the students will have a better understanding of how to Think Like A Scientist – following three main pillars:
UNDERSTANDING – ANALYSING – COMMUNICATING
However, courses can by tailored to suit the specific needs of the students, so please get in touch if you would like to collaborate.
Awards, Posters, and Feedback
Think Like A Scientist has been featured in the following awards:
- EGU Public Engagement Award winner
- Featured as part of Durham University’s Excellence Awards
- Shortlisted for an Impact and Engagement Award at Durham University for Think Like A Scientist
- British Geophysical Association outreach Award winner
- N8 New Pioneer in recognition for the exceptional education performance of the Think Like A Scientist course
- shortlisted for the STEM for Britain awards. In 2020, Think Like A Scientist was selected to be presented to MPs in Parliament due to its impact on students. This was a nationwide competition, with the final presentation at the Houses of Parliament. STEM for Britain is described as “major scientific poster competition and exhibition which has been held in Parliament since 1997, its aim is to give members of both Houses of Parliament an insight into the outstanding research work being undertaken in UK universities by early-career researchers.”
A alumni of the course has written about his experience in this article – link here. However, a favourite quote is as follows:
“Science taught me about a world I had never felt a part of because I didn’t understand it. Science taught me to connect ideas, take notes, create plans, and figure out routes; it showed me that scientists will take a chance and if it does not work out, they will find another way, and another way; that you can build ideas through other people’s work and add on, develop, team work, build on failure as an achievement; but above all, learn to keep going forward.”Dalton Harrison
A selection of posters and feedback is shown here:
Phil Heron presented the poster “What I’ve learned from teaching geoscience in prison” at the EGU 2019 conference in Vienna, Austria. Downloadable version of the poster is available:
Student feedback for the course can be downloaded here:
Think Like A Scientist runs in partnership with:
European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 749664.
Think Like A Scientist would like to thank:
Durham University Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program – in particular Dr Hannah King
Cell Block Science – in particular Dr Mhairi Stewart
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program
HMP Low Newton’s Learning and Skills Manager Marianne B & Sarah B
Prof Tony Key (University of Toronto)
Anna and the Durham County Council Libraries,
Dalton Harrison, Amber Lewis, Kirsty S, Dr Rosie Reynolds, Dr Lorraine Coghill (Durham University), Prof Andy Aplin (Durham University), Dr Fiona Measham, Dr Kate O’Brien & Dr Josie Phillips (Inside-Out Training Programme), Del F, Victoria Money (Durham University), British Geophysical Association, European Geosciences Union, European Union Horizon2020, Leila Cole & Rachael Matthews (Research Office), Dr Ivan Hill (Criminology, Durham University), The amazing Earth Science Finance team, Marianne Burrows & Sarah Blackman (HMP Low Newton), Lynda Elliott (HMP Durham), Cheryl Adamson (HMP/YOI Deerbolt), VC Stuart Corbridge (Durham University), Dr Adam Robinson (Durham University), Bill Bryson, Prof Jeroen van Hunen & Dr Chris Saville (Durham University), Dr Ovington (Sunderland Uni), … & many others.
Media attention for Think Like A Scientist:
The Conversation – What I learnt from teaching prisoners to think like scientists
BBC Newcastle – 15th May 2019 (51 minutes in, and 1 hour 50 minutes in)
Durham University website – 15th May 2019
Durham University News – 15th May 2019
BBC Radio Tees – 15th May 2019
EGU Outreach Award – 8th April 2019
The Sun newspaper