Data First puts science students first

John Hutchinson in classroom

Rice Chemistry Professor and Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson talks with a class of Houston Independent School District science teachers this month about becoming more effective teachers by using Data First. Photo by Mitch Torczon

Rice University researchers: High schoolers should learn science like scientists do

If high school science teachers want their students to learn well, entice them to learn like scientists do.

That’s the premise behind a Rice University approach to teaching called Data First presented in a new paper in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Chemical Education. Rice researchers have developed teaching techniques that rely on understanding concepts through inquiry rather than rote memorization and are putting them to work in Houston Independent School District (HISD) classrooms.

“Science is not, ‘I know how to do this, I apply it to the problem and I’m done,’” said John Hutchinson, a chemistry professor and dean of undergraduates at Rice. “Science is: ‘I wonder why I’m observing this. What’s going on in the world around me? Can I make sense of the world?’

“To do that, we have to make observations and build models based upon those observations, and then we can make conclusions. That’s what science is all about, but it’s almost never been taught that way.”

He said it has been “unarguably proven” that students can perform rote calculations and deduce correct answers to problems they don’t understand. “You can have no understanding of the concepts or even have complete misconceptions and nevertheless apply the concepts correctly in a specific context if I correctly teach you how to do it. But, other than getting the right answer on a test, that defeats the purpose,” he said.

‘Too often, we fall back on the things that are easy to test: vocabulary and historical facts. Students then perceive science as dead, because it’s all about people who did stuff and developed the rules a long time ago.’                                        - Carolyn Nichol

Data First seeks to flip the process by starting with raw data students can analyze to come to correct conclusions. The researchers show in the paper how to use basic data from experimentation to understand electron configurations, intermolecular forces and dynamic equilibrium – all foundations of chemistry that Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry students must understand.

“Too often, we fall back on the things that are easy to test: vocabulary and historical facts,” said co-author Carolyn Nichol, a faculty fellow in chemistry at Rice. “Students then perceive science as dead, because it’s all about people who did stuff and developed the rules a long time ago. They’re left thinking we aren’t doing anything innovative now.”

Through the Data First approach, students develop their own data through experimentation and observation, emulating the way science is conducted. That helps them “own” the concepts, said Hutchinson, who was on the team that recently revamped the AP chemistry national college-board curriculum and exam.

Hutchinson, Nichol and their colleagues have guided more than 300 chemistry teachers through Rice’s professional development program over the years and recently upped their game by introducing Data First. They noted that the benefits are worth the investment teachers must make up front.

Most will only have to reorder rather than overhaul their lesson plans, said Amber Szymczyk, a co-author of the paper who taught high school chemistry for seven years.

“Data First came about when I was trying to adapt what John does at the undergraduate level for my high school students,” said Szymczyk, associate director for secondary science education at Rice. “I found reversing the process and having students look at the data first, analyze it and think about what the patterns mean introduced concepts without creating any extra work on my part.

“That’s the beauty of this approach: It doesn’t require a lot of restructuring — just a flip of the way I think teachers normally introduce scientific concepts,” she said.

Hutchinson said his team’s work with HISD has been most rewarding. Rice and the district are in the midst of a long-term collaboration to improve biology, chemistry and physics education that brings high school teachers to Rice for yearlong courses. Quality teaching is one of Rice’s Priorities for the New Century. The district’s goal is for every HISD science teacher to take the Rice course over several years.

The researchers said they expect to evaluate Data First through the AP chemistry exam performance of students whose teachers have adopted the program.

Along with HISD, the National Science Foundation and the Texas Education Agency supported the research.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.