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Introduction to Scientific Abilities 

Welcome to the website of the Rutgers Physics and Astronomy Education Research group dedicated to “Scientific Abilities”. This project was originally sponsored by the National Science Foundation program “Assessing Student Achievement” (NSF-ASA) but over the years it became a self-sustaining project and now Scientific Abilities are a component of ISLE philosophy. Many people contributed to this project over the years. The list of names is very long and includes: Eugenia Etkina, Alan Van Heuvelen, Suzanne Brahmia, David Brookes, Michael Gentile, Anna Karelina, Michael Lawrence, Marina Milner-Bolotin, Sahana Murthy, Maria Ruibal-Villasenor, Aaron Warren, Xueli Zou. 

Scientific abilities are "habits of mind" of scientists and engineers, things that they do on a regular basis in their work. But as these things are not automated and always require deep thinking and self-evaluation, we do not call them science skills, We call them scientific abilities. Next Generation Science Standards and new AP Physics courses use the term "science practices". There is a lot of overlap in all of those, but basically it is through science practices that people develop scientific abilities.  The word ability does not mean innate. It means that it is not an automated skill. Measuring temperature with a thermometer is a skill.  Evaluating the uncertainty in a particular measurement and minimizing it is an ability. As the main goal of ISLE philosophy is to help students learn physics by practicing it, development of scientific abilities becomes and integral art of this philosophy. The goal of the project is to help students develop some of the abilities used by scientists and engineers in their work. The abilities we work on include:

  • an ability to represent knowledge in multiple ways;
  • an ability to design experiments to investigate new phenomena, test hypotheses and solve experimental problems;
  • an ability to collect and analyze experimental data;
  • an ability to devise and test relationships and explanations;
  • an ability to evaluate reasoning and experimental design;
  • an ability to communicate.

Below is the list of references to the most important peer - refereed journal articles in which work on scientific abilities and associated research have been described.

1. Etkina, E., Van Heuvelen, A., White-Brahmia, S., Brookes, D.T., Gentile, M., Murthy, S. Rosengrant, D., & Warren, A. (2006) Developing and assessing student scientific abilities. Physical Review. Special Topics, Physics Education Research. 2, 020103.
Etkina, E., Murthy, S., & Zou, X. (2006). Using introductory labs to engage students in experimental design. American Journal of Physics. 74, 979-982.
2. Etkina, E., Karelina, A., & Ruibal-Villasenor, M. (2008). How long does it take? A study of student acquisition of scientific abilities. Physical Review, Special Topics, Physics Education Research, 4, 020108.
3. Rosengrant, D., Van Heuvelen, A., & Etkina, E. (2009). Do students use and understand free body diagrams? Physical Review, Special Topics, Physics Education Research, 5, 010108.
4. Etkina, E., Karelina, A., Murthy, S., & Ruibal-Villasenor, M. (2009). Using action research to improve learning and formative assessment to conduct research. Physical Review. Special Topics, Physics Education Research, 5, 010109.
5. Etkina, E., Karelina, A., Ruibal-Villasenor, M., Jordan, R., Rosengrant, D., & Hmelo-Silver, C. (2010). Design and reflection help students develop scientific abilities: Learning in introductory physics laboratories, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19, 1, 54-98.

The abilities are described in detail in the section entitled "The Abilities".

We developed a series of tasks that help students develop these abilities (we call them formative assessment tasks). These include:

  • multiple representations tasks;
  • experimental design tasks;
  • modeling tasks;
  • suprising data tasks;
  • video problems and
  • evaluation tasks.
We also developed scoring rubrics to assess students' scientific abilities. The rubrics can be downloaded from the section entitled "Rubrics".