Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fact or Fiction? Helping Students Decide

Take a look at the two photographs shown here. Both are claimed to be deep sea creatures discovered by scientists in the last few years -- the Chupacabras Snail and the Blobfish. But only one of them is real. Can you tell which?

If you're feeling a little insecure on this one, you're not alone. Fact is often stranger than fiction and, unfortunately for the budding scientist, it can be hard to tell what is real and what is not by only looking at a photograph. This becomes particularly problematic when many of our students' first point of call in research is not the academic journal but the Internet.

Which is which? The Christian Science Monitor recently posted a slide show on their website, celebrating the 20 weirdest fish in the ocean.  This photo of a Blobfish is one of them. Yes, it's a real creature that lives in the deep seas off of Australia and is under threat from fishing.

The Chupacabras Snail, however, is the conception of Takeshi Yamada, a “visual anthropologist” living in Brooklyn, NY, whose artistic creations have included such items as mermaid fossils, giant sea dragons and vampire monkeys.

So, how do we help our students decide what is real and what is not?  As with any form of research, students should always consider their sources first and foremost. Who has written the material they are considering? Is is a scientist, an academic, a lay-person? When was it written and what sources are cited? If they can't answer these questions, that should ring some bells of doubt.

Taking the Chupacabras snail above as an example, a quick Google search brings up plenty of image sources and articles -- but they come from sites with terms like "hoax" and "paranormal" in the title. They don't provide credible sources to the information about the creature, and some are not dated. Conversely, the Blobfish generates results from prominent newspapers, scientific magazines, and journals with traceable sources that are timely and credible.

We should also remember to help our students draw on their common sense and knowledge base. What do we know about snails? They are invertebrates, so have an external skeleton. Does it make sense, then, that a snail would have a claw? Snails have one large, muscular foot that they contract and extend in a rippling motion. Why would the soft body have six distinct appendages? Compared to other deep sea snails, does the shell look right, or does it more resemble that of a land snail? Does this snail look as though it would be able to stand the water pressure of deep sea life?

By taking it back to the basics, we can help our students start their research off on the right foot. Questions that cannot be readily answered then provide a starting point for research. What are the physical requirements of living 800 meters below sea level? Are there examples of invertebrates that also have internal structures, such as claws? How many different types of deep sea snails are known and what are their similarities? Helping our students build their knowledge base through thoughtful investigation will better prepare them for a future of independent thinking and stronger science.

For more information on research and investigation, visit Visionlearning's Process of Science Modules and Understanding Science's Evaluating Scientific Messages.

Have some tips and tricks for teaching evaluation in the classroom? Share them with us here!

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