Academic Exchange Quarterly      Spring  2011    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  15, Issue  1

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 An Informal Program Changes Science Perceptions

Sarah Bargmann, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi 

Cherie A. McCollough, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi


Bargmann, M.S. is graduate of Life Sciences Program at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. 

McCollough, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Science Education in the College of Science and Technology, Department of Life Sciences.


This mixed-method study evaluated changes in a student’s perceptions of science after participating in an after school PBL science program. Students completed pre/post tests derived from VNOS form C to evaluate perceptions of science. Multiple choice questions were used to measure the student’s content knowledge.  The hypothesis tested whether inquiry based activities of the Science Club changed the students’ perceptions of science when compared to a control group of students who did not participate. Participating students did show changes in their perceptions of science.



“To know science is to love it” and a direct correlation has been shown between a person’s knowledge of science and their attitude toward the subject (Allum, Sturgis, Tabourazi & Brunton-Smith, 2008 p. 35).  This pilot study explores how a high school after school science program affected student’s perceptions of science through the use of hands-on, minds on exploratory activities addressing different areas of biological sciences. Children who participate in project based learning (PBL) activities are more enthusiastic and engaged when compared to those who only read or watch their teacher demonstrate science (Jorgenson, 2005).  Data collected during student-centered activities indicated an increase in understanding of science content and the nature of science.


Hands-on Minds-on Learning

By nature, science is an inquiry-based discipline. Unfortunately, some students do not get to experience science in this manner (Pickens and Eick, 2009).  The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) recommends that 60 to 80 percent of the instruction in science classes should be spent in active (hands-on) scientific investigations (inquiries) (NSTA, 2001).  The National Science Education Standards (NSES) goal states that children should be able to participate in and understand scientific inquiry (NRC, 1996).


Hands-on does not automatically mean that the students are engaging in scientific inquiry (Huber and Moore, 2001). PBL should not only help the students understand science, but it should also promote scientific inquiry. Some teachers that use hands-on activities rely on worksheets and step-by-step instructions.  These activities, though helpful, do not promote scientific inquiry (Huber and Moore, 2001).  Teachers should give students opportunities to build their own knowledge and reflect on what they have learned (McCollough, 2005). Inquiry is a way in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence they find (Pickens and Eick, 2009). Inquiry-based teaching is the creation of an environment in which students are engaged in hands-on minds-on activities (Jorgenson, 2005; McCollough, 2005). 


Nature of Science

Nature of Science (NOS) is defined as the values and assumptions that are part of scientific knowledge (Schwartz, Lederman & Crawford, 2004).  NOS includes the concepts learned through participating in scientific endeavors (Schwartz et al, 2004).  Students should not only understand science content, but they should also be able to develop their own ideas of how scientists work (Akerson, Buzelli & Donnelly, 2008).  Unfortunately, about 95% of the entire American public is considered to be illiterate in science (Gonzalez-Espada, 2009).  To help produce a more science literate nation, NOS should be included in science education (Akerson et al., 2008) and there are documents mandating that teachers from kindergarten to graduate school should include instruction in aspects of the nature of science (Bell and Lederman, 2003). VNOS is a scientific questionnaire that is a meaningful assessment of the students’ Nature of Science and differs from the typical tests because of its open-ended nature and correlating interviews (Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell and Schwartz, 2002). 



After observing students in informal science settings, I questioned whether hands-on minds-on activities changes students’ perceptions of science.  A pilot study was developed and implemented using the Science Club for students at a high school located in South Texas. We received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval from the university to collect obtain consent and collect data.


Approximately every two weeks the Science Club had an after school meeting where students participated in a PBL activity.  These “authentic science” activities are important because they spark genuine inquiry in the students as they work in a real scientific situation (Hsu and Roth, 2009).  The students were asked to take short pre/post quizzes to measure what they had learned during the activity.  There were nine meetings and two field trips.


To measure the students’ change in their perceptions of Science, a pre and post test was administered.  The students that took the pretest included those who participated in the Science Club and a control group consisting of several students who did not participate in the Science Club.  These pre/post test scores were used to evaluate the students’ change in their perception of science. 


Using mixed methods, the short answer questions were analyzed qualitatively and multiple choice questions were analyzed quantitatively (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004).  The short answer questions were derived from questions in VNOS Form C.  Because of the small sample size, each of the three students is treated as a case study.  The pre/post test sets from the six chosen students were independently analyzed to calculate inter-rater reliability which was calculated at 90%. Multiple choice questions were quantitatively analyzed to measure changes in science content knowledge.  The following is a list of science activities and discipline specific content covered at each meeting:



Introduction and Chromatography:Chemistry

Students did a small experiment illustrating a simplified version of Chromatography.  They started with a purple mixture of food coloring and through chromatography; they were able to separate the blue and red colors from the mixture.  They learned about experimental design, how chromatography works, and why scientists use chromatography. 


Water Testing: Toxicology

Students learned how to test pH, nitrate/nitrogen, and phosphate tests for different water samples. They were introduced to possible careers that have to do with water testing and the importance of water testing.  They learned about the pH scale and how to properly handle chemical waste. 


DNA Structure and Bases:Biochemistry

The meeting began with a short lesson about Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA).  The students learned about the double helix structure of DNA and how the structure wraps around histones to form our 23 pairs of chromosomes.  The students learned about DNA’s base pairs through building a small model of a double helix that they could take home with them.  The students had to pair up the bases correctly and assemble them on the DNA backbone.  The resulting ladder shape was twisted to form a double helix.


DNA Extraction:Biochemistry

At this meeting the students extracted DNA from their own cheek cells.  The students learned basic lab techniques such as pipeting and the importance of using sterile equipment.  Important terms, such as lysis and precipitate, were introduced and defined.  Students took home a micro centrifuge tube which held the DNA that they had extracted from their own cheek cells.



The field trips had been planned for the Texas State Aquarium and the Nueces Delta Preserve.  Because of those upcoming trips, the next few lessons concentrated on estuaries and fish.  The salinity lesson explained the importance of salt in the ocean and how different concentrations of salt have different effects on the organisms that live in the water.  In the salinity experiment, the students had to find what concentration of salt would make an egg float.  In the process they learned how to perform a serial dilution and performed all of the calculations themselves.


Fish Communication:Physiology

The processes of fish hearing and communicating were explained and compared to the human processes.  The students then tested how their hearing and communication would change when transmitted through water.  They filled several balloons with varied amounts of water and air and were asked to describe the changes in sounds in relation to the amount of water in the balloon. 


Fish Dissection:Anatomy

The students were given a brief lesson on fish anatomy and the proper dissection technique prior to dissecting a Red Fish.  During the previous lesson they learned about the otoliths, the swim bladder, and the lateral line of the fish.  Those three structures were identified and related back to fish communication.  The students were also asked to identify several other internal structures.


Brown Tide:Ecology

During the short lesson, the students learned about the cause of brown tide and its possible side effects.  They reviewed photosynthesis and how sunlight is necessary for the survival of plants.  This experiment reviewed their previous knowledge of serial dilution and demonstrated the effects of brown tide on the amount of sunlight that reached the marine plants.  The students were then asked to record what colors of the rainbow were able to be seen through the different levels of brown tide.


Aquarium Field Trip:Biology

The students were given a behind the scenes tour of the aquarium.  They were able to see how the water was cleaned and maintained, how the meals were prepared and fed, and also where the animals rested.  They toured the visitor side of the aquarium and enjoyed the shows and activities. 


Delta Preserve Field Trip:Ecology

The day at the preserve began with a short lesson on animal adaptations and identification using the animal’s tracks and their bones.  The students were then taken to a small saltwater canal and were shown several sampling techniques as well as a review of water testing.  The students were shown how to seine, use a hook and line, a cast net, and a dip net.  We also did a demonstration of how to measure the turbidity of the water with a secchi disk.  Students were asked to identify anything that they caught and any common bird or plant that they saw. 



The students learned about the importance of taxonomy in science, the taxonomy hierarchy and the full classification of Homo sapiens.  The students also learned how to properly diagram the Genus species name of an organism. On one of the lab tables, there was soda, pizza, cookies, and candies of all kinds.  The students had to break down the “Food” kingdom into more specific groups until they found a specific “species” of candy. 



There were three students who completed both the pre/post tests and regularly attended the science club meetings.  Andrea, Becky, and Harold (pseudonyms) are treated as a case study and their qualitative analysis of the short answer portion in the pre/post tests is compared to the students in the control group.  Therefore in the qualitative analysis portion of the study the VNOS responses will be discussed. 



Andrea attended every Science Club meeting and both field trips.  At the first few meetings she was extremely shy and did not talk to anyone. By the end of the meetings, she was leading most of the class discussions whether they pertained to the subject of the meeting or not.   Her qualitative analysis is found in table 1.

 Table 1. Selected qualitative analysis of Andrea’s answers. 



Pre-test Response

Post-test Response


Are experiments required in order for science to develop?  Defend your answer with examples.

No response

Yes, because how will you know the answers


What do you think the difference is between a scientific theory and a scientific law?

The scientific law is like you have to do exactly what you have to do, like stopping at a stop sign is a law.  The scientific theory is what you want to do.

Scientific law is a known fact and theory is almost a guess.


What types of work do scientists do?  Are marine biologists scientists?  Provide examples of careers that involve science.

No response

How do work, live, and why stuff in life do these things.  Marine biologists are considered scientists.



Andrea showed improvement on nine of the 18 short answer questions.  Her improved answers were on questions 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13.  She showed some improvement over the control group on questions 4, 7, 9, and 10 and great improvement on questions 4 and 7.  Her results showed improved understanding about experimentation and the difference between a scientific theory and a scientific law.  Andrea also improved her score on the multiple choice questions from 30% correct on the pre test and 40% correct on the post test. 



Becky was an enthusiastic member of the science club and she attended six of the nine meetings.  She was disappointed when she found out that she had conflicting plans for the field trips.  She also brought in several of her friends to many of the meetings.  Her qualitative results are shown in Table 2. 

   Table 2. Selected qualitative analysis of Becky’s answers. 



Pre-test Response

Post-test Response


What is the difference between a hypothesis and a theory?

one is a thought that many have - theory and one is a personal opinion - hypothesis

A theory has been tested over and over and has not been proven wrong.


What types of work do scientists do?  Are marine biologists scientists?  Provide examples of careers that involve science.

marine biologist

Scientists do many kinds of work; yes marine biologists are scientists ex. Refinery work, agriculture, teaching.


Define evolution. What are some ways scientists study evolution?

Sorry, I don't think we evolved from anything. God made us in his likeness on Earth. We were made to give him glory on Earth.  If we evolved, then why are there still apes and chimps around? Would they not have "evolved" with us?

I don't know


How can genetics influence evolutionary process?

I don't know

It can change the adaptability of something causing it to either survive or to die.



Becky showed improvement on 10 of the 18 short answer questions.  Her improved answers were on questions 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, and 17.  She showed some improvement over the control group on questions 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 17 and great improvement on 5, 12, 13, and 17.  Her understanding of the difference between a hypothesis and a theory went from showing no understanding to being able to better explain the definition of a theory.  She also showed great improvement in her understanding of scientific careers and what it meant to be a scientist.  Her understanding of the evolutionary process also showed great improvement from not knowing anything to understanding an organism’s ability to adapt and change in order to survive.  She also improved her score on the multiple choice questions from 60% correct on the pre test to 70% correct on the post test. 



Harold attended seven of the nine meetings.  He was engaged in the material and intrigued enough to ask many questions.  However, the pre/post tests seemed to frustrate him.  Harold provided few responses on the short answer portion, but he showed improvement in all three questions that he answered on the post test.  Those three questions were 2, 5, and 6.  He showed the most improvement in his understanding of the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. In Harold’s pre-test response, on question number 5, “What is the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, he indicated that, “a hypothesis is a guess, a theory is something that can be proven” while on his post-test response he reported that “a hypothesis is not yet proven and a theory is proven by a scientist”.  He did well on the multiple choice questions on the pre test with 50% correct, but he dropped to 20% correct on the post test questions. 


Results of Pre and Post Quizzes

At each meeting the students in attendance were asked to answer two content questions in pre/post quizzes.  The selected example responses of these content questions are found in Table 3. Answers that resembled the target words for that question are printed in bold to help identify what was learned by the students during the Science Club activity.

 Table 3. A list of pre/post quiz responses from the water testing     

              Science Club meeting.


Water Testing





Why is water testing important?

What do scientists test for in water?

Target Words

Clean drinking water, marine life, healthy

phosphate, pH, nitrate/nitrogen, bacteria chlorine, calcium, iron, flourine, sulfur.







for our safety

for drinking and animal life

test for toxic waste

bacteria and toxic waste


to check levels of chemicals

keep environ-ment and people healthy

different chemicals

phosphate nitrate/nitrogen, pH levels, and others.


to see if it is infected

clean water

bacteria and chemicals

bacteria, nitrate, pH, phosphate,molecules.


to see types of molecules

to test for bacteria

e-coli in water we drink

e-coli, pH, nitrate, ect.(sic)




Results show that students improved their perceptions of science and two of them showed improvement over the control group. The students showed improved understanding of experimentation and an appreciation for performing a lab activity. 


The questions “How is what we did today science?  How did you act like a scientist?” were included in every post quiz and became an emergent theme throughout the Science Club meetings. The best responses came toward the end of the year where responses show an improvement in the Science Club students’ perceptions of science.


This pilot study had a small sample size of students that participated in the Science Club and took both pre/post tests.  A larger sample size would allow better comparisons. Perhaps the VNOS version A (elementary version) would generate better participation and result in a more accurate measurement of the students’ perceptions of science.  Adding oral and/or written surveys to the pre/post tests would also provide more data regarding changed perceptions.


Individual interviews with the children from the Science Club after the post test would gain their insight into what they have learned and experienced throughout the year.  These interviews would also help with evaluating high school students’ experiences after they participated in the Science Club (Bell, Blair, Crawford & Lederman, 2003). 



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