[This post was updated on 9/10/2020 to repair broken links.]
We just finished our first week of classes at the University of Oklahoma, and my nonmajors students trooped dutifully into lab on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. To get them talking to each other, one of the icebreaker activities we have done for many years is the “Checks lab,” a lesson on the nature of science. (Note that this website has been archived. After clicking the link above, you’ll have to scroll down to “Social Context” and click the “Checks Lab” link.) According to the Checks lab page, the activity was originally developed in 1992 by Steve Randak and was modified in 1999 by Judy Loundagin.
In case you’re not familiar with this activity, here’s a summary. Each team of students is given an envelope containing copies of 16-17 checks that are made out to various payees. Students are told to withdraw four checks at random and propose a scenario that could account for the checks. They then withdraw four more and revise their scenario to account for the new information. After one more round of withdrawing two more checks, they aren’t allowed to see any more checks. At that point, the class as a whole comes together to figure out what actually happened to the people writing the checks.
Since each team sees a different subset of the checks, and no one sees them all, students may not agree on what happened and when. Depending on how deep the instructor wants to go into the nature of science, the ensuing discussion can go in any number of directions. To me, the main points are that scientists never get 100% complete information, that other researchers may have information that your group doesn’t have, and that collaboration is a valuable way to get as much of the story as possible. The website where I found this activity has a huge number of ideas for expanding on these and many others when teaching about the nature of science; I recommend it.
Over the summer, however, I got to thinking about whether students these days actually write checks (or know what they are). I did some asking around, and it turns out that they do—but they don’t write nearly as many as we did in our youth. They buy a lot of things online, and even when they pay for something in person, they are likely to use a debit or credit card. So the trusty old “checks lab” seems a bit outdated.
Apparently I am not the only one who thinks so, because Judith Lederman and her colleagues published an updated version in The Science Teacher for September 2015, 82(6):57-61. This new version includes copies of emails instead of checks. Hurray! The emails themselves have been posted to NSTA’s The Science Teacher Connections, Sept. 2015 edition (scroll down to Sept. 2015 and use the link below “The E-mail Lab”); here’s a direct link to the Word document they provide at that site.
Matt Taylor has upped the ante a little bit more: He turned the Word document into a PowerPoint (to be printed at four slides per sheet) that has a reduced emphasis on the AOL and hotmail logos. We used these mock emails in our labs last week, and they worked great; if you would like me to email you a copy, please write a comment in this blog post. In the meantime, kudos to all who developed, modified, and shared this activity.