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Conceptual science is the understanding of the basic ideas that underlie scientific thought. These ideas are built upon more advanced scientific research and education to involve increasingly abstract and complex thought. Educators concerned with scientific literacy often place an emphasis on conceptual science to provide students with tools they can use throughout their lives, even if they don't pursue careers in the sciences. This field is also a topic of interest for philosophers, historians, and others interested in the nature of scientific thought and inquiry.
Procedural science, by contrast, introduces people to specific methods and experiments. Students need to understand the concepts to apply them to procedures, and do not benefit from research and experiments if they do not comprehend the underlying ideas. For example, a teacher might want students to experiment with growing plants in different conditions, a procedural activity. First, the students must understand the basics of plant biology and topics like photosynthesis, the conceptual science that explains why the experiment would be performed.
Instructors can introduce students to conceptual science at a very early age. Teachers may demonstrate that many things around the classroom and the neighborhood are rooted in science, and can provide information that encourages students to seek more knowledge. Topics like weather, for example, can be discussed in a scientific context to teach students about meteorology and the procedural research scientists perform to predict and explore weather conditions. This knowledge can be expanded on as students explore chemistry, physics, and more advanced topics.
Understanding concepts is a key part of learning in the humanities as well as the sciences. Students with a thorough grounding in conceptual science can learn to apply concepts to new topics of interest, and may be able to think more theoretically and abstractly. This can be critical for innovative thinking in classroom environments, where students need to be able to assemble building blocks of knowledge to advance successfully in science education. An emphasis on conceptual science provides tools for doing this.
Some colleges and universities have conceptual science departments that explore the origins of scientific thought and the philosophy behind historic and modern approaches to science. These programs look at the basic ideas behind scientific research and explore new ways to expand upon them. Understanding scientific philosophy can help researchers understand the direction research may take in the future. It can also be important for ethics committees and retroactive reviews of research and scientific attitudes, to understand how people thought about science and why they understood the world in the way that they did.