Fuzzy Situation

By Nydia Hanna and John Pecore

Writing in science can be more creative than essay writing and more constructive than free response.  When asked to answer an essay question about a specific concept in science, students usually slip into the familiar format of answering essay questions; state the question, state the answer, give a few explanations or list the points, then summarize the answer.  The essay question seeks a particular answer for which the student simply repeats information presented during class or read from the text.  The free response format tends to yield a creative story that incorporates little science information. 


Storytelling has been demonstrated throughout cultures to be a valid approach for relaying information and attitudes.   Robert Schank (1990) explains in his book Tell me a Story that “two aspects of intelligence are critical for humans. One is to have something to say, to know something worth telling, and the other is to be able to determine others’ needs and abilities well enough to know what is worth telling them. To put this another way, our interest in telling and hearing stories is strongly related to the nature of intelligence.” Robert Schank describes the dilemma of every teacher:

When people seem to truly understand what we have said, we give then high marks. But how can we determine that they have, in fact, understood us? We cannot really believe that intermittent head nodding and sage um-hums indicate real understanding. What else is there to go by? Our only recourse, outside of administering intelligence tests, is to listen to what our listeners say in response to what we have told them. The more they say back that seems to relate in a significant way to what we have said, the more they seem to have understood. In order to respond effectively, a listener must have something to say. We have a memory full of experiences that we can tell to others. Finding the right ones, having the right ones come to mind, having created accounts of the right ones in anticipation of their eventual use in this way, are all significant aspects of intelligent behavior.


In this article, we describe the multiple uses of fuzzy situations as a method of creative writing in a subject area to create a feeling of discovery, a yearning for explanation, and a necessity to conceptualize in order to verbalize understanding.


Writing a fuzzy situation

Science teachers use fuzzy situations to tap into the creative writing abilities of their students as well as probe their content knowledge and conceptual understanding about a topic.  When developing a fuzzy situation, first present to students a story without many facts.  The only facts given are ones to set the stage for the story and in this sense the details are fuzzy.  Second, choose a form for your Fuzzy situation, such as, a question, a challenge, a letter to a member of a hypothetical committee, a real or hypothetical activity, or even a news bulletin.  Third, require the student to continue the story line and defend a predication by linking the creative answer they design to facts and terminology of the content subjects underlying the situation, or address a situation in which the self and society are linked to science and technology by constructing a concept of the subject content based on personal understanding of the interface of science and society. 


Fuzzy situations meet different learning outcomes depending on where in the lesson they are used.  It is important to note that, when using this strategy for assessing student learning, there can be as many answers as there are students that answer the fuzzy situation.  Since there are many instructional ways to use fuzzy situations in the classroom, consideration of placement within a unit of instruction is important and should align with teaching goals.


Introducing a topic

A Fuzzy situation placed at the beginning of a unit assesses prior knowledge on a subject.  Students experience a creative writing prediction centered around the content, but with no pressure to deliver the “correct” answer.  In this manner, students freely describe their concept of the situation and naturally define words and thoughts on the subject.  The resulting answer would be authentic, original, conceptual, and delineated by the student’s prior knowledge.  Figure 1 is an example of a fuzzy situation that informally assesses student prior knowledge.




Alternative Energy


The amount of petroleum being used through out the world is increasing at such a high rate that the cost of gas is becoming too expensive for consumers.  Additionally, the amount of this non-renewable resource available is being used up.  Scientists have been developing alternative sources of energy for years.  Make a list of what you think might be considered alternative energy.  Give a brief explanation of what you have heard about each source listed.


Assessment Rubric

Student submitted a clear and concise paragraph.


Student includes what they have heard about alternative energy.


Student submits the assignment on time.


Total Possible Points



From the answer, the teacher has an understanding of how in depth the student’s knowledge is, how a student conceptualizes the topic, what terms they can define, how they associate ideas, how they process and describe scientific explanations, and/or how they perceive the interface of science and society.  Prior knowledge assessment is a powerful tool for the teacher and can assist in developing lesson plans that are appropriate, effective and challenging.



Motivation through a challenge

A fuzzy situation used as an ongoing challenge to be answered as the unit progresses can assist in motivating students through material.  Students identify their initial predications and adjust or alter them according to new knowledge they are constructing in the classroom.  The ongoing fuzzy project then documents their knowledge development and showcases their conceptual construction.  Students may keep a “Fuzzy Log” of their thoughts and ideas about their predication.  An example of a fuzzy challenge is presented in Figure 2.





Antarctica Vehicle


Antarctica is a mostly uninhabitable and cold environment located at the South Pole. Scientists are interested in studying the continent for many reasons. One example is its potential to provide evidence about trends in climate changes like global warming. Vehicles used to explore Antarctica must be designed to move well in different types of weather such as windy conditions, over rough terrain, and travel long distances with limited power sources. Your task is to design and build a model vehicle using what we learn about motion and force over the next few weeks. As you build and test several iterations of your model, you will keep a log of your thoughts and ideas, design sketches and modifications, and scientific reasoning for your design.


Assessment Rubric

Student submitted a clear and concise log of thoughts and ideas.


Student incorporates what they have heard about motion and force into the design of the vehicle.


Student submits the assignment on time.


Total Possible Points



By using fuzzies as ongoing projects, teachers foster an understanding of the scientific process of collecting data or information, the construction of knowledge, the reality of science and society interactions, and the power of prediction.  A student’s “Fuzzy Log” constitutes as evidence of learning.


Final assessment

A fuzzy situation may be used as a final assessment.  The story is carefully written as to incorporate all topics covered in the unit.  Students then make their unique predications and back them up with the knowledge they have constructed throughout the unit.  The teacher grades the fuzzy on a rubric.  Criteria for a successful fuzzy response is shared in advance with students in order to ensure the caliber of response and solidify the expectation of the teacher.  Criteria may include specifics or broader concepts.  Figure 3 is an example of a fuzzy situation as a final assessment and grading rubric.





Indonesian Rice


Rice is a staple food source for many cultures and at one time was in high demand in Indonesia.  In fact, this part of the world relied heavily on importing rice in order to feed its population.  In an effort to help the Indonesians, scientists from the United States developed fertilizers, pesticides, and a new strain of rice.  Within a few years of farming with the new rice and using the chemicals developed, Indonesia became one of the worlds biggest rice exporters.  Unfortunately, this success did not last very long.  Insects reached plague proportions and the problem was made worse when farmers increased their use of pesticides.


Write a paragraph explaining the factors that contributed to the failure of Indonesian rice production?  Think about how insects were affected by the new pesticides were used and how a new strain of rice may have contributed to the problem.


Assessment Rubric

Writes a clear structured paragraph using correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling.


Includes up to three logical factors.


Mentions information about either insects or new rice strain.


Total Possible Points



Using alternative assessments, such as a fuzzy situation, provides an opportunity for students to explain the depth of their thinking. Using a fuzzy as a summative assessment provides additional data for evaluating students. It provides additional evidence for achievement especially for students who may be challenged with demonstrating their understanding through traditional methods.

Taking action

Fuzzy situations can empower students to take action on a science, technology, and society issue.  As a culminating experience for a unit, a fuzzy situation provides opportunities for students to brainstorm possible solutions or resolutions for societal issues requiring scientific understanding.  Students propose actions they may implement in their school or community.  A take action fuzzy is presented in Figure 4.





Road Kill


Pat Kelly has lived in our community for years and is witness to many of the changes made over the past 30 years.  Recently, she has noticed an increase in the number of opossum, squirrel, and other road kill continually found on the side of the road leading to her home.  Pat wants to know why these occurrences are becoming more frequent and what can be done about this concern.


As the only scientist elected to the county’s board, you are responsible for writing a letter that responds to Pat’s concern about the noticeable increase in road kill.  Please address your letter to Pat Kelly.


Assessment Rubric

Writes a properly formatted letter using correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling.


Includes logical reasons for the problem.


Mentions possible solutions to the issue.


Total Possible Points



The fuzzy situation is a tool used by the teacher to open a window from the classroom to the outside world.  It may initiate the process of converting theory and book knowledge into practice.


Final thoughts

The possibilities of fuzzy situations are endless. They may be written by an interdisciplinary team of teachers so that the responses are geared toward assessing knowledge on a variety of disciplines; perhaps science, math, history, or even art.  In this article, fuzzy situations are described as tools the teacher writes and gives to students.  Conversely, students might design fuzzy situations for their peers to answer.  The process of designing a fuzzy situation may strengthen creative writing skills and link writing in science to conceptualization of the big ideas in science.


Our observations of fuzzy situations being used in the classroom reveal an opportunity to connect science to students “real” world helping to provide motivation for learning. This type of alternative assessment is helpful in assessing student understanding whether looking for naïve conceptions at the beginning of the lesson, informally identifying difficulties during the lesson, or evaluating at the end of the lesson.


Examples on the Web

Examples from Minds on Science located at http://scied.gsu.edu/Hassard/minds_on_science.html

Examples from Fuzzy Situations located at http://www2.gsu.edu/~mstnrhx/fuzzy1.htm




Hanna, N.R. (1999). “Fuzzy Situations.” chapter in Science as Inquiry, edited by Jack Hassard, Good Year Books, Parsippany, NJ.

Hassard, J. (2005). The Art of Teaching Science. New York, Oxford University Press.

Schank, R. C. (1990). Tell me a story: A new look at real and artificial memory. New York: Macmilla.


Last updated on June 9, 2007 2002