by Anthony Cody
Who asks the questions in the science classroom? As a teacher, I want to direct learning, but as a facilitator, I want my students to feel ownership of their own investigations. Several years ago, I decided to put the students in charge of developing their own investigations, using kits of materials that I gathered. My hope was that they would be able to explore with these materials, and then develop questions they could answer through experiments that they would design. This did not yield the results I had hoped for, as I will describe. So I adapted my teaching to a more structured approach to inquiry.
I teach at Bret Harte Middle School, an urban school in Oakland, California, with a large and diverse student population. I teach sixth grade math and science, with class sizes ranging from thirty to thirty-four students.
I prefaced the kits work with several activities from the FOSS Variables module, including an investigation into pendula. Students were taught how to collect, record and organize data, and how to write a conclusion summarizing their results. As we proceeded, we defined terms like "variable," "control," "data," "average," "range." We also did more open-ended sequences building on the concept of density and completed a guided inquiry sequence in which the students suggested experiments to discover why an ice cube sank rather than floated. I hoped they would be able to apply this experience to the experiments they would need to design using their investigation kits.
The kits contained a variety of materials. I had thirty-five separate boxes of materials for students to choose from. Each box had a theme, for example, electricity, Capsela materials (a modular toy, consisting of motors, gears and wheels encased in plastic capsules that snap together), LEGOs®, seashells, fossils, optics. I attempted to structure the use of the investigation kits to encourage the students to develop questions. I allowed open exploration for a few sessions; I wanted this to lead to a point at which each student could develop a solid question to investigate. I hoped that by giving them a high degree of autonomy, they would be more invested and creative in their work than when doing more traditional science lessons.
The work with the kids began auspiciously. The students chose the kits that interested them and dove in.
A record of events
Here is what I wrote in my journal the day we began:
I distributed the Investigators License, which is a list of responsibilities they agree to as a condition of working with these kits. The list includes having a question in mind when investigating, keeping accurate records, preparing a report following major investigations, and keeping track of equipment in their kit. Then I allowed students to find their kits in the cupboards. It looked like Christmas, with each child discovering a new set of toys. Some of the students wanted to start right away. Before long, Lakisha was planting seeds in a large egg carton. She needed a bit of direction to label the different pots with the type of seeds she had planted, and draw their location on a separate sheet of paper. Malou and Leilani were soon blowing bubbles onto their tabletop, and Jimmy and Pete had attracted a clump of students anxious to see them demonstrate a magic trick from their kit. Cathy had constructed a LEGOs® lever system, John and Caleb a hydraulic device. About five different groups were busy working with electricity or electronics.
Several weeks later, I was having misgivings about my approach. I wrote:
We are at a critical stage in the work with the kits. The students have been exploring for about two weeks. Very few have thus far settled on a real question to investigate. So today we spent half an hour writing about what their questions are. I had them fold a paper twice, to make four sections. In the first, I had them write: "I have done . . ." the second, "I have learned . . ." the third, "I wonder..." the fourth, "I plan to . . . ." I had them discuss in groups their results, but I am afraid these eleven and twelve-year-olds were not really capable of helping each other much. So I basically did a roll call, and asked each student their topic and their question, and how they planned to answer it.
One topic for the class
I felt I had to modify my approach to get closer to what I felt were genuine investigations. I decided to back up, and give the students a fresh topic to investigate, but provide more guidance, and have the whole class tackle the same issue. I chose dry ice as the focus of our inquiry. I began by giving the students the chance to explore the behavior of the dry ice in an open-ended fashion. I then asked them to generate questions based on what they had observed. There were a wide variety of questions, some of which were investigable, others not. I had the students categorize the questions according to whether they could be investigated and we thus generated a list of investigable questions. The students then selected questions from that list as the focus of their investigation. Once they had a question, they were challenged to write an investigation proposal describing the experiment they wished to do. This investigation proposal asked for their question, hypothesis, procedure, materials, and the form of data they would be collecting. Most of the students were able to do this, although the quality was quite varied.
Certain questions were more popular than others, so I got numerous proposals that were similar, which I then synthesized and edited to create lab activity sheets that could be followed. I indicated which students proposal had contributed to the activity, so the students felt they were doing investigations authored by themselves or their peers. The investigations included measuring the rate of sublimation under different conditions, and the nature of the gas the dry ice produced. The whole class, organized into cooperative groups, did each of these experiments. Individual students were responsible for recording data and reaching conclusions.
Students seemed to feel more success with this approach and I did as well. The investigations built an understanding of the properties of dry ice, and students felt ownership of the process as a result of the role they played in authoring the questions and designing the investigations.
As the year concluded, I felt satisfied that I had succeeded in guiding my students to develop questions and complete a scientific investigation. I discovered that my students were unable to navigate this process without clear guidance, but with direction, students were enthusiastic and productive.
The dry ice activity sequence is shared at http://tlc.ousd.k12.ca.us/~acody/dryice. Html
Another excellent resource which presents a guided inquiry into dry ice is the GEMS guide, Dry Ice Investigations, available from Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley.
Copyright © 2005 Synergy Learning International, Inc. All rights reserved.
- Anthony Cody is a National Board certified teacher in Oakland, California. He has taught sixth grade math and science at Bret Harte Middle School for eighteen years.