"Inquiry is Essential to Science Learning"
Seven simple suggestions to build upon
by Patricia Bricker
As classroom teachers we have heard the call from the National Science Education Standards, the Benchmarks for Science Literacy, and numerous state and local curricula to teach science through inquiry. Yet with our hands already full, how can we get started? If you are ready to teach science in some new, inquiry-based ways, here are relatively easy-to-implement ideas that helped my colleagues, my students, and me.
Create a science environment
Imagine walking into a room full of rock collections, baskets of shells, and plants. There is a pet hamster, an aquarium with guppies and aquatic plants, and bird feeders outside the window attracting chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, and hummingbirds. Magnifying lenses, rulers, thermometers, bug boxes, a balance, binoculars, a simple microscope, measuring cups and spoons are out and available to use as you wish. Students eye and ask about science kits in large plastic crates that they see in classroom cabinets. Baskets of science-related trade books line the shelves and cover the tables. Doesnt it just call you to "do science?" It has called my students! Of course it took time to acquire all of these materials, but I started with a few and continually add over time, with help from grants as well as student donations. It's amazing how quickly you can have a classroom full of science-related materials.
Go outside often
Science is about developing our understanding of the world, so it makes sense to explore the outdoors and to take classes outdoors frequently. Having learned the need to teach students how to observe while outside, I have led mini-lessons on walking and sitting quietly, listening to sounds, observing carefully, and being patient. We also have focused our attention on different features, depending upon our unit of study and personal interests. For example, when learning about life cycles, we might adopt trees and watch them change throughout the school year. When learning about ecosystems, we observe the interactions between plants and animals as well as soil, water, and air. Once several of my students watched in fascination as ants carried crumbs into anthills and later, when rain packed down the soil around these same hills, they watched how the ants reacted. When focusing on the needs of plants, we have grown a garden. Simply going outside has motivated and energized many of my studentsand me!
Build on students' curiosity
Curiosity is an important characteristic of scientists, and we all know that students are full of questions and stories. I find it is very important to let their stories and ideas fill my classroom and to create a structure to capture their questions. One way of doing this is to have a "wonder board," as described by Charles Pearce in Nurturing Inquiry. Student wonderings naturally lead to investigations in my classroom. While I do follow up on at least some of these questions, I realize it is impossible to follow-up on all of them. With older students, I plan some open inquiry time during which students pick topics of interest from the wonder board to explore. Recently my students have investigated tree color change and leaf drop throughout the fall, determined the rate of growth of a pet turtle, observed changes in the moon over time, and observed the effects of soda on different materialsall inquiries that originated out of their own interests and questions. There are many unique possibilities that come from student questions and stories.
Start with more structure
When we first implement inquiry, I think it is easy to get overwhelmed with the open-ended nature of the work as well as the management of the hands-on activities. After some challenging beginning attempts, I have learned the importance of starting with more structure. For example, I often start with a whole class project that I guide, incorporating group support, modeling, and scaffolding. Throughout this activity, I pay careful attention to questions students have and record them on our wonder board. These questions help us transition into more student-centered inquiry. Then, I often start with one small group inquiry project that is more open-ended. Limiting the number of students helps keep it more manageable. In time and with experience, we transition into more and more student-centered inquiries with several groups investigating different questions.
Recently we followed this pattern in a study of magnets. We all started with a guided inquiry in which we tested objects to see if they stuck to magnets. While doing this a student noticed that the magnet could attract a paperclip through a piece of paper and enthusiastically wondered what other objects magnetic force could work through? So, as a class we discussed how we could test this question. We designed an inquiry, and actually did it.
Meanwhile, students generated additional questions:
How strong is our magnet?
Small groups of students picked questions to investigate and we shared and discussed our findings.
Science kits have helped me structure inquiry activities. When teaching about electrical circuits, I used to give pairs of students a bulb, battery, and two wires and would instruct them to figure out and record ways they could make the bulb light. Some students were quite successful and excited but others struggled and became frustrated. I gave them suggestions and had classmates help them. Later I obtained a Science & Technology for Children (STC) Electric Circuits kit. The student resources include a page of pictures representing different battery-bulb-wire configurations. Students first predict which designs will light the bulb and then test them all. The pictures added structure, alleviated frustration, and helped students learn the requirements of electrical circuits. The activity still generated questions that led to further inquiry.
I also develop systems to organize and manage materials. This becomes a class responsibility and one of our class jobs has been Science Supply Steward. I use baskets with labels to store materials in easily accessible ways and clearly communicate expectations about materials to students. We talk about using materials appropriately, sharing, and cleaning up thoroughly. When problems arise (dont they always?) we have class meetings to problem solve. This teaches students about community and responsibility as well as science.
Explore first; explain later.
My work with inquiry has reminded me how important it is to let students explore first. In other words, explorations and concrete activities come before the definitions and explanations. From the start of students explorations, I have them record observations, data, and thoughts. This demonstrates the seriousness of our work. Even primary students can draw pictures and, when ready, add labels, tables, and graphs. At the same time, I work to remember not to go overboard with the writing. Formal lab reports arent necessary all of the time, especially at first. I want students to do science. And in this doing of science, we are sure to discuss our findings.
The more I teach the more I realize that this discussion and recording is essential in helping students develop conceptual understanding and internalizing ideas. We think together and we share ideas, observations, wow! moments, and wonderings. We connect results back to our original questions, and we let questions lead to questions, which lead to more questions. I usually need to model this kind of writing and discussion at first, but students learn these ways of thinking in time.
How do we fit all of these ideas into our already crowded days? Integration is key. And there are many authentic ways to integrate. My students read trade books connected to our inquiry projects. We record our work as described above and in science notebooks. We use math to measure, count, analyze data, and graph. Students are continually discussing their work. In addition to helping me fit science into our day, this integration helps students see how subjects are connected.
Connect with others interested in inquiry
This work is so much easier when we collaborate. Whenever possible I plan and teach and reflect with another teacher, as have students in my teacher education courses. I have invited parents to help in all kinds of wayswith soliciting donated materials, setting up, supervising activities, and sharing their own areas of expertise. Another collaboration can be between students: I have partnered my sixth-grade students with second-graders. This has motivated the older students to become experts and has supported the learning of younger students. I believe students and teachers are much more likely to take risks and try new things with the support and encouragement of other interested people.
The title of this article is a quotation from National Science Education Standards (National Research Council), page 2.
Bourne, B. (Ed.). Taking Inquiry Outdoors. Stenhouse Publishers. 2000. Llewellyn, D. Inquire Within: Implementing Inquiry-Based Science Standards. Corwin Press. 2002.
Pearce, C.R.. Nurturing Inquiry. Heinemann. 1999.
Saul, W. et al. Science Workshop: Reading, Writing, and Thinking Like A Scientist (2nd edition). Heinemann. 2002.
Science and Children magazine. http://www.nsta.org.
Especially for early childhood educators:
Copyright © 2005 Synergy Learning International, Inc. All rights reserved.
- Patricia is a visiting assistant professor at Western Carolina University as well as a doctoral student in teacher education at the University of Tennessee. She teaches courses in elementary and middle grades and supervises interns. She has taught environmental education and grades one, four and six for over ten years.