Inquiry across the science disciplines

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Inquiry seems like one of those words that as my seventh-graders would say “I know what it means, but it’s hard to ‘splain.” Rather than an inquiry/not inquiry dichotomy, many of the articles in this issue describe inquiry as happening along a continuum, from “teacher-directed low-inquiry activities to open-inquiry investigations in which students generate their own questions and design their own experiments.” In working with teachers, some of the big aha moments occur when they realize that hands-on activities are not necessarily inquiry and that inquiry does not mean that students are not given any guidance or support during their investigations.

In his column, the editor mentions two notable articles on the topic of inquiry: Simplifying Inquiry Instruction and Laboratory Instruction in the Service of Science Teaching and Learning. Both of these (along with others on the topic) were in the October 2005 issue of The Science Teacher and are well worth a reread.

If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at The Inquiry Matrix, which has a tool for planning and reflecting on inquiry activities. (In looking at this, I wonder how many of our activities are at the “least complex” side of the spectrum). This could be a great rubric to track how class activities become more inquiry-based as the students learn the skills and as they (and their teachers) become more confident.

A Template for Open Inquiry describes a continuum of inquiry features (including a graphic that should be in every teachers notebook) in terms of the inverse relationship between learner self-direction and teacher directions/input. The authors use a real-life example from an earth science class on impact craters to illustrate the process.

Several articles describe what inquiry looks like in the context of other science classes. But regardless of what subject you teach, there are take-away ideas for enhancing any subject:

  • Model-Based Inquiry focuses on the concept of buoyancy in a physics class and includes examples of student work and a concept map.
  • Sugar Cube Science turns a simple activity on solubility into a inquiry activity in which students are provided with “Design-a-Lab” guidelines and a rubric.
  • Exploring Osmosis & Diffusion in Cells illustrates a guided–inquiry activity and includes an investigation proposal graphic organizer that could be used for other topics, in addition to this study of osmosis and diffusion. It’s also interesting to read how this activity was developed and fine-tuned as part of a lesson-study professional development project.

When I read The Inquiry Flame, I had a flashback to my methods course. Our introduction to teaching via inquiry was with a candle. This enhanced version shows how teachers can scaffold (or guide) the process to help students design and organize their experiments. The article includes several graphic organizers that could be used in other contexts.

In the Science 2.0 column Instant Inquiry, the author describes the value of studying slow-motion images and directions for using high-speed cameras to create these images as part of student investigations. A useful site on photographic images is Molecular Expressions from the Florida State University. Many of the individual sections are in the SciLinks database already, but the main site shows the extent of the collections.

I know a teacher who uses Headline Science as supplemental readings for students. These brief updates describe what is being learned from current research projects. For many of these topics, there are related SciLinks if students are interested in more information:

Have you been reading this year’s Science & Children? Each issue is themed around aspects of inquiry learning. It’s great to read about what younger students are doing.

Check out the Connections for this issue (November 2010). Even if the article does not quite fit with your lesson agenda, this resource has ideas for handouts, background information sheets, data sheets, rubrics, etc.

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