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Working Group on Introductory Science Education

Introductory Science Education

A Conversation About Teaching Inquiry


This series of meetings during 2007-2008 will continue discussions among college and K-12 teachers and students that began last year in Exploring Science as Open-Ended Transactional Inquiry and Thinking About an Elementary Science Curriculum (see also Inquiry Education in Science (and Elsewhere). The objective is to evolve ways to make science a more accessible and integrated part of education for all students. The working group, sponsored by the Bryn Mawr College Center for Science In Society and Teaching and Learning Initiative, and the Bi-College Education Progam, is open to all interested participants.

Meetings during the first semester will held from 7-9 pm on Wednesdays in Room 200 of the Bryn Mawr Campus Center according the schedule below, which will also provide links to background readings, discussion notes, and continuing on-line forum discussion. A listserv is available for futher meeting announcements. To join send an email to elemsci-subscribe [no longer available] requesting to be included. For further information, contact Paul Grobstein or Alice Lesnick.

3 October Comparing Traditional and Open-Ended Transactional Inquiry Approaches

24 October - POSTPONED

14 November - Revisiting Theory, Considering Practice

5 December




Paul Grobstein's picture

Trying out "hands-on inquiry" and learning from it

Interesting conversation Friday with Susan Stone, Al Gaspar, and Alison Levie, reviewing some of Alison's/Al's experience with "inquiry" education in a third grade class. What struck me particularly was similarities between the experiences Alison was having at the third grade level and experiences I and others have been having at the college level. And the need to make clearer the differences between a general "inquiry" approach and the more specific "open-ended transactional inquiry" approach that we've been developing/exploring.

Alison has been teaching an integrated science/social science unit on water, with Al providing support for hands on experiments. Both are enthusiastic about what has been happening but also thoughtfully and appropriately critical of it. One touchstone for conversation was a hands on activity in which students were given the task of determining the freezing temperature of water and ended up with a variety of results substantially different from 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Issues that were raised included whether they should be given the "right" answer, and whether the time expended was actually worth it in terms of educational outcome.

The specific case in turn poses some more general questions. Does "inquiry" necessarily mean "hands-on"? And, if so, what about the problems that its hard to find/create/motivate questions that can be approached in a "hands-on" fashion, that such activities take substantial amounts of time, and that they may not result in the "right answer"?

My own feeling is that it is important to see "hands-on" as a significant component of "inquiry" education but not at all as equivalent to it, both because of the problems noted and for some more general reasons. That inquiry has as its foundation observations made by human beings is a key element of inquiry based education. And giving students opportunities to make observations themselves and generate new understandings and new questions from those observations is essential to their development as inquirers. But inquiry ("transactional") depends as well on the use of observations made by others, and so one shouldn't feel limited entirely to observations made by students themselves. It is not only allowable but desirable in inquiry education to introduce students to observations made by others (carefully distinguishing between the observations themselves and the interpretations of them made by others).

This in turn suggests that "hands-on" is not the end all and be all of inquiry education, and that activities of this kind need to be chosen/developed and used so as to be appropriate within a broader context. My own sense is that there are several important guidelines in this regard. Perhaps the most important is that "hands-on" activities should never be used to convey "content", ie to get students to some particular understanding (eg the freezing temperature of water). It is not only that hands-on activities are a painfully slow and unreliable way to get to particular understandings but also that using them in this way sets up expectations that are in fact inconsistent with the more general objective of enhancing inquiry sophistication: students become concerned with whether they are getting the "right" answer, and teachers with whether they have gotten it. Far better is to design "open-ended" hands-on experiences, ones in which the focus is on the process (accepting its necessarily indeterminate outcome), rather than on achieving any particular outcome. These are far more likely to help students appreciate the relation between observations and interpretations, the dynamic interaction between the two that underlies inquiry, and their own capability to make both observations and interpretations.

From this perspective, I think some additional guidelines are important for selecting/designing and using "hands-on" activities. One is that the activities should not put extensive "background" demands on students (or teachers). Becoming aware that there are ways to make observations other than what one is used to is important, but if too much time has to be spent explaining how to make observations the focus tends to shift from the inquiry itself to the procedures. More generally, one wants inquiry to feel like (as it is) an extension of one's own ways of exploring rather than a special activity that can only be done with elaborate prior preparation and equipment. Once one has dropped a "content" expectation for hands-on activities, it becomes easier to imagine such activities without a demand for elaborate preparation. And to design them in ways that build incrementally on the existing expertise of students (and teachers).

A second important guideline for "hands-on" activities in a broader inquiry context is that they should be not only "open-ended", in the sense of having an indeterminate outcome, but also "productive". This, I think, is the most significant creative challenge in developing hands-on activities. It is not enough to give students something to "play with" and presume that something worthwhile will result. It frequently won't, and both students and teachers will end up feeling aimless and disappointed. What instead is needed is to give students something that will surprise them, ie an opportunity to make a set of observations that will not fit easily into their current understandings, and that will cause them to generate candidate new understandings that in turn will generate new questions that can be further explored. "Productive" doesn't mean achieving a particular understanding but rather moving beyond current understandings. And "open-ended" does not mean without direction, but rather organized to encourage movement in any of a variety of directions that could represent new understanding.

Actually, I think what comes out of this is a set of principles not only for "hands-on" activities but for t.o-e.i. based classroom activities in general:

  1. Give students observations that will surprise them
  2. Get students to create new understandings ("stories") that make sense of them
  3. Get students to think about implications of their stories, new questions, new needed observations that arise from them
  4. Repeat over and over again

With this overall strategy, one can mix "hands-on" activities and activities reflecting observations by others in different balances depending on the subject and student backgrounds, developing both the skills of making/interpreting observations of one's own and of making use of observations of others. Moreover, it seems to me that this strategy can be used not only with most subjects but at all curricular levels.

I'm curious to hear to what degree this approach makes sense in terms of other peoples' experiences and aspirations. Notice that it does not explicitly teach "laboratory skills", presuming instead that these will be acquired as part of the process. Notice too that it is less time-efficient with regard to "coverage". A good inquiry educator will have some reasonable sense of the directions a class will go in advance but needs to be committed more to the process than to being sure particular understandings are reached. And notice, of course, that one would need a way to evaluate both student achievement and class success in terms of whether particular understandings are reached by all students.

What other problems arise if one adopts something approximating a o-e.t.i. approach? Maybe this is a good starting point for our next working group conversation.
Paul Grobstein's picture

Meeting report - 14 November 2007


Paul Grobstein, BMC faculty, biology; Alice Lesnick, Bi-Co Ed Program faculty; Anne Dalke, BMC faculty, english; Elizabeth Catenese, BMC alum, teacher; Ashley Dawkins, BMC undergrad, physics; Betsey Reese, BMC Information Services; Darla Attardin, BMC alum, Information Services, Alison Cook-Sather, Bi-Co Ed Program faculty; Peter Brodfuehrer, BMC faculty, biology; Glenn Heck, Delaware Valley Friends, teacher; Wil Franklin, BMC faculty, biology; Sonya Martin, alum, Drexel faculty, science education; Betsy Schmidt, Haverford undergrad

Proceedings (summary by Alice Lesnick)

During this session we used texts by Paul and Alison to uncover ideas and questions about the nature of open-ended, transactional inquiry. We explored and challenged our own understandings of the meaning of inquiry and its connection to our different philosophies of education. Is science as much about creation as about discovery? Is change always good, always to be sought, in educational practice? Is pleasure an important source of insight into the value of educational experience? We then turned to instances of practice, hearing from an undergraduate student about physics instruction she is experiencing at college and in the high school classroom in which she is a classroom assistant, and from two biology faculty. The main focus of this discussion became assessment: how can assessment be congruent with inquiry-based teaching? What is at stake?

Jack Marine's picture

Air is Matter

I liked Rosemary's comments. I am trying to teach air to our first graders at West Philadelphia Achievement Charter. They understand that solids are things you can touch, and that liquids take up any given shape, that air is a gas. They repeat after me "Solid Man, Liquid Lady, Air is Gas!" They are using hands-on inquiry to explore the ways that soilds can be used to move things, to build things, and to simply feel soilds. Getting chikldren at this age to comprehend that everything is matter, is another matter! But tomorrow we are going outside (unless it rains) to draw outside solid objects that are shaped like a triangle, rectangle, cylinder or sphere.

Our next unit involves the exploration of liquids.

I recently met Larry Lowry, who invent the FOSS science kits. He call hands-on learning, "Multi-Sensory" learning.

Anonymous's picture

FOSS kits

I am a student at Faircrest Middle School and I have used the FOSS kits. They are very helpfull and fun to! The FOSS kits helped me learn more about science and I am sure they will help you learn science to.

Rosemary Krygowski's picture

Inquiry-an interesting journey.

Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in Science and a Sense of Place. At first I was a little shaken by the unfamilar and I felt that this was a very different class. I was also surprised at the vast amounts of content given in what was suppose to be inquiry.At the end of the class I realized that I had learned much and went back to school wondering how I  could best utilize my new insights.Yesterday, when I asked my students to prove to me if air was matter, they did! Wow, there goes my lesson .Luckily something kicked in,and I took a chance.Great, now that we know that air has mass, why don't we figure out a way to determine its mass.I gave the class a few formulas and permission to  use anything in class to determine the mass of air.At the end of class they shared their many unique ideas.Tomorrow they will  put their ideas into action to see what they can discover.This inquiry  is a great place to be! 
Paul Grobstein's picture

meeting report - 3 October 2007


Paul Grobstein, BMC faculty, biology; Alice Lesnick, Bi-Co Ed Program faculty; Shankia Bridges BMC undergrad; Anne Dalke, BMC faculty, english; Elizabeth Catenese, BMC alum, teacher; Ashley Dawkins, BMC undergrad, physics; Betsey Reese, BMC Information Services; Darla Attardin, BMC alum, Information Services, Alison Cook-Sather, Bi-Co Ed Program faculty; Chris Massey, UPenn faculty, Lansdowne Friends; Blythe Hoyle, BMC faculty, geology, csem; Peter Brodfuehrer, BMC faculty, biology; Glenn Heck, Delaware Valley Friends, teacher; Luisana Taveras, BMC undegrad; Evan Stiegel, HC undergrad, biology, education; Astra Byrant, BMC undergrad, biology; Sheena Reed BMC undergrad, english/sociology


A rich conversation, in two parts. In the first undergraduates who have experiences in both "open-ended transactional inquiry" and more traditional science courses described their experiences in the two. Several students reported disliking science until encountering o-e.t.i. courses, and then becoming "open to what science might be" as a creative, empowering activity. Others who had liked/been good at earlier, more traditional science courses, acknowledged that they included a lot of memorization, "facts" coming at me, but liked "challenge" and "knowing how things worked." Overall, there was an interest in having courses be imore nteresting, engaging of student activity/creativity, and designed to facilitate students acquiring enhanced thinking/problem-solving skills.

The second part of the conversation focused on reactions to a set of comments by undergraduates taking a non-traditional introductory biology course. Break out groups were asked to read the coments and reply to a set of three questions. Questions and responses were as follows ...

What do the comments suggest is not working in introductory science education?

  • Boring, rote memorization, fixed/final explanations, no sense of discovery/intepretation, WASPY, too ritualistic
  • No balance between the traditional knowledge presentation and inquiry
  • Courses are textbook-centered, too detail-centered ad disconnected from students' lives

What works better

  • Introductory courses should be more process-oriented, e.g., students could practice skills such as skeptical analysis; intro courses at all educational levels should challenge students to THINK; educators should do the unexpected to challenge students; students should do more analysis of information themselves.
  • Make a place foruncertainty in the process and content of science. Present concepts both as general concepts and specific examples from the students
  • More perspectives/points of view; knowing students - styles/histories; meaningful - contextualize, listening process, connect to world; controversy; failure useful

How relevant are the "canary in the mine shaft" voices for other students/contexts?

  • Relevant, but problem of access
  • Some share similar experiences, some do not. Don't know.
  • We had vague intuitions that they might be relevant, but we don't have enough data to say whether or not they are.
Among the issues that arose from these discussions are how much variation there is at different educational levels and in different subjects, and how to provide support for teachers interesting in moving in more inquiry-based directions

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