Friday, June 28, 2013

Is This Really Inquiry? (Inquiring minds want to know.)

Last year I attended a one day workshop on creating inquiry labs. At the start of the workshop there was a disclaimer. The instructor had attended intense week long course to learn how do to inquiry lessons and there was much more to it that what we could cover in a day. She was a great instructor, the lessons were clear and examples were understandable. We created questions to answer, planned an experiment, and made observations. The instructor stayed back and did not interject unless invited by someone in the group. Occasionally, there was some gentle encouragement to let us know we were heading in the right direction.  Each group shared their observations and defended their conclusions. I left feeling that I was ready to try an inquiry lab.  

This summer I am taking a course on inquiry learning. My instructor last summer was correct, I did not have enough information to design and execute an inquiry lesson that could be a great learning experience. Inquiry learning is a flexible student-centered process that is facilitated by a teacher.  What I did not realize is there is a lot more planning than creating an open ended question and letting the students go learn some science.  Students need some knowledge and skills before attempting an inquiry lesson. The process should be ask a question, investigate and plan the experiment, make observations and gain knowledge, discuss the process and results with others, and finally analyze all of the information and make conclusions or create a new question.

SRD Students' Energy Experiment
One of the courses I teach is called Scientific Research and Design (SRD). This is the perfect place to try new methods. The SRD students are high school seniors who love science but did not want to take an advanced placement science. They have had a year of biology, chemistry and physics. They come to class with curiosity and knowledge and are often working before the tardy bell rings. SRD is a great course to attempt an inquiry lesson. So I gave them the following challenge: show mechanical energy is conserved in a system. They had five days to complete the task. After seven days of hard work most of the groups had proven energy was not conserved, some had even broken physics and created energy. Even so, this was not a bad lesson for either me or the students.

I refer to this experience as a personal example while learning more about inquiry lessons. I have asked myself is this a good inquiry lesson.  It was fun and I would like to do it again next year, but I do not feel the learning outcome would be similar in a different group of students. The starting question was fair, open and answerable. Students had already learned about energy in previous courses and I provided review materials for those that needed reminding. They had the skills required to collect data, until they decided to use a new application they found for their iPhones. Students designed their experiments. I did not limit their creativity so some of the experiments were elegantly simple others were doomed for frustration if not failure. I tried to encourage the students with over complicated procedures to simplify, but they chose not to change and I did not insist. The data was collected and students started having conversations about what they were seeing. Only one group had the expected data. The whole class had great discussions on why the data was different than expected and contradicted what they knew to be true. They understood that unexpected results were not wrong, just unexpected. We had already had lessons where real world applications did not meet theoretical expectations. They knew to analyze their procedure and determine where the issues may have arisen. All arrived at reasonable conclusions where ignoring or minimizing a real world issue the data would have shown conservation of energy. The real beauty was the different way each group experimented and the discussions that came out of the different methods. Over all it was a good energy lesson, but mostly because I was lucky and the SRD students are flexible and curious.

Based on what I am now learning about the process I would make some changes. The start of the lesson follows the inquiry process, but there are a number of places this can become a botched lesson. Next time I will have had them learn the new data collecting application and then collect the data separately. Doing both at once was a mistake. I will have to decide if I will allow more time or limit the complicated procedures. If possible, the additional time would allow some groups the opportunity to move forward with another or refined question while the others deal with their complicated but interesting methods. The product needs more definition, as in a video, demonstration or presentation of their experiment and findings. I would like to learn more ways to capitalize on the discussion portion of the lesson.

I am inquiring into inquiry learning and proving I need to learn more. I will plan more thoroughly, refine my question and procedure and try again. So, the process works for me. 

“Inquiry Process.” Inquiry Page. (1998). Retrieved June 27, 2013 from  
“Our definition of Inquiry.” Inquiry Page. (1998). Retrieved June 27, 2013 from 
“Key Components of the Inquiry Process.” Retrieved Jun 27, 2013 from

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