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Authentic Science and Inquiry-Based Learning

Paper presented by T. DePriest and J. Shirk at the 76th Annual Conference of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, March 23-26, 2003, Philadelphia, PA.

By identifying factors within a student/teacher research experience that promote inquiry-based learning, this study will make recommendations for successful inquiry-based learning and teaching practices. In addition, through analysis of skills developed in inquiry-based student-scientist partnerships, we will explore actual and potential mutual benefits that occur for the scientific and educational communities as a result of engaging students and teachers in research experiences.

Conventional high school science curricula, based on memorization of scientific facts and definitions, are limited in their ability to give school students the conceptual understanding of the practice and nature of science and how it applies to real world situations. Proponents for science education reform believe that a deeper, cognitive understanding of science as it is practiced and applied will result in greater scientific literacy, allowing students and citizens to be able to engage in scientifically-based decision making on both a societal and personal level. Movement toward an approach to science education that promotes development of scientific literacy is the goal of current science education reform efforts being proposed at the national level (NRC 1996).

To achieve this goal, reformers recommend a model of science education commonly termed "inquiry-based" education, where learners are able to use observation, reasoning, and communication to reflect and construct new knowledge based on their experiences (NRC 2000). While the concept of inquiry-based education has a well-developed theoretical framework, practical recommendations for teachers wishing to implement inquiry in the classroom are somewhat lacking. Inquiry should not be conceptualized as a particular teaching methodology or curriculum, but rather as an overarching teaching and learning philosophy, defined by the teacher, that gives value to certain pedagogical processes and outcomes (Keys and Bryan, 2001). Unfortunately, this gap in the theoretical and the practical aspects of inquiry-based science pedagogy has been the source of confusion and ambiguity about how to implement the kind of inquiry-based experiences that specifically promote the acquisition of scientific literacy (Lederman, 2001).

What most teachers are failing to realize is that the most important learning outcomes of an inquiry-based approach are gained through the process of investigation, and not in the final outcomes of the investigation. For the current science education standards to be effectively met by science teachers, they need a clear understanding of the desired learning goals and a framework for the practical application of pedagogy that moves their students towards those goals. Without a specific, clear process for implementing inquiry-based curricula, science educators will continue to utilize the conventional pedagogical methods that they are familiar and comfortable with, and science education will continue to suffer from the same lack of cognitive learning outcomes that it has experienced for decades (Lederman, 2001).

Other barriers are in place within the school system that limit the ability of a teacher to implement inquiry-based science. Issues of standardized exams that test for science content only, class time limitations, and lack of school and community support, as well as claims that students will not know how to approach or adapt to this style of learning (Costenson and Lawson 1986). By identifying factors that lead to success in inquiry, pathways will be developed to encourage student, teacher, and community confidence in this approach to science learning.

Currently inquiry-based experiences that model the ways in which authentic scientific research is carried out seem to hold the most promise for promoting the current reform standards (Chinn and Malhorta, 2001). By engaging in the processes of science, students find out first-hand how science is really used and applied in research, providing the context for cognitive learning that is needed for the development of scientific literacy. Three different classroom approaches to inquiry research have been described: open-ended, guided, and teacher-collaborative (D'Avanzo, 1996). In each, students have varied levels of involvement and responsibility in all aspects of doing scientific research, from developing the question and methods to analyzing results and communicating findings.

As a resource for inquiry-based research learning, there is a need among educators for connections to current research. Student-scientist partnerships offer opportunities for collaborations, which can involve schools in authentic research, but sustainable partnerships must benefit both schools and scientists (TERC 1997). Schools in the GLOBE program have set precedents for student-collected biophysical and biochemical data to be used by scientific organizations (Finarelli 1998), but no validations have been performed on biodiversity studies. The authenticity and level of student involvement in the research project may also factor into school abilities and outcomes (Trumbull et al, 2000; Sadler et al 2001), and should be considered in an analysis of the success of these partnerships.

The focus of this paper will be on the features of inquiry that are supported through a woodland salamander population monitoring research project in which students and their teachers will participate in the Fall of 2002. To identify the various components of inquiry-based learning supported or promoted by student/teacher research experiences, a rubric for assessing inquiry will be utilized. A document titled “Rubric for Evaluating Essential Features of Facilitating Classroom Inquiry” has recently been published by the Council of State Science Supervisors (2001), and has been chosen for this research as the instrument for measuring the extent of Inquiry teaching and learning that is evident in student/teacher research activities. Through field observation and review of materials used in research activities, the student/teacher research experiences will be assessed in terms of the presence and extent of essential features for inquiry addressed by the rubric. This methodology will be replicated in various types of research projects that students and teachers are commonly engaged in (i.e. Long Term Ecological Research, Watershed/ Water quality monitoring, amphibian population monitoring, experimental research, etc.) By doing so, the various kinds of research projects that are available for students and teachers to be involved with can be compared and analyzed with respect to the features of inquiry that each type is able to support and promote.

Preliminary findings from student interviews indicate that high school students are motivated in their research work by the ability to be deeply involved in the process of approaching scientific research. Open-ended inquiry allows students to research authentic questions, for which they tend to choose motivating topics relevant to their lives and/or ones they are curious to investigate. Novice researchers may lack confidence to ask or design research methods for authentic questions, but can find success through guided inquiry projects if teachers offer questions with unknown results or ones relevant to the students. Through appropriate sequencing of the level of student inquiry involvement, teachers can facilitate projects within students' capacities, therefore maintaining their interest and building their confidence as researchers.

Chinn, C. and Malhorta, B. (2002) Epistemologically Authentic Inquiry in Schools: A Theoretical Framework for Evaluating Inquiry Tasks. Science Education, 86: 175-218.

Costenson, K. and Lawson, A. E., 1986. Why isn't inquiry used in more classrooms? The American Biology Teacher, 48(3): 150-158.

D’Avanzo, C. (1996) Three ways to teach ecology labs by inquiry: guided, open-ended, and teacher-collaborative. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, April 1996, 92-93.

Keys, C. and Bryan, L. (2000) Co-Constructing Inquiry-Based Science with Teachers: Essential Research for Lasting Reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(4) pp631-645.

Lederman, N. (2001). The state of science education: subject matter without context. Electronic Journal of Science Education, December 2001. http://unr.edu/homepage/jcannon/ejse/ejse.html

National Research Council (1996) The National Science Education Standards. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.

National Research Council (2000) Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. Washington DC : National Academy Press.

Trumbull, D.J. et al, 2000. Thinking Scientifically During Participation in a Citizen-Science Project. In Informal Science, Dierking, L.D. and J. H. Falk ed. pp. 265-275, John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Sadler, P.M. et al, 2001. MicroObservatory Net: A Network of Automated Remote Telescopes Dedicated to Educational Use. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 10(1):39-55.

Finarelli, M. G., 1998. GLOBE: A Worldwide Environmental Science and Education Partnership. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 7(1).

TERC and the Concord Consortium, 1997. D. Barstow, R.E. Tinker, and S. J. Doubler, editors. National Conference on Student & Scientist Partnerships Conference Report, Cambridge, MA.



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