Professional Development

Teachers Venture Into Science ‘Inquiry’

By David J. Hoff — December 13, 2000 10 min read
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Richard M. Jones’ physics class is getting ready to enter the second day of a three-day experiment. He knows the first day didn’t go well.

“What you guys were doing yesterday, I’ll be doing at the South Pole,” he tells the class of high school juniors and seniors during the early-November class. “For the first couple of days—maybe even a week—I’m not going to have a clue what [the data being collected] mean. I’m going to be in the same boat you were in yesterday.”

Richard M. Jones

Richard M.Jones in front of Billings Senior High.
—Allison Shelley

The lesson is one the students at Montana’s Billings Senior High School and in other high schools across the country rarely learn. Instead, throughout most of their high school science careers, they and their teachers follow carefully scripted instructions as they seek to find preordained results.

But Mr. Jones and six other teachers from across the United States are finding out that science doesn’t work that way—and they hope to transfer that message to their students. Throughout the winter, they will be in Antarctica as part of a National Science Foundation program that pairs K-12 teachers with professional research teams.

Mr. Jones has been at the South Pole since the beginning of this month, flying blimps that read the radioactivity levels in the ice crystals in the Antarctic atmosphere. Kolene Krysl, a middle school teacher from Omaha, Neb., is in a remote section of the continent, attaching video monitors to the backs of Weddell seals to track their movements. Next month, Kevin A. Lavigne, a chemistry and biology teacher at Hanover High School in New Hampshire, is scheduled to travel to the small section of the continent that has no ice and analyze soil samples.

Four other teachers are participating in projects ranging from repairing telescopes near the South Pole to analyzing ice samples dug from the continent.

Through the same NSF program, a separate cadre of teachers will be on similar research teams in the Arctic this coming summer.

Such adventures and other projects in which teachers engage in ongoing scientific inquiry are vital if teachers are going to generate students’ enthusiasm for science, according to science educators.

“Having experience as a scientist is extremely valuable in preparing teachers to teach with inquiry,” said Frank X. Sutman, the director of the Curriculum Development Council at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.

In the Field

Over the past decade, science education reformers have been pushing for students to learn about science by engaging in pure research—or “inquiry,” in the parlance of scientists.

In 1995, the voluntary national science standards urged teachers to use inquiry methods to illuminate scientific principles. Students, the standards say, should be designing their own research projects and conducting their own experiments so they can understand the science behind them.

But getting schools to do that has been a struggle. “Students do not come to understand inquiry simply by learning words such as ‘hypothesis’ and ‘inference’ or by memorizing procedures such as ‘the steps of the scientific method,’” according to Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning, a book published this year by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

“They must experience inquiry directly to gain a deep understanding of its characteristics,” the guide adds. One way for teachers to create opportunities for scientific research, the standards’ advocates say, is to conduct it themselves so they understand how to prepare students to follow their lead.

“To really understand what science as inquiry is, one ought to be engaged in it,” said Rodger W. Bybee, the executive director of the Biological Science Curriculum Study, a Colorado Springs, Colo., nonprofit group that writes science curricula. “It’s important professional development for teachers to be ... immersed in a scientific investigation.”

“It’s a very rewarding experience for a high school science teacher to spend a summer in a research lab,” added Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va. “It certainly beats house painting, which is what many teachers do.”

Mr. Bybee, who helped write the national science standards, which were created by a coalition of science groups and issued by the National Research Council, said the field has seen a “slight, but not major increase” in programs such as the NSF’s Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic. Mr. Wheeler and others agree with that assessment.

The few that do exist are sponsored by federal agencies, universities, and industry.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other federal agencies hire teachers or future teachers to work on research teams. With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a private grantmaker, 18 universities and research organizations give teachers the chance to work in their labs during summers and bring students into the labs throughout the school year.

Mr. Jones of Billings Senior High, a geologist before he became a teacher 10 years ago, is experiencing a short stint as a hands-on researcher for a second time. He spent the summer of 1998 with a team of oceanographers on a NOAA research ship.

The experiences have shaped how he teaches.

A few weeks before leaving for the South Pole, he assigned his physics students a lab exercise in which they learned for themselves that force equals mass times acceleration, or Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

On the first day of the experiment, they struggled to get the equipment to work right. They didn’t understand the meaning of the numbers collected by electronic probes and graphed on computers.

But Mr. Jones believed that their wrestling was worth it.

“When students say, ‘Just give us the formula and let us solve the problems,’ that’s a tragedy in my mind,” he said.

New Approaches

The benefit of professional research experience, say teachers who have participated in it, is that teachers become active participants in the cutting edge of science. It helps them learn about changes in their fields that have occurred since they studied the subjects in their college years, and it gives them the opportunity to look for ways of using research as a teaching method in their classrooms.

“When I went into this, I thought I was going to find the lab [to assign students] to end all labs,” said Lesli A. Adler, a biology teacher at Wootton High School in Rockville, Md. She worked at the National Institutes of Health for two summers as part of a program funded by the Hughes Institutea Bethesda, Md., philanthropy that underwrites medical research.

Instead, Ms. Adler found that the biggest change in her teaching came in her attitude. Her lab assignments slowly became less scripted, and the results were no longer predetermined.

“They became less dogmatic and more focused on thinking skills and doing analysis,” she said. “It doesn’t happen all at once.”

Ms. Adler avoided a common problem for many teachers who try to apply their research experience in the classroom, Mr. Sutman and Mr. Bybee say.

“The teacher kind of goes back and uses it as a case study,” Mr. Bybee said. “It becomes, ‘This is what I did last summer, so I’ll tell you about this research.’ ”

“When you start telling kids all you know, there’s not much time for them to inquire,” said Mr. Sutman, who has studied classrooms where students are urged to learn science by methods that emphasize their own inquiries.

To avoid the trap of teachers’ firsthand learning turning into lectures to their students, teachers need to plan how their experiences are going to help them carry what they learn into the classroom—if they intend to have an impact, Mr. Bybee said.

The NSF’s Antarctic and Arctic program has a committee of former participants who review lesson plans that teachers submit before posting them on the program’s Web site. The program also gathers former participants for weeklong summer- study periods to work on lesson plans and share their ideas with one another.

Several programs that are run with grants from the Hughes Institute hire outreach coordinators to advise teachers on transferring research work into classrooms.

“I find it to be essential,” said Edward C. Cox, a Princeton University molecular-biology professor who runs the Hughes-financed program for New Jersey teachers. The adviser “goes out and helps teachers in the program get this thing running,” he said. “If they have troubles, she can help them.”

Culture Clash

While experts suggest that teachers find ways to transfer the process of scientific exploration into their classrooms, some teachers say that advice is at odds with the way that schools are structured.

Most scientific labs need an extended amount of time and attention. If an experiment doesn’t work because of equipment failure, an activity scheduled to take 45 minutes can take hours. But most teachers have only 45 minutes to an hour at a time to work with their students, leaving little margin for error—which often happens even in professional science labs, Ms. Adler said.

At the Maritime and Science Technology High School in Miami, the school, also known as the MAST Academy, designed its class schedule so that it could have 100-minute periods. The extended time gives science teachers more time to engage their classes in original research projects.

To accomplish that, the magnet school needed to offer professional development to help teachers make the transition from teaching in 45-minute periods, in which content is covered lecture-style, to 100-minute classes built around student- designed projects that explore scientific principles, according to Margaret E. Haun, the lead teacher at the school.

Explorations are also sometimes at odds with curriculum goals that require students to understand a wide range of academic content. At the MAST Academy, the 550 students take general courses that cover the basics of biology, chemistry, and physics, but they also sign up for electives in oceanography, environmental studies, and other specialized fields.

The electives give the school plenty of freedom to explore research projects that may or may not be tied to knowledge that will be required for a state or local testing program.

Other high schools aren’t as lucky.

State testing programs are pressing teachers to expose students to a variety of content, and the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, which is expanding in influence, also has a range of topics that students need to know for their end-of-course exams.

“The problem [with teaching with inquiry]—if you want to call it a problem—is that things go much slower,” said Ms. Adler, the Maryland biology teacher. “In the AP, it’s, ‘We did mitosis today. What’s tomorrow’s topic?’ The course covers so much; you’re driven by its content.”

“The imperative of ‘the test’ is destroying the quality of education,” asserted Mr. Wheeler of the Arlington, Va.-based NSTA. “It’s about as far removed from doing science as you can get.”

Taking Initiative

While the programs in place aid teachers in making scientific inquiry part of their courses, whether the approach is used often comes down to a teacher’s own initiative.

At Billings Senior High, Mr. Jones seeks opportunities wherever he can find them.

Richard M. Jones, right, helps senior Rachel Younkin and teachers collect water from the river behind Billings Senior High. The group periodically tests the water’s oxygen levels and quality.
— Allison Shelley

Shortly before he left for Antarctica, the Montana teacher asked his students to create a paper car in which a raw egg could survive a crash when smashed against a wall.

In a lengthier, more serious project, he and a math teacher mentored a pair of students in a statewide project on water issues. The students set out to determine how much water the city of Billings would need to produce daily to satisfy its future needs.

Mr. Jones and Jacquie McDonald, a math teacher at Billings Senior High School,taught the students how to measure the volume of the stream that feeds into the city’s treatment plant by using calculus. The teachers helped them write a computer program that determined how many households they needed to survey to get a statistically accurate measurement of average water use. And the data helped the students project that the city’s water plant wouldn’t be able to serve the population expected to live in the state’s largest city in 25 years.

“It taught me about the research process and how to go out and get your information,” said Rachel Younkin, now a senior. “It gave me a more realistic idea of what science is all about.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Teachers Venture Into Science ‘Inquiry’


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