Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Facilitating Inquiry

Inquiry was a hot word in science education while I was in college. As standards and books change I am sure we will all be calling it something else, but the process in my mind is pretty much just good science teaching if you ask me, regardless of what we call it.

Now I call teaching through inquiry "good science teaching" but that doesn't mean that I do it all the time. There are certainly things that are impractical to teach through inquiry. And there are things that do just need to be memorized. However, I am always happy when I figure out a way to turn one of my existing lessons or labs into a logical and meaningful inquiry experience.

For many years I have used a chemical reaction rate kit to explore various factors that effect reaction rate. It's a great kit, the student handouts ask decent questions and the directions are easy to follow, the students came away with an idea of how different thing effected the rate of a reaction. The problem was that it always seemed to cook-book like for me. The directions told the students step by step what to do and alluded to what should be expected. So, for the past two years I have been trying to figure out how to make this more minds-on for the students. Last year I had lots of ideas but time got away from me and I ended up just using the kit as is. This I got the materials out early and spent some time looking at what I had and what I wanted students to do. What I ended up with was pretty straight forward and worked really well so far.

We have already discussed different types of reactions, writing and balancing equations. Last week we discussed learned about the difference between endothermic and exothermic reactions and look at graphs of reaction progress. We also discussed what a rate was and did some very basic practice to calculate a rate. To end out last week we worked as a class to brainstorm variable we thought could change how fast a reaction happened.

This week I split students up into groups, each group was assigned a different variable from out list (I had picked out the "best" ones to try to lead students in the right direction). The variables I selected from their list were temperature, reactant concentration, and surface area. I provided students with a list of possible materials and a project planning form. The project form asked them to use the assigned topic to:
  • Write a testable question
  • Identify the independent and dependent variables
  • Identify constants
  • Identify a control group
  • Write a step-by-step procedure (including identifying materials and amounts)
  • Set-up a data table
It took students quite a bit of time to do this and I helped groups, some more than others. All groups created a logical plan for their experiment which I approved. The challenge with the planning stages is trying not to give students the answers. They knew that I probably had a pretty good idea of what they needed to do to be successful so did try to get answers out of me. I tried to answer their question by giving them a different question to think about or reminding them of past lab experiences that might answer their questions. Some students get very frustrated with this and just want answers, but over time mine seem to get used to this type of response. I do have to watch for the guessers. Students will come up with two or three ideas and then try to get me to confirm for them that they are correct. If I tell them that what they are thinking is not correct or will not work they will ask another "is this right" type of question. I have eventually caught on to which students will do this until I have basically given them the answer. Rather than confirm or refute their thinking I have been trying to ask them "why do you think that" or "where did you find that information" to get them to explain to me. If they can explain their thinking I am likely to give them the confirmation they are looking for (if they are correct). If they are wrong I will try to direct them to some resource to help guide them. And if they have no explanation for why they want to do something or why they think it will work I usually wont answer them. I might respond that they can try to look up the information in a resource and suggest a possible resource to use.

Today, groups actually ran their experiments and collected data. One group had to make some significant changes to how they collected data  but I helped them work through the obstacle they encountered. I tried to lead them towards a solution but in the end they were the ones who figured out the new method. All groups were able to complete their data collection today. One of the biggest issues with doing this type of inquiry is that each group is doing a different experiment. They have different materials, different ways of collecting data, and different questions for me. It keeps me on my toes. I also had a fairly lengthy talk with them about behavior and responsibility before we went into the lab. I reminded them of the behavior expectations and told them that for safety reasons I really needed everyone of their best lab behavior. I told them that with different activities going on that I didn't have time for dealing with behavior and someone was likely to get hurt. They understood this and were very organized, respectful, and responsible.

Tomorrow we will tackle analyzing the data and figuring out what it means. This will include calculations of rate, averages, and graphing to look for trends. I do plan to have students use this experience to write a formal lab report, I try to do at least one long formal style lab report each semester. In terms of assessment of this experience the lab report will be a big part of that. However, I also put in a grade for the planning process worksheet and participation for the lab work today. One thing that I need to work on is a better, more formalized, way to assess their lab participation and effort.

Overall, I think the experience is going well so far. Hopefully be designing their own experiments the students will continue to be invested in and interested in what they are doing. Eventually this activity will probably make its way to my TpT store but for now I just wanted to share my thoughts on the process.

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