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Inquiry-Based Learning

Promoting Scientific Inquiry Inside and Outside of the Classroom

Exposing students to discrepant events and online simulations can spark wonder and motivate them to investigate science beyond the classroom.

April 12, 2021
Middle school student takes notes during virtual learning session
RgStudio / iStock

Scientific inquiry continues to be conflated with any instructional activity in which students ask questions and seek answers in the learning process, but scientific inquiry is much more than the act of inquiring. Even before the pandemic, teachers struggled with adopting not only the higher levels of scientific inquiry into their classrooms but also reaching a clear consensus of what science as inquiry entails. The abrupt transition to virtual teaching led to many students passively watching their teachers engage in science far removed from the scientific-inquiry process.

The four levels of scientific inquiry establish a framework for engaging students in science as inquiry:

  • Confirmation inquiry: This is often considered level zero, as inquiry is absent. Students complete an activity with prescribed problems and procedures in which they are already aware of the solutions.
  • Structured inquiry: Students follow procedures for an investigation of a novel topic.
  • Guided inquiry: Students determine their own methods to collect evidence for a teacher-posed problem.
  • Open inquiry: Students formulate their own questions and methods for on-topic investigations in the curriculum.

With virtual teaching, there are many challenges integrating the higher levels of scientific inquiry, as students may not have the supplies or materials they would in the classroom. They also may lack the necessary safety equipment or adult supervision. But there are still effective ways to teach scientific inquiry to students learning remotely.

3 Strategies for Teaching Scientific Inquiry Virtually

1. Demonstrations with discrepant events. With virtual learning, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of performing demonstrations while students watch passively. Guarantee that all demonstrations are at least structured inquiry by carefully selecting discrepant events to spark curiosity and motivate students for further investigations.

Discrepant events cause cognitive dissonance due to the surprising and unanticipated results. Baffled students naturally generate many questions that can be used for an extension activity, such as an open inquiry in which students test their explanations. Working through the cognitive dissonance can have profound effects on learning. Thomas O’Brien has three books published by the National Science Teaching Association with discrepant events for students from fifth grade to 12th grade.

If a discrepant event is based on household materials that students typically have accessible, they first meet in groups to brainstorm their questions, predictions, and methods for testing the discrepant event. Even without access to the materials, groups can work together by engaging in effective team communication by assigning one student to be the manipulator of the materials while the others serve in roles such as researchers. If the discrepant event requires materials that are not readily available, students will similarly work in groups to brainstorm and then instruct me in how to manipulate the demonstration for the entire class. Together as a group, we will work through the discrepant event to explain the phenomenon.

2. Simulations with PhET. PhET simulations by the University of Colorado have been an integral part of teaching science as inquiry for a long time. Since 2002, scholars have created 159 free interactives for physics, chemistry, math, biology, and earth science in 95 languages. With almost 3,000 coordinating lesson plans available, it’s easy to find inspiration to create your own.

These simulations are investigative, meaning students actively engage in all levels of inquiry and manipulate the simulations accordingly. They are not just passively clicking and watching. One of my favorites is the energy skate park, which, among other things, allows students to design a skate park using the concepts of mechanical energy. PhETs can easily be confirmation or structured-inquiry lessons by providing students a set of instructions to complete for the simulation, and PhET provides many lesson plans for each simulation. However, teachers can adopt a guided-inquiry approach by providing a central challenging question to the students. Students have autonomy to manipulate and determine their own methods for answering the teacher-posed questions.

It’s even possible for students to engage in open inquiry with PhETs or other simulations. When engaging my students in open inquiry, I will first briefly model the basic functions of the simulation. Then students are presented the following four prompts to scaffold the development of their research questions, hypotheses, and methods for the investigation:

1. Describe your topic in general. How does it act?

2. What can you change or manipulate with the simulation? Brainstorm all possibilities. These are the independent variables.

3. What can you measure or describe about the response in the simulation? Brainstorm all possibilities. These are the dependent variables.

4. Review your responses, and select an independent variable and dependent variable. Develop your research question, prediction, and methods.

3. Investigations. My best virtual homework assignments have been guided and open-inquiry investigations. Students have increased motivation to perform an investigation rather than complete a worksheet. The important thing is to develop scaffolding that guides students in their thinking processes. I start small. These do not need to be long-term projects, but rather activities that students can complete within an hour, a day, or a week.

We begin investigations with the four prompts listed above for simulations once we have established a topic. The groups debrief their responses using a jigsaw approach so that each member of the group is accountable to share and seek feedback from students in other groups. Students organize their data into a CER (claim, evidence, and reasoning) template that they again will share using a jigsaw approach in mixed groups.

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Filed Under

  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • Online Learning
  • Technology Integration
  • Science
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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