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Inquiry learning in the science classroom

CERDEC math and science summer camp
CERDEC math and science summer campPhoto: CERDEC via Flicker

Inquiry based learning is a process that is designed to engage students in sense - making activities as they work together to accomplish tasks or solve problems. In the science classroom this involves such important science processes as asking science questions, hypothesizing, experimenting, collecting data and proposing explanations. Communicating ideas is also integral to the Inquiry based learning strategy.

All science begins with observation and questioning. Students should be allowed to observe the details of an object or event. A science team of two to four works best in most classrooms. The team should be instructed to notice and record their observations about the subject with particular attention paid to the sequence of events and changes that may take place.

Observation leads naturally to questioning. Students should be taught the hallmarks of appropriate science questions. Most science questions begin with the words : How, What, Why, Which, Where, When or Who. When an appropriate question has been asked the students should share ideas on possible solutions. An appropriate hypothesis should suggest a fair test that can be performed. A fair test at the student level means having only a single variable with all other conditions being held constant. The variable should be measurable using numbers or easily identified traits such as color.

When using Inquiry learning it is important that students see themselves as being the scientists. Once a fair test has been decided upon the students must be responsible for selecting the materials needed to test their hypothesis. They may need to be reminded that it will be necessary to collect the instruments they will need to make appropriate measurements and record data as they try out their ideas. Students must collaborate, plan and delegate responsibilities so that the test can be performed and data can be collected and recorded.

Communicating science ideas is vital in the Inquiry based classroom. Once the fair test has been performed and the data has been collected it is important that the students present their findings to others. This may entail writing a formal lab report to turn in to the instructor, but it is often of greater value to have student groups prepare presentations for other students. Students should be encouraged to use technology such as computer assisted graphing or digital photography when appropriate.

The final key to successful Inquiry learning is reflection and self critique of the experience. Students should be guided in use of a rubric or other tool to asses their work. They should be required to report on the strengths and weaknesses of their science process and how it could be improved. It is often useful to require that each individual student extend the group's work by formulating several additional science questions based on what they learned.

Inquiry based learning is especially appropriate to the science classroom. It fosters habits of mind that can serve students in all areas of life. It encourages students to work collaboratively, express ideas, take risks and use science processes. Sharing work in a safe environment helps students express a healthy skepticism and to modify previous ideas when presented with new information. Inquiry based learning builds curiosity and tenacity in students - traits that good education must strive to instill.