Inquiry In Action

In the past 15 months or so I have had a great opportunity to ruminate on my own motivations and beliefs surrounding reform based science education. Much of this has oriented around my own experiences as an educator in an independent school and in the science teacher education program at the Warner School. Both of these experiences have been invaluable to my development as an educator and the growth of my own practice. Today I want to highlight some the exceptional instruction I have witnessed since I began substituting in March. The instruction may not have been intentionally reform minded, but it certainly would qualify.

Most recently I was in an 8th grade technology class. The appearance of the class took the appearance of a “shop” type class with wooden workbenches, various wood and electronics tools, and stations set up for the student to work at independently and as they (the students) deemed necessary. Across the entire length of the classroom a mag-lev track had been set up. This alone shows an understanding that students need access to the “tools of the trade” that make up engineering practices. They had been trained in the appropriate use and could access them without permission and as they needed. In addition to the stations and tools, a number of other material items could be made available as they developed their projects and as new component ideas came to them.

The students were designing vehicles with the goal of having the vehicle travel the farthest distance on the track, and should their vehicle be able to, off the track as well once it ran out. The vehicles were propelled by a small electrical engine that was supplied power through the track and which spun a propeller. Their designs for these vehicles were largely up to them, and based on the varied design it was clear that the student were using their functional understanding of magnets and propulsion in order to create solutions to this challenge. Which is another component of inquiry based science instruction. The students were not following a cookie cutter, step-by-step creation of these vehicles; a task that certainly would have demonstrated the concept just as easily, but would have left so much out. These students were actively involved in the engineering design process and some students quickly became “experts” as their vehicle travelled off the track (and some even off the entire workbench). These experts then assisted other students but given the varied designs all the experts could proved were general themes or concepts they had uncovered, not quick fixes. None of this, as exceptional as it is, was my favorite part.

Students embraced the challenge, and even with me sitting right beside them recording distances, took on the design and solutions themselves. The level of ownership they demonstrated in this activity and their designs was my favorite part. The students were able to design, construct, test, identify problems, and redesign on the fly. They didn’t ask me or even the experts to fix their vehicle for them and seeing a student take their design from flipping over right at the beginning of the track at the beginning of the class to becoming experts themselves was awesome.

I share this all with you because my experience and history with inquiry based and reform minded science instruction in many was “easy”. I designed my own curricula, I was not beholden to state testing, and I had resources available. Here is an example of the same (and in many ways better) inquiry based science instruction that I was conducted, but in a Monroe County public school. One that is beholden to state testing, one that might have limited resources, and one were the instructor may be working from a curriculum they received. Kudos to this instructor, and more importantly kudos to these students.

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