Turning Students into Inventors: Active Learning Modules for Secondary Students

By Gorman, Michael E.; Plucker, Jonathan A. et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Turning Students into Inventors: Active Learning Modules for Secondary Students


Gorman, Michael E., Plucker, Jonathan A., Callahan, Carolyn M., Phi Delta Kappan


Active learning modules offer students the opportunity to participate in the excitement of invention before they can be "turned off" by the heavy load of required courses for majors in science and engineering, the authors point out. This excitement should carry some students into careers in science and technology and help all students understand the ways science and technology have transformed our world.

Imagine 15 students working in small groups, frantically constructing and experimenting with loops of wire, batteries, pieces of cardboard, and other materials. One student asks what would happen if they used thicker wire. The instructor asks for everyone's attention and explains Ohm's law and how it can be used to solve problems like this. Immediately afterward, someone shouts into a yogurt container, and the whole class watches to see if the needle on a meter flickers, indicating that the shout has been convened into an electric current. When the needle moves, the group members exchange high fives. They know that they are on the trail of an improved method for transmitting speech and sound, one that may have changed history.

This vignette is typical of our experiences teaching talented secondary students to become inventors. We chose to conduct our experiment at the secondary level because secondary school classes are often characterized by the college lecture or read-and-recite model of instruction. As Joseph Carroll observes:

The American high school is an enduring institution. For three-quarters of a century - a period characterized by immense social, political, economic, and technological change - the high school has not changed its basic form of organization. . . . The school day is usually divided into seven periods. . . . Lectures, teachers' questions and students' answers, and homework dominate instruction.(1)

Instruction in science and engineering is not an exception. The orderly, teacher-centered format is well adapted to transmitting existing knowledge but does not model the messy, exciting, often frustrating process by which discoveries are made and inventions are created. While elementary and middle-level educators have embraced the importance of involving students in hands-on, problem-based, and active learning, secondary teachers have generally failed to maximize the potential of these strategies.

Lynn Jenkins and Walter MacDonald argue, "Alternative teaching methods, patterned after the methods of science itself, may provide opportunities for more meaningful learning. . . . Classrooms engaged in a 'spirit of science' approach would add many of the investigative procedures that scientists use, such as observing, measuring, and hypothesis testing."(2)

Perhaps the decision to have students participate in controlled, predictable laboratory exercises results from misconceptions about the processes of scientific discovery and invention. Discoverers and inventors are often regarded as lucky, innately endowed with extra intelligence or some other undefined trait, or both. Therefore, there is no point in trying to encourage students to become discoverers and inventors; all we can do is teach them facts and techniques and hope that a few are endowed with luck and genius and can transcend this kind of education to make technological breakthroughs and discoveries.

When one looks closely at an inventor like Alexander Graham Bell, however, one sees a kind of courage and persistent experimentation that many students could emulate. Even though we now think of the telephone as an "obvious" invention that everyone needed, in Bell's day virtually everyone thought the next step in communications would be a device that could send multiple messages simultaneously over a single wire using Morse code - the multiple telegraph. Bell alone saw the way in which the transmission of speech could transform communications. Despite the fact that both his father and his primary financial backer told him to stick with the multiple telegraph, Bell never gave up his dream of speaking over a wire. …

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