Lose the Recipe: Adapt a Cookbook Exercise for an Inquiry Experience on Seed Germination and Plant Growth

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When learning about plants, elementary students are typically given set directions on how to plant seeds and make their plants grow. To enable our class of first-grade students to build their own knowledge and encourage constructivism, we decided to take this set of prescribed activities and make them more inquiry-based. In traditional "cookbook" experiments, students are told the outcome of an experiment and are expected to follow directions that do little more than confirm the outcome. Inquiry science ranges from limited inquiry, in which teachers provide much of the direction, to open inquiry in which students design experiments around their own questions (Banchi and Bell 2008).

Cookbook activities are a good point from which to develop inquiry lessons. You can move your class from limited inquiry through the continuum to open inquiry by altering the lessons to give increasingly more control to students. We believe that by allowing students to create their own knowledge, they will have a better understanding of plants and science inquiry. Within a given lesson, some aspects may need to be teacher directed, whereas other areas can be controlled by the students--it largely depends on the purpose of the activity. In our case, the goal was to meet the standards regarding the needs and life cycles of plants. We used limited inquiry when planting the seeds because we wanted to be sure all students had plants, but once the seeds had germinated, we used less structured inquiry to allow students to take control of the plants' growth by determining factors such as how much sunlight, water, and space they would provide. We taught this lesson over the course of several weeks, one day per week for about an hour each day; it could be broken down into smaller increments if necessary. In addition, extensions and some assessments were done on different days.

Day 1: Stir Up Interest

To promote interest in plants, we read a silly book that had a speck of factual information: Elizabite: Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant (Rey 1942). The students found the book about the adventures of a carnivorous plant funny and it definitely worked to stir up interest in plants. We talked about what was true and false in the story, including that some plants capture and break down insects for nutrients. Next, we asked the students why it is important to learn about plants. Most of the children knew at least one way in which plants are important; answers ranged from plants being pretty to plants giving us food and medicine.

We then used a KWL chart to preassess what students knew about plants. Although some of the children were aware of things such as plants providing us with oxygen, others knew little. We told the class we would add to the chart as we learned more over the next few weeks. We then began another column--What do you want to know about plants?--that yielded some interesting questions, such as "What is the difference between a plant and a weed?"

Using a KWL chart not only worked well as a preassessment, it also enabled us to note student misconceptions and further acted as a catalyst for introducing information we planned to present. For example, one student stated that plants come from seeds, a perfect opener for the start of the unit--seeds.

In a cookbook lesson, children are often shown the parts of seeds and given the proper terminology. Using open inquiry, our students investigated the characteristics of seeds, using lima beans (we used frozen lima beans that had thawed overnight) as an example. We gave each student a lima bean and a magnifying lens and asked them to use their observational skills to explore their seed. Students could ask for materials if they needed anything. Not surprisingly, some students squashed their seeds to see what happened, so we made sure we had extra seeds available. …