Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Multiple Modes of Inquiry in Earth Science: Helping Students Understand the Scientific Process beyond Laboratory Experimentation

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Multiple Modes of Inquiry in Earth Science: Helping Students Understand the Scientific Process beyond Laboratory Experimentation

Article excerpt


Laboratory experimentation played only a minor role in the development of many key concepts in Earth science. Earth science researchers have used multiple modes of inquiry to cultivate concepts such as plate tectonics, geological time, the hydrologic cycle, and global climate change. Students who understand the process of science as comprising only laboratory experimentation are at risk of developing a disconnect between the content and process aspects of their Earth science education (Tsai 1999); they may be unable to discern how the process could have led to the concepts. To help teachers enrich their students' understanding of inquiry in Earth science, this article describes six modes of inquiry used by practicing geoscientists (Earth scientists), illustrates each mode with research examples, and provides pointers to investigations that allow high school students to experience each mode.

Inquiry used by geoscientists

The "scientific method" is the primary framework presented to students to explain how science progresses. This method is most commonly conveyed as a sequence of steps by which an experimenter sets up a laboratory apparatus, manipulates one variable at a time, and considers the outcome as a function of the manipulated variables (Edwards 1997; Uthe 2000). Although this is a legitimate characterization of how science is often conducted in many disciplines, laboratory experimentation is only one of several ways in which scientists conduct research in Earth sciences.

Six modes of inquiry widely used by practicing geoscientists include:

* the classic laboratory experiment,

* observation of change over time,

* comparison of ancient artifacts with products of active processes,

* observation of variations across space,

* use of physical models, and

* application of computer models.

Together these modes of inquiry allow geoscientists to address a wide range of questions about Earth structures and processes. In this article, we illustrate each mode of inquiry using examples of seminal or pioneering research and provide pointers to investigations that enable students to experience these modes. By discussing and engaging with multiple modes of inquiry, students should gain a deeper understanding of both science content and science process.

Classic experiment

Earth scientists do, occasionally, conduct classic experiments in which they use laboratory apparatus and manipulate variables. For example, to study water erosion, scientists place sediment in the base of a flume beneath a channel of flowing water (Figure 1a, p. 28). The experimenter varies stream velocity and sediment type, and observes what velocity is required to erode or transport sediment as a function of sediment grain size.

Leavitte (2005) presents a classic experiment that students can conduct to investigate weathering. Students weigh samples of different rock types and place them in a closed, unbreakable container with some water. Students vigorously shake the container and determine the percentage of each sample that has broken off into small particles after being "weathered." By graphing change in sample size and relating this to the rock type, students can evaluate the comparative weathering rates for these types of rocks.

Changes through time

Earth scientists look at changes through time over various timescales. For timescales of minutes to centuries, scientists can use instrumental or historical records. For example, atmospheric scientists used repeated measurements of atmospheric chemistry to detect the human-caused increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide throughout the 20th century (Figure 1b, right, p. 28) (Scripps CO2 Program 2007). For timescales of thousands to billions of years, Earth scientists rely on traces left in the rock record. For example, by examining the sudden, drastic change in fossils and sediment chemistry at 65 million years before present, scientists inferred a world changed by meteor impact and mass extinctions (Figure 1b, left) (Alvarez 1997). …

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