Academic journal article Science and Children

Have a Kids Inquiry Conference! Putting a Twist on the Typical Science Fair

Academic journal article Science and Children

Have a Kids Inquiry Conference! Putting a Twist on the Typical Science Fair

Article excerpt

In school, the traditional format for the formal sharing of science experiences has been the science fair. Although the format of science fairs may vary, the usual components consist of a step-by-step experimental process that students follow as they test different variables, construct a hypothesis, and collect data to support or disprove their hypothesis. Usually the science fair is conducted as a competitive event at which prizes are awarded for the "best" examples. Unfortunately, this type of science event has little connection to the real sharing that scientists do regularly.

The National Science Education Standards (NSES) call for an approach to science that honors the scientific processes in which scientists actually engage (NRC 1996). A careful look shows that practicing scientists share informal talk daily and deliberately prepare for more formal sharing of their work through participation in professional conferences. Unlike the school science fair, the professional science conference is a noncompetitive place where scientists interact and share ideas. Work that is in process is often presented, and the giving and receiving of feedback is an integral part of the conference.

One alternative to the traditional school science fair is a Kids Inquiry Conference (KIC; Saul et al. 2005). More along the lines of the professional science conference, a KIC encourages students to develop their own inquiry projects, carry them out using an inquiry-based model, and prepare for a public sharing event. In addition, preparing for and participating in a KIC can be a powerful professional development (PD) experience for teachers. In this article, we describe preparing for, implementing, and reflecting on the KIC that we--university faculty collaborating with elementary teachers--organized with 250 students and 12 teachers from two elementary schools. We'll focus on the conference logistics--you bring the inquiry!

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Initiating the Process

Saul et al. (2005) described the most difficult aspect of the KIC as identifying an inquiry project and helping teachers and students understand the inquiry process. One way to facilitate this is through teachers and university faculty working together over time. Often classroom teachers and university professors interact during professional development events. These events present great opportunities to engage in discussions about possible KIC collaborations.

We were fortunate enough to be able to do this. In our case, the teachers were involved in a yearlong professional development experience that supported their development of the inquiry process. Over the course of the year, teachers engaged in varying degrees of inquiry, but all were able to have their students engage in the end-of-year KIC. The main learning outcomes for this PD experience were for teachers to learn more about inquiry-based teaching and to better understand how to create opportunities for students to engage in inquiry.

The teachers met with one of us every two to three weeks to discuss the idea of inquiry-based teaching and how it could play out in individual classrooms. Although they were in close geographical proximity, the teachers were also in contact with us via e-mail between PD sessions. This arrangement encouraged the teachers to communicate their needs to us, so we could supply just-in-time support. These needs included classroom materials, coteaching support, and time to discuss classroom strategies for inquiry-based teaching. This structure also encouraged the teachers to try out different techniques and activities and practice with inquiry-based teaching before committing to a full-blown inquiry project. The best PD experiences are often those where there is a long-term commitment between the partners. Committing to a KIC encouraged this type of relationship.

Teachers at the schools enacted different levels of inquiry and varied in the amount of science they were teaching. …

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