Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Promoting 21st-Century Skills in the Science Classroom by Adapting Cookbook Lab Activities: The Case of DNA Extraction of Wheat Germ

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Promoting 21st-Century Skills in the Science Classroom by Adapting Cookbook Lab Activities: The Case of DNA Extraction of Wheat Germ

Article excerpt

Helping students engage in inquiry-based classroom laboratory activities can be a daunting task for many secondary science teachers. It is not uncommon to hear myriad reasons why inquiry-based instruction is difficult to enact in the classroom, ranging from "I don't know how to plan for that" to "My students can't do inquiry." To address the challenges of delivering rich content and promoting critical-thinking skills, we worked with high school teachers in a series of professional development courses to develop strategies that (1) scaffold student thinking in lab activities and (2) help prepare them for science inquiry in the classroom.

It is not uncommon that classroom lab activities are arranged as "cookbook" labs (Peters, 2005). These types of activities have been criticized as being hands-on and minds-off; in essence, students are not required to think critically because the lab activities have assumed the cognitive load for the students. Reform-based science teaching, represented in the National Science Education Standards and advocated by agencies like the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, emphasizes that science teaching and learning should reflect skills fundamental to research science. In an inquiry setting, where content (what) and process (how) must be blended (Chiappetta & Adams, 2004), students take greater responsibility for their own learning by designing experimental procedures and communicating their understanding and reasoning.

To address the challenges of teaching, we use the DNA extraction lab to demonstrate unifying Bybee's (2009) description of 21st-century learning skills and Peters' (2005) strategies for transforming cookbook lab activities. This transformation leads to partial inquiry; it guides students to use skills associated with inquiry, such as problem solving and communication.

* Overview: 21st-century Skills, Inquiry-Based Learning, and the 5 E's

21st Century Skills

The 21st-century-skills movement is drawing much attention in education (Senechal, 2010). Bybee identified 21st-century skills as adaptability, complex communication and social skills, non-routine problem solving, systems thinking, and self management. These skills are necessary to prepare students for life beyond the classroom. For example, many careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) require an understanding of technical skills and conceptual understanding of biotechnology tools (for a description of careers that use biotechnology, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics at As students interact with other students while developing their content knowledge in science, they can enhance specific skills that will help them prepare for STEM careers, such as environmental science, cosmetics research, and genetic counseling.

Adaptability. Adaptability is "the ability and willingness to cope with uncertain, new, and rapidly-changing conditions on the job, including responding effectively to emergencies or crisis situations and learning new tasks, technologies, and procedures" (Bybee, 2009). As students are placed in real-world situations, they need to be able to modify and readjust themselves so that they can respond to changes. They must acquire the skills to analyze new conditions as they arise, identify what will be required to deal with these altered conditions, and independently develop a strategy that responds to these changes.

Complex communication/social skills. A skilled communicator knows how to select essential portions of complex ideas and express them in multiple ways, such as in words and images, to create a shared understanding among people (Levy & Murnane, 2004). The process of communicating concepts in multiple ways aids science learning and teaching (Lemke, 2000). When students communicate clearly, they not only express ideas comprehensibly, but also make sense of information through listening and talking (Bybee, 2009). …

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