Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Designing Inquiry-Oriented Science Lab Activities

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Designing Inquiry-Oriented Science Lab Activities

Article excerpt

Teachers can create inquiry-oriented science lab activities that make real-world connections.

Two veteran science teachers in a well-performing school district, Mr. Smith and Ms. D'Amico, arrive at school on an ordinary day, excited about the day's lesson. These teachers are well liked, motivated, and knowledgeable in their content area. Both teachers use weekly lab exercises and experiments as formative assessments. In their middle school classrooms, children are engaged and eager to learn. As students walk into Mr. Smith's classroom, a prescribed, step-by-step procedure of the day's experiment is found at each lab station. Only 60 feet down the hallway, students in Ms. D'Amico's class arrive to find only the materials for the day's experiment and a lab rubric at each lab table. In this classroom, students are expected to design their own experiment using materials they choose from the lab table.

Are middle level science classrooms in your school more like Mr. Smith's or Ms. D'Amico's? To what extent do teachers in your school use inquiry-oriented approaches in their science labs? In this article, I contrast the traditional approach to science lab activities that Mr. Smith uses with the inquiry-oriented approach Ms. D'Amico uses. I describe in detail the way Ms. D'Amico implements an inquiry-oriented lab in her classroom and illustrate how teachers can prepare students for standardized assessments while still creating meaningful lessons with real-world connections.

Inquiry as an instructional framework

The emphasis on inquiry today can be traced to the discovery learning movement of the 1960s. The main premise behind any inquiry program is that students learn by doing through the process of problem solving. By posing their own questions in scientific investigations, students are considered the creators of knowledge, whereas teachers are the facilitators of this knowledge creation process. As Bruner (1961) noted, "The practice of discovering for oneself teaches one to acquire information in a way that makes it more readily viable in problem solving" (p. 26).

Inquiry is defined in the National Science Education Standards (NSES) as a content area (National Research Council, 1996), and many state departments of education concur. Many science educators forget that inquiry is not merely a process or method of instruction. This strategy defines the teacher's job as assisting students in the process of discovering knowledge, not providing knowledge for them. "Asking theoretical questions, making observations, developing hypotheses, engaging in experimentation, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, making inferences, and formulating new questions are some of the exciting processes that are practiced through inquiry-based science" (Hammerman, 2006, xxii).

Inquiry allows students to take responsibility for the problems they create or discover. As Sternberg and Lubart (2007) suggested: "Students need to take more responsibility for the problems they choose to solve, and we need to take less. The students will make mistakes and attempt to solve inconsequential or even wrongly posed problems. But they learn from their mistakes" (p. 170). True inquiry revolves around developing student responsibility.

One way to implement an inquiry-based learning program at the middle level is to incorporate activities that relate to authentic, real-life experiences. Students should be encouraged to think like scientists. According to the NSES:

Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. (National Research Council, 1996, p. 23)

Real-world connections to the curriculum enhance the use of inquiry learning in the classroom. …

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