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Inquiry in Science and in Classrooms

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 Science Education Standards, p. 23.

As pointed out in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996), students who use inquiry to learn science engage in many of the same activities and thinking processes as scientists who are seeking to expand human knowledge of the natural world. Yet the activities and thinking processes used by scientists are not always familiar to the educator seeking to introduce inquiry into the classroom. By describing inquiry in both science and in classrooms, this volume explores the many facets of inquiry in science education. Through examples and discussion, it shows how students and teachers can use inquiry to learn how to do science, learn about the nature of science, and learn science content.

A good way to begin this investigation is to compare the methods and thinking process of a practicing scientist with the activities of an inquiry-based science lesson. The stories in this chapter set the stage for many of the themes to follow. The sidebars suggest some important aspects of the investigations of both scientists and students.

INQUIRY IN SCIENCE

A geologist who was mapping coastal deposits in the state of Washington was surprised to discover a forest of dead cedar trees near the shore. A significant portion were still standing, but they clearly had been dead for many years. He found similar

Makes observations



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1 Inquiry in Science and in Classrooms 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 Science Education Standards, p. 23. As pointed out in the National A good way to begin this investiga- Science Education Standards (National tion is to compare the methods and Research Council, 1996), students who thinking process of a practicing use inquiry to learn science engage in scientist with the activities of an many of the same activities and inquiry-based science lesson. The thinking processes as scientists who stories in this chapter set the stage for are seeking to expand human knowl- many of the themes to follow. The edge of the natural world. Yet the sidebars suggest some important activities and thinking processes used aspects of the investigations of both by scientists are not always familiar to scientists and students. the educator seeking to introduce inquiry into the classroom. By de- INQUIRY IN SCIENCE scribing inquiry in both science and in classrooms, this volume explores the A geologist who was mapping many facets of inquiry in science coastal deposits in the state of Wash- Makes education. Through examples and ington was surprised to discover a observations discussion, it shows how students and forest of dead cedar trees near the teachers can use inquiry to learn how shore. A significant portion were still to do science, learn about the nature standing, but they clearly had been of science, and learn science content. dead for many years. He found similar 1 INQUIRY IN SCIENCE AND IN CLASSROOMS

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stands of dead trees at other places using carbon 14 radiometric methods. along the coast in both Oregon and He found that they all had died about Washington. He wondered, “What 300 years ago. As for the cause Gathers of the trees’ death, his mapping evidence using indicated no evidence for widespread technology and volcanic deposits in the areas of dead mathematics forests. Furthermore, the trees were not burned, nor did careful examina- tion indicate any evidence of insect infestation. The geologist began thinking about the possible role of salt water in killing the trees. He recalled that a large section of the Alaskan coast dropped Uses below sea level in 1964 when the previous tectonic plate that underlies much of research the Pacific Ocean plunged beneath the North American tectonic plate that Alaska sits on as the result of a major “subduction zone earthquake.” Many square miles of coastal forests in Alaska died when the coastline dropped and they were submerged in salt water following the earthquake. could have killed so many trees over He knew that a similar subduction so wide an area?” zone lies beneath the Washington and Reflecting on his knowledge of Oregon coast and gives rise to the earthquakes, crustal plate boundaries, volcanoes of the Cascade mountains. and subsidence along coastlines, the He wondered whether the trees in Exhibits geologist searched for possible Washington and Oregon might have curiosity, explanations. “Did the trees die at the been drowned by sea water when a defines same time?” “Was their death related large section of the coast subsided questions, from Propose a to nearby volcanic activity or some during an earthquake 300 years ago. knowledge possible kind of biological blight?” “Given their To check this explanation, he background explanation coastal location, was there some collected more data. He examined the relationship between the salt water sediments in the area. Well-preserved and the destruction of the forests?” sections of sediment exposed in the He pursued his first question by banks of streams inland from the dating the outer rings of the trees stands of dead trees showed a clean 2 I N Q U I R Y A N D T H E N AT I O N A L S C I E N C E E D U C AT I O N S TA N D A R D S

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layer of sand below the soil — unlike suggested that the source of the any of the dark, clay-rich soil above tsunami was a large subduction zone and below the sand. “Where did the earthquake beneath present day white sand come from?” he wondered. Oregon and Washington (Satake et al., The geologist knew that subduction 1996). zone earthquakes often produce Now the geologist had more tsunamis — tidal waves. He thought evidence supporting his explanation the sand layer could be sand washed that the sand layer was caused by a ashore during a tsunami. If so, this tsunami that accompanied an earth- would be further evidence of a major quake. Further examination of coastal coastal earthquake. Fossils recovered sediments uncovered additional, but from the sand layer indicated the sand older, remains of dead trees and sand came from the ocean rather than layers. He now thinks that earth- being washed down from inland, quakes producing very large tsuna- Adds to supporting the tsunami hypothesis. mis, like the one he first identified, explanation He published several articles in have repeatedly struck the Pacific peer-reviewed scientific journals Northwest coast in the past thousand hypothesizing that the dead trees and years, just as these large earthquakes Publishes sand layer found along the coast were strike other subduction zones beneath explanation evidence that a major earthquake Japan, the Philippines, Alaska, and based on occurred about 300 years ago, just much of Western South America. The evidence before European settlers arrived in the coastal subsidence caused by the region (Atwater, 1987; Nelson et al., earthquake submerged the trees in 1995). salt water, which led to their death. Several years later a Japanese As sometimes occurs with scientific seismologist, who was studying research, the geologist’s findings historic tide gauge records in Japan to influenced public policy. Public document tsunamis from distant officials have revised the building sources, identified a major earthquake codes for Washington and Oregon, somewhere along the Pacific rim on based on the deeper understanding of Explanation January 17, 1700, but the source of the earthquakes that grew out of this informs public earthquake was open to debate. research. New buildings must be policy Using historical records he was able to designed to resist earthquake forces eliminate the possibility of a large 50 percent larger than under the old earthquake from most known earth- code. Considers quake source regions around the This story illustrates several new Pacific. Aware of the geologist’s work important features of scientific in- evidence on dead forests in the Pacific north- quiry. A scientist noticed a phenom- west, the Japanese seismologist enon and had the curiosity to ask 3 INQUIRY IN SCIENCE AND IN CLASSROOMS

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questions about it. No doubt many methods to date the dead trees and other people had also noticed the dead the gathering of available knowledge trees, but they either did not wonder about the geology of the region. He about the cause of death or were not developed an explanation for the death in a position to answer the question. of the trees based on this preliminary Using his knowledge of geology and evidence and gathered more evidence what he learned about trees and their to test his explanation. He then habitats, the geologist made connec- published articles in which he dis- tions between the dead trees and cussed the relationship between the other features of the environment, evidence he accumulated and the such as the coastal location. Those explanation he proposed. Later, a questions guided his investigation, scientist in another part of the world which included the use of carbon 14 read the publications and, because Geologist’s report of his findings published in the journal Nature 4 I N Q U I R Y A N D T H E N AT I O N A L S C I E N C E E D U C AT I O N S TA N D A R D S

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scientists use universal descriptions This complex set of thinking and measurements, was able to abilities, which helped early humans compare his findings with those of the gather food and escape danger, American scientist. The Japanese constitutes the highly developed scientist obtained separate evidence capacity we refer to as inquiry. In — the occurrence of a tsunami on recent human history, some people January 17, 1700 — that gave further have directed their curiosity toward support to the hypothesis that a issues other than subsistence and subduction zone earthquake occur- survival — for example, the movement ring on that date led to the death of a of celestial objects, the causes of large number of trees along the Pacific seasons, the behavior of moving Northwest coast. objects, and the origins of organisms. Curiosity about such issues is unique to humans. People studied these THE NATURE OF HUMAN phenomena, developing hypotheses INQUIRY and proposing explanations. The The geologist’s search for under- communication of hypotheses, ideas, standing of the natural world is a good and concepts among individuals illustration of the human characteris- shaped the strategies, rules, stan- tics that make inquiry such a powerful dards, and knowledge that we recog- way of learning. Humans are innately nize today as scientific. curious, as anyone knows who has Inquiry into the natural world takes watched a newborn. From birth, a wide variety of forms. It can range children employ trial-and-error tech- from a child’s wondering how it is niques to learn about the world possible for ants to live underground around them. As children and as to the search by groups of physicists adults, when faced with an unknown for new atomic particles. Inquiry in situation, we try to determine what is classrooms also takes a wide variety of happening and predict what will forms, as described later in this happen next. We reflect on the world volume. But whatever its exact form, around us by observing, gathering, its role in education is becoming an assembling, and synthesizing informa- increasing focus of attention. Today tion. We develop and use tools to the world is being profoundly influ- measure and observe as well as to enced by scientific discoveries. analyze information and create mod- People need to make and evaluate els. We check and re-check what we decisions that require careful ques- think will happen and compare results tioning, seeking of evidence, and to what we already know. We change critical reasoning. Learning environ- our ideas based on what we learn. ments that concentrate on conveying 5 INQUIRY IN SCIENCE AND IN CLASSROOMS

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INQUIRY IN THE SCIENCE to students what scientists already CLASSROOM know do not promote inquiry. Rather, an emphasis on inquiry asks that we One of the best ways to under- think about what we know, why we stand school science as inquir y is know, and how we have come to know. through a visit to a classroom where Inquiry is at the heart of the Na- scientific inquir y is practiced. The tional Science Education Standards. following vignette features a particu- The Standards seek to promote lar grade, but, as illustrated through- curriculum, instruction, and assess- out this book, classroom inquir y can ment models that enable teachers to and does happen at all grade levels. build on children’s natural, human Sidebars point out some ways in- inquisitiveness. In this way, teachers quir y is occurring. can help all their students understand Several of the children in Mrs. science as a human endeavor, acquire Graham’s fifth grade class were the scientific knowledge and thinking excited when they returned to their skills important in everyday life and, if room after recess one fall day. They their students so choose, in pursuing a pulled their teacher over to a window, scientific career. pointed outside, and said, “We noticed something about the trees on the playground. What’s wrong with them?” Mrs. Graham didn’t know what they were concerned about, so she said, “Show me what you mean.” The students pointed to three trees growing side by side. One had lost all its leaves, the middle one had multicolored leaves — mostly yellow — and the third had lush, green leaves. The children said, “Why are those three trees different? They used to look the same, didn’t they?” Mrs. Graham didn’t know the answer. Mrs. Graham knew 6 I N Q U I R Y A N D T H E N AT I O N A L S C I E N C E E D U C AT I O N S TA N D A R D S

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that her class was scheduled to study investigated and which were descrip- Exhibit plants later in the year, and this was an tions. She then invited each student to curiosity, opportunity for them to investigate pick one explanation that he or she define questions about plant growth that they thought might be an answer. She questions had originated and thus were espe- grouped the students by choices: from cially motivated to answer. Although There was a “water group”, a “sea- Plan and current she was uncertain about where her sons” group, an “insects” group, and conduct knowledge students’ questions would lead, Mrs. so on. She asked each group to plan simple Graham chose to take the risk of and conduct a simple investigation to investigation letting her students pursue investiga- see if they could find any evidence that tions under her guidance. After all, answered their question. As they they had had some experience last planned their investigations, Mrs. year in examining how seeds grow Graham visited each group of students under different conditions. She hung up a large sheet of butcher paper where all the students could see it and said, “Let’s make a list of ideas that might explain what’s happening to those three trees outside.” A forest of hands went up: It has something to do with the sunlight. It must be too much water. It must not be enough water. Propose The trees look different. They used preliminary to look the same. and carefully listened as they formu- explanations It’s the season, some trees lose lated their plans. She then asked each or hypotheses their leaves earlier than others. group to explain their ideas to their There is poison in the ground. classmates, resulting in further The trees have different ages. refinement. Using this quick and Insects are eating the trees. public assessment of where they were, One tree is older than the others. she was able to help them think about Gather evidence the processes they were using to from When the students were satisfied address their question and consider observation that they had enough ideas, Mrs. whether other approaches might work Graham encouraged them to think better. about which of their ideas were For the next three weeks, science possible explanations that could be periods were set aside for each group 7 INQUIRY IN SCIENCE AND IN CLASSROOMS

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to carry out its investigation. The phlet from a local nursery entitled groups used a variety of sources to “Growing Healthy Plants.” The water gather information about characteris- group read the pamphlet and found tics of trees, their life cycles, and their that when plant roots are surrounded environments. For example, the by water, they cannot take in air from “different ages” group answered their the space around the roots and they question fairly quickly. They con- essentially “drown.” Based on their Explain based tacted the PTA members who were observations and the information they on evidence involved in planting that part of the obtained from the pamphlet, the playground and found the original students concluded that the leafless receipts for the purchase of the trees. tree was drowning, the middle tree A check with the nursery indicated was “kinda” drowning, and the third that all three trees were identical and one was “just right.” of approximately the same age when The water group continued its work purchased. As some groups com- by investigating the source of the pleted their investigations early, Mrs. water. They found that the school Graham invited their members to join custodian turned on a lawn sprinkler other groups still in progress. system three times a week. He left it The water group decided to look at running longer than necessary, and the ground around the trees every the excess water ran off the lawn and hour that they could. They took turns collected at the base of the trees. and jointly kept a journal of their Since the ground was sloped, most of individual observations. Since some the water collected at one end of the students lived near the school, their tree-growing area. Together with the observations continued after school other groups, they reported their hours and on weekends. They missed results to the rest of the class. some hourly observations, but they As different groups gave their had sufficient data to report to the reports, the class learned that some class. “The tree without leaves is observations and information — such almost always standing in water, the as those from the group investigating Communicate middle tree is sometimes standing in whether the trees were different — explanation water, and the green tree has damp did not explain the observations. The ground but is never standing in water.” results of other investigations, such as One of the students recalled that the idea that the trees could have a several months ago the leaves on one disease, partly supported the observa- Consider of his mother’s geraniums had begun tions. But the explanation that other to turn yellow. She told him that the seemed most reasonable to the explanations geranium was getting too much water. students, that fit all the observations Mrs. Graham gave the group a pam- and conformed with what they had 8 I N Q U I R Y A N D T H E N AT I O N A L S C I E N C E E D U C AT I O N S TA N D A R D S

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learned from other sources, was too explanation for what he observed, much water. After their three weeks applying his knowledge of plate of work, the class was satisfied that tectonics. The children applied their together they had found a reasonable knowledge to formulate several answer to their question. At Mrs. explanations and new questions before Graham’s suggestion, they wrote a undertaking further investigations. letter to the custodian telling him what The scientist, knowing of investiga- they had found. The custodian came tions by other scientists, used their to class and thanked them. He said he findings to confirm the validity of his would change his watering procedure original explanation. In Mrs. and he did. Mrs. Graham then asked Graham’s class, groups whose expla- the students how they could find out if nations were not confirmed lent their explanation was correct. After strength to the “excess water” expla- some discussion they decided that nation. The geologist published his they would have to wait until next year findings. The children “published” and see if all the trees got healthy their findings in their reports to their again. classmates and later in a letter to the The following year, during the same custodian. Although scientific re- month that they had observed the search does not always influence discrepancy, all three trees were fully public policy, the geologist’s discover- clothed with green leaves. Mrs. ies resulted in building code revisions Test Graham’s former students were now in Washington and Oregon. The explanation even more convinced that what they children’s investigations led to revised had concluded was a valid explanation lawn watering procedures at their for their observations. school. Inquiry in the classroom can take many forms. Investigations can be PARALLELS BETWEEN INQUIRY highly structured by the teacher so IN EDUCATION AND IN SCIENCE that students proceed toward known One is struck by the parallels outcomes, such as discovering regu- between Mrs. Graham’s class and the larities in the movement of pendulums inquiring geologist. The geologist (as noted in the Foreword and in the began his investigation with a question classroom vignette on pages 146-147 about an unusual and intriguing of the National Science Education observation of nature. So did Mrs. Standards). Or investigations can be Graham’s children. The scientist then free-ranging explorations of unex- undertook a closer examination of the plained phenomena, like the tree leaf environment — asked new and more discrepancies in Mrs. Graham’s focused questions — and proposed an schoolyard. The form that inquiry 10 I N Q U I R Y A N D T H E N AT I O N A L S C I E N C E E D U C AT I O N S TA N D A R D S

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science as inquiry across a broad takes depends largely on the educa- range of ages and scientific topics. tional goals for students, and because The intention is to improve the quality these goals are diverse, highly struc- of student learning by enabling them tured and more open-ended inquiries to acquire the abilities of inquiry, both have their place in science develop knowledge of scientific ideas, classrooms. and understand the work of scientists. The chapters that follow explore the dimensions of teaching and learning 11 INQUIRY IN SCIENCE AND IN CLASSROOMS