Discovering Inquiry Science

recognizing great science teaching

Hands-On Science vs. Standardized Testing Prep

As a young teacher, I relied upon the generosity of my peers and colleagues as they provided me with tried and true recipes for engaging and fun lab activities. As I learned to navigate teacher life, my students spent time in the lab observing phenomena within the context of textbook chapters. My mentor teacher took me to an outstanding conference in which we learned some foundations of inquiry learning in physical science. I began to recognize the importance of getting kids to think like a scientist.

At the right is an example of one of the earliest mini-activities that I designed on my own. It incorporated a real-world question and students were given some basic instructions on how to explore the answer. I found these short investigations to be fun and valuable by engaging and encouraging students to think and explore. I had plenty of preparation time built into my day and I went on to develop many such activities. On the whole, my teaching consisted of note-taking days and lab days, sprinkled with some shorter hands-on activities like the bottle activity. We were required to give a large final exam that consisted of multiple choice with a few essay questions.

In those same first years of my career, we administered state standardized tests for the first time in the state of Ohio. I was asked to teach a summer school course designed to help students who were at risk of doing poorly on the next upcoming state test. I learned for the first time what it meant to really "teach to the test." Over time, I found that efforts to ensure students were passing standardized tests detracted from the time and energy that it takes to develop quality inquiry experiences in the sciences. I found myself not wanting to take any chances that students would come away from open-ended inquiry experiences with the specific knowledge that these tests required.

Todd Torrence, myself, Carol Kovac, Allan Slawson. Shaker Heights High School Bridges Team, Halloween, 2001.
Bottle Activity - What’s the difference between sound and MUSIC?
inquiry-based learning: this term has evolved and shifted in science education. It is now taken to refer to the variety of activities that engage students in doing scientific questioning, hypothesizing, experimentation, analysis, more. 

The terms inquiry and three-dimensional learning may often be taken synonymously, especially when discussed in conjunction with the Next Generation Science Standards. In such contexts, it encompasses all three dimensions, as defined in A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012)

In teaching seventh and eighth grade, I leveraged Schoology, and later Canvas modules, along with badges to provide an adaptive and responsive test preparation system that my students largely found fun and motivating. It was time-consuming to put together, but feasible because of the architecture of the test itself. It was largely a reading test, featuring memorization of some key concepts, with some comprehension challenges thrown in. I found it frustrating that I felt I needed to expend time and energy into teaching to the test. I experienced what many teachers did. It felt like too much of a gamble to simply try to incorporate effective science teaching practices and hope that it would be enough to help them pass the test.

My system was comprised of modules for each standard that shows up on the eighth grade NSCAS (formerly NeSA) test. The size and length of these modules corresponded to how many questions the students would get on the exam in that area. Each module began with a short pre-test, followed by optional interactive websites, games, videos, vocabulary sets, and more. They were designed to target specific knowledge quickly and efficiently. If a student did well on a pre-test, they could skip some or all of the activities and head straight to the end of the module, which was a randomized set of practice questions that evaluated each part of the standard. The students could take it as many times as they wanted, but it would change every time and was very difficult to simply "game the system" if one did not know the content of the standards. Once demonstrating mastery in an area, they earned a badge and could move onto another standard. This method of review was engaging and fun. Some students opted into a "leader board" game that added a voluntary competitive component.

Creating this system of review was a form of what could be considered artificial intelligence. The system would make decisions for the student based on the knowledge that they were able to demonstrate. All the while that I was designing and implementing this learning game, I felt a twinge of guilt. It was a great use of technology, but it was still just teaching to the test. I relied on other activities such as science fair and lab time to give students the science experiences they craved. Earning badges did not help them think like a scientist.

Lessons from Science Fair

During my first year in Pender, I spearheaded Pender's Family Science Night, as I have done each year since. In the months leading up to that event, students in grades 6-8 complete a science fair project. Fifth graders prepare hands-on activities to share with other students at the event. That first year was my first experience with science fair as a teacher, and it was challenging and time-consuming. I quickly discovered the importance of tending to equity in situations where students with more engaged parents had a different experience when work took place outside of the home. With that in mind, I went back to Canvas to create modules to guide students through the process and take steps to try to ensure that each student progressed during our time together. I recorded videos, such as the one at the right. That particular video was originally recorded to help with NeSA review, but did double duty later with science fair. The Canvas modules and videos constituted my effort to make clear the experiment steps so that the students could go back and review them whenever needed. Canvas allows for simple resubmissions, and we aimed for high quality before students could move to the next stage.

I would come home in the evenings mentally drained from bouncing from one topic to another and thinking through what was needed to support one hundred different projects simultaneously. I consumed valuable class time in order to keep students moving forward, where some teachers might have assigned portions outside of class. I spent long hours after school with students, performing experiments that couldn't be done in class and helping them to create boards to communicate what they'd learned.

When Family Science Night came around in spring, I was often exhausted, but satisfied that my students had a much greater understanding of what it meant to investigate like a scientist. For me, the science fair experience was a key counterpoint to teaching to the standardized test. I found value in allowing students a measure of autonomy about what to study and how to study it. I embraced my role as a guide on the sidelines and loved the time when I wasn't driving the daily lessons in quite such a controlled way. Most importantly, I felt like my students knew how to conduct an experiment and report on them from beginning to end.

Each year in Pender, we were asked to set goals for the next year and evaluate whether we had met the prior year's goals. My goal for several years in a row was something like "implement more authentic inquiry experiences into our daily class time." In the back of my mind, I felt like I depended too much on science fair to help my students feel like real scientists. I wanted to find ways to bring that autonomy, curiosity, and self-determination into our daily routines.


anchor phenomenon: large-scale, real world event that can be used to spark conversations, ideas, and questions throughout a science unit. 


investigative phenomena: the events or trends that students observe when testing answers to questions about the anchor phenomenon

Starting to Think in 3D

The Next Generation Science Standards were released in 2012 and I started to look at them over the next year, knowing that they would not be adopted by Nebraska very quickly, but recognizing the potential that they held. I started to become versed in the vocabulary that accompanied the standards, and the underlying philosophies that drove their development. I participated in state-level meetings, inservices, and classes. Because of this, I was ultimately selected to participate in the Nebraska standards revision process in 2016. More information about the standards and their architecture, is available on this page.

In learning about NGSS, I felt like I finally had a language with which to discuss the kinds of inquiry and constructivist learning that I was aiming for. The NGSS breaks the science fair experience into lots of discrete chunks and embeds the scientific process throughout yearly instruction. Successful lessons or instructional sequences built within the three dimensions can often be open-ended and unscripted, requiring each student to explore, question, and experiment at different paces. Three-dimensional lessons should largely be built around real-world phenomena, with students observing, researching, testing, and constructing knowledge for themselves. Activities may allow for some degree of self-determination and could be relatively uniform for an entire class, but just as often they may vary amongst students, such as electing to use different methods of testing a variable during a classroom experiment. Further along that inquiry spectrum, students may be working on a completely independent topic of inquiry, such as a science fair project or Genius Hour project. (“Genius Hour - Where Passions Come Alive,” 2018)

Pragmatic Concerns: Inquiry and Three Dimensions

For practitioners of inquiry-based science teaching and three dimensional learning, several challenges quickly become apparent. As with my experiences in science fair, the challenge of attending to many students at the same time forces teachers to consider how best to manage such experiences. When trying to lead a class in constructivist learning activities, hands-on experiences are a must and how to allow each student to build his or her own knowledge is the first concern that must be addressed. An inquiry classroom can become a dynamic and noisy place, with a teacher feeling torn in many directions at once. Three-dimensional learning should be constructed so as to maximize student thinking and doing while still allowing access to the important guidance of an instructor.

A second challenge then stems from the first and this is the uncertainty of whether a particular student understands both the content and the scientific practices in a given activity. It can be difficult to assess a single student’s comprehension with these inquiry activities, especially when the aforementioned conversations are rushed in a large classroom and projects and inquiry occur in groups. Follow-up questions or lab reports may show a glimpse of a student’s constructed knowledge, but I have often found myself unsure of whose knowledge is actually reflected in such assignments, even when students are instructed to write their own. Misconceptions in a lab activity often permeate the work of the entire group. Thus, as we shift toward frequent inquiry and constructivist activities as our primary form of assessment, there arises a need to clearly, consistently, and fairly determine a student’s knowledge and ability within a given indicator.