On a bright, sunny fall day in my early years of teaching, I asked my students a question that immediately lost their attention: “What happens to the temperature of water as it moves from a solid to a liquid to a gas?” For them, the answer was simple and did not require them to sit in my classroom while I lectured on a day that beckoned everyone outside. It was a commonly known truth that ice was cold and that boiling water was untouchably hot.
As I watched my students slump back in their chairs and disengage, I panicked. How could I convince them there were other factors at play during transitions between states of matter? How could I get them to buy into the idea that the simple phenomenon of melting water actually represented a complex system of energy and intermolecular forces? I had to dispel their preconceptions about states of matter to convince them to think critically about ideas that were superficially simple.
Would the hands-on demonstration activity be enough to engage them? Would it shatter their misconceptions?
Within minutes, I was feeling calmer. Student groups were busy assembling ice baths, hot plates, and thermometers. They explored the phenomenon first hand by recording and plotting the temperature of water each minute until three minutes after the boiling point. This simple activity confirmed the students’ idea that the temperature of water did increase as it melted and began evaporating. It simultaneously shattered their preconception, however, that this change happened consistently overtime. The experiment yielded a novel idea that the temperature of water increased rapidly during a single state, but plateaued when water was moving between states. With this revelation, I had my students’ attention and the concepts of potential and kinetic energy were born.
How do you engage gifted students with inquiry tasks in your STEM classes?
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Incorporating Brief Inquiry Activities
Experimentation in a secondary classroom is a generally acceptable way to prepare students for advanced laboratory courses and to teach scientific literacy. These activities, however, can be difficult to implement due to barriers of cost, time or accessibility of supplies.1 Many traditional, ready-made laboratory activities also limit the actual inquiry that students perform by directing students through a series of predetermined steps that lead them to an expected endpoint. A series of questions may accompany the activity to help them to consider key takeaways or steps in the procedure, but often isolate critical thinking to brief moments before and after the laboratory portion. The Next Generation Science Standards addresses limitations of traditional STEM curricula and encourages instructors to incorporate science and engineering practices as a way to equip students with skills to study the natural world. By embedding brief lab-based learning experiences and by modifying traditional labs to facilitate critical thinking, we can increase the rigor in our classrooms and develop students’ investigative skills.
Brief, but rigorous inquiry activities can be easily incorporated into traditional classrooms as a way to engage and challenge students. They can be used as hooks or formative assessments to assess student preconceptions, tease out misconceptions, emphasize key takeaways, and to evaluate student mastery of the scientific process.
Here are some great places to consider including brief inquiry activities:
- Whenever lessons ask students to identify, define and memorize. Handouts, textbooks, and lectures equip students with vocabulary and knowledge, but do not easily provide students with the experience needed to understand, apply, and discuss using discipline-specific terminology and principles. Rather than simply listing the properties associated with ionic and covalent bonds, however, you may ask students to measure and compare the melting points, volatility, and hardness of table sugar, crisco, table salt and chalk while they rotate through brief exploratory stations. This prompts students to define each property while also answering questions such as, “How does the type of chemical bond affect the melting point of a substance?” and “How is volatility affected by the arrangement and interaction of molecules in a substance?”. In lieu of traditional handouts and quizzes, these experimental exercises increase rigor and student engagement by defining and differentiating properties, teaching students the methods by which to assess these properties, and connecting these terms to a sensory experience.
- When material is recycled or taught in several previous courses. States of matter, gas laws, and acid-base chemistry may be revisited several times throughout a student’s academic career. Short activities that ask students to disseminate knowledge and demonstrate mastery can push students to higher levels of thinking than traditional reviews. In a biology class, for example, you may review acid-base content from physical science by simply asking students to practice measuring the pH of simple acids and bases, to analyze changes in pH during a neutralization reaction, and to compare pH balance in buffered vs. non-buffered solutions. Students can then build on this knowledge and draw from their experience to discuss how buffered solutions, such as blood, maintain a homeostatic environment for living organisms or how antacids may be beneficial in neutralizing stomach acid.
- When students have a strong preference for kinesthetic or tactile learning. And even if your students don’t state such a preference, you know that activities that require movement, manipulatives, and actions often stay with us for years!
Modifying Traditional Labs to Build Inquiry
Although many traditional lab-based activities fall short of asking students to be principal investigators, teachers can alter ready-made procedures to increase depth and facilitate experimental design.
To embed inquiry, instructors can remove critical components of the procedure and prompt students to fill in pertinent information needed to conduct a rigorous experiment. You may consider:
- Framing the experiment with a simple question that they are asked to answer. This can be used as a formative or summative prompt that students use to think through what is needed to answer that question and what aspects of scientific theory support their experimental design. To review the Scientific Method during the first week of classes, I task student groups with answering the question “How does the temperature of water affect the amount of salt that can be dissolved?” using experimental methods. Because students of all ages are familiar with the basic materials and possible outcomes of this experiment, they do not need a formal procedure to follow in order to answer this question. They do, however, need to apply the principles of the Scientific Method to definitively solve this problem. This gives me the opportunity to assess their prior knowledge, identify misconceptions, and focus on ways to differentiate my instruction.
- Asking students to determine the types of data they need to collect throughout the experiment. They think through what the data represents, the meaning behind units of measure, and how data may be manipulated to support a particular outcome. In the open-ended salt lab described above, students may say they will record time, temperature, mass, volume, or other factors throughout the experiment. A class-based discussion can help decipher what types of data is necessary to collect, which measures are necessary to control, and which factors are impertinent to answering the question at hand.
- Prompting students to design a protocol that deduces the identity of mystery ions. For example, many lab activities exist for students to identify ions in solution through a series of precipitation reactions. As instructors, we can conceal the pre-made procedure of these exercises and use them as a guide for facilitating inquiry-based experiments for students. Rather than students following predetermined steps, we can prompt them to develop their own procedures using the listed reagents. With this method, students critically think about how to isolate specific ions within solution and definitively exclude other ions from the list of possibilities. They practice reasoning skills and consider how their experimental process affects the validity of their conclusions. By omitting the procedure of this exercise, we build rigor and increase student engagement through problem-based learning.
Inquiry does not need to require the extensive materials or equipment included in kits or laboratory classrooms. In the Scientific Method exercise, for example, students are not given any information regarding materials, equipment, constraints, or components of a well-designed experiment. This question, albeit simple, ensures that students can identify the parts of the scientific method, apply them the experimental design, and create a protocol that definitively answers the question at hand. They have to critically think about their desired outcomes, what pertinent data could support their conclusions, and what other factors can influence their results.
For students with a solid foundation in these skills, these types of open-ended inquiry experiments can be differentiated without changing the materials or equipment needed by simply changing the question asked. Instead of asking about the amount of salt dissolved, advanced students may be asked “How does the temperature of water affect the rate that salt dissolves?” This minor modification engages high-level students by asking them not only to consider materials and data, but also data analysis and interpretation.
Inquiry Captures the Spirit of STEM
Inquiry-based activities reframe traditional learning tasks of identifying and memorization into moments of exploration and discovery. These lessons add rigor to your classroom when students are asked to generate experiment, analyze data, and evaluate outcomes. By incorporating these activities in our regular instruction, we encourage students to become proficient in science skills and to internalize content through a scientist’s lens. This captures the innovative spirit of STEM and revitalizes our classrooms into places of investigation, learning, and curiosity.
1Boesdorfer, S. B., & Livermore, R. A. (2018). Secondary school chemistry teachers current use of laboratory activities and the impact of expense on their laboratory choices. Chemistry Education Research and Practice,19(1), 135-148. doi:10.1039/c7rp00159b