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September 30, 2013
When it was published in the 1950s, EDC’s landmark PSSC Physics curriculum helped usher in a new way of teaching science. It showed that science was a living, breathing discipline, and a hands-on approach was essential to building knowledge. Students learned best when they could see, touch, and smell the results of their experiments.
Charlie Hutchison believes an inquiry-based approach is still best, wherever kids are studying science. When leading workshops for EDC’s National Partnerships for Afterschool Science (NPASS) project, Hutchison uses an array of materials—marbles, paper plates, dowels, batteries and bulbs—to promote a first-hand approach to science. He recently shared some thoughts about how authentic hands-on, minds-on experience is the key to learning—and loving—science.
Hutchison: Inquiry-based teaching gives students the skills to become independent learners and investigators. The teacher’s role is to set up challenges that require students to observe, test, record evidence, and reflect on meaning. These are the practices that lead to solving problems and understanding scientific phenomena.
In an inquiry-based approach, the teacher supports the search for solutions but does not lead students there directly. It is a challenging way to teach. You have to know when to step in and help. And you also have to know when to let students struggle or even fail. You must also be willing to accept that answers might not show up during a single class period.
Hutchison: You can tell students are doing inquiry-based science when they are engaged with their hands and minds in scientific or engineering investigations that obviously interest and challenge them. And you can tell that teachers are teaching in this style when they keep the investigation and the conversation anchored primarily in what is observable and immediate and testable.
For example, in one of our projects, students build a small car out of paper plates, dowels, and cardboard, and they power it with a rubber band “engine.” The task is to make the car drive straight and far. Now typically, when students first test their cars, the wheels wobble or the cars swerve. So as a teacher, you ask questions that focus attention on the precise details of the situation—questions like, “What else happened at the moment that the wheel fell off?” or “What did you notice as the car turned left?” The point is to help the students make practical connections between causes and effects.
Building the skill and habit of careful observation helps the students fix the problem themselves. And after they have tried a “fix,” they roll the car again and see whether it made a difference. If not, they look to see how someone else solved the same problem. This makes inquiry much less intimidating because the focus is on concrete observations rather than on theoretical explanations.
Hutchison: I think inquiry is by far the best way to foster a love of science. But inquiry-based activities also create deep scientific understanding. Regrettably, schools don’t allow enough time in their schedules to make inquiry work.
However, I am seeing more inquiry-based science done beyond the formal science classroom. Afterschool programs, which are often relaxed and unpressured, turn out to be a good setting to introduce some aspects of inquiry. It’s easier to keep the process focused on immediate experiences and outcomes there. And we hope that as their interest and confidence builds, some students will even be turned on to pursuing science as a career. This style of teaching and learning can make science personal and fun—and it can be life-changing, too.