More on Inquiry, Sci Method

Char A Bezanson bezanson at
Wed Apr 18 16:09:41 EST 2001

As a botanist and a science educator, I've been following
the "science-fair" strand with interest.  I am very
interested in the fallout from teaching of "the" scientific
method, which is much more complex than we sometimes give it
credit for (von Helmont's historic experiments to determine
where the "mass" of a tree came from are a good example- he
used "the" method as well as the technology of the time
would allow, but came to very incomplete conclusions!).  I
recall judging one classic science fair project, where the
4th-grade experimentor was testing the effect of fertilizer
on the growth of six Sanseveria plants over a period of 8
weeks.  For a school project, this was an ambitious time
period, and a pretty reasonable sample size, but his
conclusion was that fertilizer made no difference to the
growth of these plants.  Sanseveria plants, at least in my
experience, grow VERY slowly, so I'm not at all surprised
that he didn't detect a difference between treated and
untreated plants!  More experience with plants or with the
intricacies of multiple controls would have helped, but he
was a 4th grader!  What really makes a difference is a
teacher who encourages long-term observation before
designing experiments, so that the question is one that the
student really wonders about!  Then, the teacher can help
the student determine what evidence would be needed to
answer the question.   

I have forwarded much this strand to a very well-read
Minnesota science educator, Ed Hessler of MESFI, the
Minnesota Environmental Sciences Foundation.  If the
Botanical Society or others are really interested in
producing materials addressing data analysis or experimental
design, Ed provides many useful references to check.  School
science is concerned with "doing science right", but is also
concerned with "how we learn science".  The recent national
standards documents (produced with extensive involvement of
the scientific community) make use of current research on
learning, contain loads of good material, and focus on the
process of inquiry. It is the nature of our current
predicament, though, that many teachers (and many
scientists!) are not aware of this research or these
materials.  Here is a place to start:

> Ed Hessler wrote:
> Char:
> Thanks for forwarding the contributions to the inquiry
> strand--science fairs--on the plant list serve.  They are
> a delight to read and to use for thinking about scientific
> inquiry at all levels, from those first tentative probes
> of a beginner to the secure forays of a practicing
> scientist and how both grow (as well as the importance of
> theory--scientific--in informing learning).
> I am struck though by the lack of attention or knowledge
> of the science education side of things, including
> resources/references to two current "sacred texts," or
> standards documents.  The standards volumes
> are:
>    * National Research Council. 1996. National Science
>      Education Standards. National Academy of Science
>      Press, Washington, DC.
>    * Project 2061. 1993. Benchmarks for Science Literacy.
>      American Association for the Advancement of Science,
>      Washington, DC. (
> I also think that the National Council of Teachers of
> Mathematics (NCTM) standards are important to know about
> for they add considerable new content to mathematics and 
> describe how it is distributed across the K-12
> spectrum.  New areas of mathematics are discrete
> mathematics and data and chance (statistics).  It would be
> important to look at these in the event of publishing, if
> I recall, a "two sided sheet on how to inquire and how to
> do data analysis".  As a matter of fact there is a
> wonderful book available from NSTA (see below) for
> secondary teachers on investigating which includes
> significant sections on statistical tests.   I can't think
> of its title though and while I have a copy of some of it
> here, I can't put my hands on the notebook I put it in.
> If I run across it I will send the reference on.  For any
> high school teacher doing inquiry it is a vade mecum, a
> tool not to be without.   While I'm at it, before I'd publish anything
> like the two-sided sheet, a search of the relevant science
> education literature might be useful as well as a
> conversation with at least two leading science education
> groups: the NSTA and Project 2061, both in Washington, DC
> or area (NSTA is in Alexandria).  One of the great lessons
> of the 1960s curriculum revolution was that curriculum
> materials designed to be what in those days were regarded
> as "teacher proof" (a little arrogance there, right?!), is
> that there is more to this business of curriculum,
> instruction and assessment than mere paper materials,
> especially since we are now increasingly trying to teach
> for understanding rather than rote "plug and chug."  We
> need deeper content understanding as well as personal
> experience with inquiry.  NSTA's journal for college
> science teaching has many good articles on inquiry
> approaches and deserves examination.
> In addition there has been much written about science
> fairs and I wouldn't be surprised if the National Science
> Teachers Association (NSTA) still published a book on
> science fairs, a compilation of articles from primarily
> Science and Children, their journal for grades K-6
> teachers.  The web site is (I hope!).
> This book deals with some of the issues raised.
> Much of the advice and comments seem to come from the
> "front-of-the-room," the "stand and deliver" sort of
> education that many of us were raised on (and some of us
> did reasonably well by, because of or in spite of, and are
> still constrained by from considering other alternatives
> to educating).  This seems to me counter though to what we
> are learning about how we learn encompassed in a rich,
> multilayered and complex concept known as constructivism.
> For starters, I like the Grennon's smallish book published
> by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum
> Development (ASCD), "In Search of Understanding: The Case
> for Constructivist Classrooms."  The web site is
> (and again I hope.  I'm troubled when
> I start "remembering FAX and Web addresses; next will be
> the 9 digit zips.)  There are some nice papers in past
> issues of The Science Teacher, e.g., one by Robert Yager
> but it is several years ago and I'm too lazy to search for
> it.
> There are three "methods" books that provide deep and
> enduring insights to doing science.  Each is a favorite
> for similar and different reasons.  These are books that
> ask for a shift in the role of the teacher.  It is
> tempting to say to a "guide on the side" but that is too
> passive for me.  The teaching each requires is as active
> as we hope for the student and is demanding, also
> requiring profound understanding of science or at least a
> deeper and growing understanding than many of those who
> teach science have.
>    * Mary Budd Rowe. 1974. Teaching science as continuous
>      inquiry.  McGraw-Hill, NY, NY.  This is a gold
>      standard and alas is no longer in print.  It was
>      followed by a second edition.  Ms. Rowe was a premier
>      science educator and in my view irreplaceable.  What
>      a rich book.  She closes the book with a great
>      section on "what if we taught all children to ask
>      questions on evidence, evaluation, inference and
>      action."  These questions interested her for she
>      discovered that adolescents ask these kinds of
>      questions or are interested in them as they grow up,
>      learning who they are and how they want to interact
>      with the world.  Arnold Arons, a physicist at the
>      University of Washington, routinely asked similar
>      questions of his students as they learned physics:
>      how do we know? what is the evidence? how good is it?
>      what if? and so on.
>    * Selma Wasserman and George Ivany. 1988. Teaching
>      elementary science: Who's afraid of spiders. Harper
>      and Row, NY, NY.  Ms. Wasserman and Mr. Ivany use a
>      learning cycle in their fully explicated learning
>      stations: play, debrief, and replay.
>    * Anton Lawson. 1994. Science teaching and the
>      development of thinking. Wordsworth, CA.  This
>      secondary book is challenging and is organized around
>      the learning cycle: exploration, term identification,
>      and concept application.  Mr. Lawson was one of the
>      contributors to this instructional approach and
>      remains committed to it, including significant
>      research as well as a number of books/monographs on
>      using it for educating.  This is not an easy methods
>      book, indeed it is demanding and challenging and
>      worth the time and effort.  In his section on
>      assessment he has some useful and insightful comments
>      on science fairs.
> When I read the reference to "the" method of
> science--can't remember who, I thought of a different and
> in my view much closer approach to helping students
> develop the thinking skills/the hand skills of science.
> The paper is by Wolff-Michael Roth and Anita Roychoudhury
> and was published in the Journal of Research in Science
> Teaching, 30:127-152, 1993.  The title is "The development
> of science process skills in authentic contexts" and
> discusses three courses, a grade 11 introductory physics
> course, a grade 12 physics course and a grade 8 general
> science course (that focuses on ecology).  This is a
> report of work done by Roth and Roychoudhury when they
> were teaching at a private boys school in Canada.  The
> "method" is conversation and narrative, a continuing
> honing of skills, understandings and demands as kids go
> back and forth between a current learning/puzzlement and a
> new one. There is just enough in this paper for a person
> to get a feel of how learning under construction works as
> well as what it looks like.  I, of course, would prefer
> that everything be here, the assignments, the books used,
> how the class day/period is organized, the assessments but
> that would be a book and a half or more.  This is one of
> several papers by Roth (and others.  Another co-author is
> G. Michael Bowen.  Roth et al wanted students to learn in
> a setting like the ones they had experienced in graduate
> school when they were learning physics and ecology.  This
> team committed themselves to teaching courses in
> laboratory, nonlecture settings that emphasize science as
> a process of making meaning and knowledge as individual
> and socially negotiated construction. I can't recommend
> their work highly enough.
> While there is little question of the importance of "The
> Structure of Scientific Revolutions," I don't think this
> is a very useful book on how scientists do science.  Some
> of my favorites are, although I don't think that they are
> completely accessible to average high school students
> (average is not meant pejoratively).  Students on average
> would need some help.
>    * Johnathan Weiner.  The beak of the finch.
>    * June Goodfield. An imagined world.
>    * James Watson. The double helix.
>    * John Janovy, Jr. On becoming a biologist.
>    * Bernd Heinrich (almost anything by him, e.g., Ravens
>      in Winter or a more recent book on the forest that
>      surrounds his cabin in Vermont)
> I find many of the articles in Science News useful in
> learning how scientists do science, what its nature is
> like and how science evolves, moves forward.  However,
> there are hints everywhere in journal articles, books
> about science, books about scientists. etc.   It has been
> a while since I looked at the Harvard Project Physics
> Readers, a wonderful historical approach to physics
> developed in the 1960s, an extraordinary blooming of
> curriculum that was aimed in the right direction and has
> helped us get to a better place today. but I think these
> would be useful, too.  In my view, student's work can be
> used for achieving this sense and kind of understanding,
> too.  It requires a teacher to take the time to debrief,
> one who is unwilling to give answers but to facilitate
> discussion, a relentless demand on evidence and making
> appropriate suggestions such as "have you thought of...?"
> "what if we tried...?" and so on.  The emphasis though is
> on the science and the scientific merit of the work.  Ms.
> Rowe's book provides additional insights on how to go
> about this with young learners although applicable to all
> learners.
> Hey, you didn't ask but here it is.  It is time for me to
> go and time for you to hit the DEL before you scream!
> Take care.

Char A. Bezanson (bezanson at
School Nature Area Project
St. Olaf College
Northfield,  MN  55057

The average person recognizes more than 1000 corporate
but can identify fewer than 10 plants and animals native to
her locality,
according to Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce.


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