“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 6: The Easy Part

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

fox sparrowWe’ve been exploring science inquiry, starting with doing a casual observation in a natural area. In the last blog, I found an inquiry question. What did it tell me to do? I discovered how straightforward the Investigative Design is when it is built upon a clean inquiry question. The inquiry question I finally chose was, Where in trees do Fox Sparrows spend most time? That tells me what to do. Here are the steps it will take me to answer it.

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1. Go to the place where I will do my study.
2. Observe for Fox Sparrows. I might do a continuous observation, or break it into 15-minute intervals. I opt for intervals so that, in case the data are inconsistent in their aggregate, they may be influenced by external events that I might notice on site. This provides more information than simple overall totals. (At this point, I may decide to add a section in my data sheets for comments.)
3. Write down the numbers of Fox Sparrows in the trees, and my estimate of how far above ground they are.
4. When the observations are completed, analyze and interpret the collected data.
5. Then, refer the interpretation back to the question. Did I answer it?

Let’s look at your question. If you wrote a clear one, it will tell you what to do. Think of what it’s telling you, and write it out in steps. Make sure that the plan, as written, is practical and details procedures which can be followed by another person. Be sure that the information gathered by your procedures will provide an answer to your question.

Tell yourself how your plan answers the question. Tie parts of the plan to particular parts of your question. Then think of other classroom things this work might be tied to: What information do the main parts of your plan bring to the answer? How would you use this piece to develop critical thinking? Technical writing? Formulating operational definitions? How might you use this as a writing assignment? To address the misconception that scientists’ endeavors are clean and straightforward from the get-go? (Your students need to learn how scientists really do their work. They should be able to look at a set of canned directions and tell you why they’re written as they are. While scientists may master most of the pieces of investigative designs, there is always some level at which they continue to struggle. That’s one of the things that keeps them in the game.)

Now for the easy part. Collect a good set of data by following the plan that you described. Record any glitches you encounter, and any modifications to the plan that you had to make. Keep clear records. Note anything that was not anticipated by your plan. This may become useful later.

Here’s what I found. I had to add ‘the ground’ to the list of places in trees where I might find Fox Sparrows. In fact, they spent all of the time I observed them foraging on the ground. This raised lots of questions in my mind. If I was teaching, and this was my class making the observations and raising the questions, I’d have to decide if it was possible, given my schedule, to let them follow up on some of the questions they generated. I have no standard answer to this dilemma other than to do what seems best for the students’ development at the time. I think I’ll take this topic up in a later blog. It has lots of repercussions on how you teach, and how students learn and become empowered.

Once you’ve collected the data, you can begin to organize it so that it makes sense to you. Use this experience to mentally organize the ways you will record your data in the future. For instance, did the way you organized your data record beforehand have to be modified? How? Why? Did your protocols anticipate what you would experience on site? This is an important learning experience that helps you develop the concepts and skills which underlie science inquiry. Pass these learnings on to your students.

Then illustrate the data in a way which clarifies it. This can be a graph, a diagram, an illustration. As you do this, you may experience some twinges of uncertainty: Am I using the correct method of illustration and analysis; does the data clearly demonstrate what I thought it would; is my data significant? This is a topic we’ll return to from time to time. We all pass lots of math classes, but rarely have to use mathematical analysis in real world situations. The more comfortable you are with it, the more comfortable your students will be.

The data generated by my Fox Sparrow observations pose a few problems. For one thing, they all fit into one category – birds on the ground. I suppose I could make a bar graph, with ‘ground,’ ‘lower branches,’ and ‘upper branches’ on the X-axis, and ‘Number of Birds’ on the Y. It would certainly drive home the point, so I might do it.

However, doing this forces me to think about how I responded to the fact that no birds were in the trees. I realize now that they didn’t stray far from the trees and shrubs where I was working. None strayed into a meadow nearby, or toward the lake shore. I know now that I should have divided the ground habitat in some sort of representative sections, and counted birds in them. I’d probably have found something interesting. This is a piece of science inquiry we need to look at again later – what is the place of negative results in science inquiry? They are important, so we’ll come back to them in a later blog.

Now to interpret our data. What does it mean in terms of your question? This is the place in the inquiry where you decide if your investigation has provided an answer to your question. Work and think carefully. Include a visual representation of the data. If your data doesn’t answer your question, what does it say? If what it says isn’t clear, then does it raise other questions? Can you use inquiry to answer them? I certainly can do that with my results.

Summarize in a few words what the data says to you in terms of your question. Make this a clear statement with an opening sentence, and two or three supporting sentences. Then state any further questions that your inquiry raised and posit any next steps. Do this as if you would follow up on your findings and investigation, even though you may not have time. The thought processes engaged are worth it.

Good inquiry questions tend to raise other good questions as they are answered. This is like a bank account with interest. My own summary is, ‘Fox Sparrows spent all of their time foraging on the ground. They stayed within several yards of the shrubs and trees at the edge of a meadow adjacent to the shore of a lake. Their apparent foraging habit means I need to make observations over the period dawn-to-dusk to determine whether and where they perch in trees.

We’ve finished the active inquiry part of the work. This also completes the more or less didactic nature of the blog thus far. We’ll become more conversational, and perhaps more thoughtful. I’d like to hear from you, your thoughts on the things I’m writing about, on the place of environments and classroom science, or other topics you’d like to address.

Next time, we’ll communicate our findings, something most science standards and benchmarks leave out, but without which science would stagnate. In the meanwhile, work with your data and summarize it. I’ve noticed that the process of inquiry involves both convergent and divergent thinking. If you don’t know about these categories of thought, google them. They are important conceptual organizers you can use to organize and deliver your curricula.


This is the sixth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,  and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here.