Science Inquiry in the Real World

by Jim Martin
Retired Science Educator
CLEARING Special Contributor

I-bluef you’ve never done a self-directed inquiry, or don’t see a connection between inquiry in the real world, and the science you teach in the classroom, here are three inquiry sets that you can try. They are roughly organized to fit difficulty levels from elementary to high school. Each is organized to do the real world work in the schoolyard, and the classroom work in the classroom. You can choose both activities from the same set, or you can mix and match.

The idea is for you to experience how self-directed science inquiry looks when you’re actually doing it. I can’t emphasize the ‘actually doing it’ piece enough. It’s much different from reading the instructions you get in the publishers’ materials and following them. The only way to recognize this is to try.

Elementary School: Schoolyard Activity – Find a place in your schoolyard where you can set up a small garden plot and plant seeds there. If you’ve never gardened, this means you have a learning curve to negotiate. You might look for a partner at your local extension or master gardener office. Before they plant, students should catalog all of the living things there. Look closely; some are very small. Each week, tend the garden and update your catalogs of who lives there, and other things you find interesting. Later, ask the class to describe the changes they observed, and any causes for changes they have posited. If some of these beg an inquiry, then have the class do one.

Classroom Activity – Second graders have done this one. Use books and planks to build ramps for hot wheels cars to roll down. Start with one book, lay one end of the plank on an edge of the book and the other end on the floor. Hold a hot wheels car at the high end of the board, then release it. Measure the distance the car rolled after it left the plank. Then add a book and repeat. Keep this up until the setup becomes unwieldy.

Before students start testing their hot wheels cars, tape a piece of butcher paper to a wall of the room. (If possible, have the ramps parallel to that wall so the graph students will build on it will reflect the actual distances traveled.) Mark the x-axis on the horizontal top and bottom of the butcher paper in inches, and the y-axis on the vertical ends of the butcher paper in numbers from 1 to the largest number of books which allow this system to work without impeding the motion of the hot wheels cars. After students have done their work, set up an arbitrary number of books, and have each group predict how far their car will travel based on their data and its interpretation.

Based on your observations of your students’ work, understandings, and questions, you can either stop here, or move on in the direction the class seems to be heading.

Middle School: Schoolyard Activity – Find a place on the school grounds which is not very disturbed, and which has some plants and ground cover. (It doesn’t have to look pristine. I’ve done this with students in a maximum-security prison, and they always found enough living things to complete the study.) Students go there, pick a spot to study, and lay out a quadrat (a square) one meter on a side.

Then they identify and count each living thing within the quadrat. If an animal is eating something, they can classify it by what it is eating. If it is eating a plant, it is a Primary Consumer; if eating another animal, a Secondary or Tertiary Consumer. Students will need to identify the living things they observe as closely as possible. For those who are plants, their category is Producer. For those who eat other things, their category is one of the levels of Consumer. This means students will have to research their animals’ trophic habit (what they eat) in books, the web, or by asking a biologist. If they can’t find the information, they can decide the animal’s trophic habit themselves.

Now, what to do with these numbers? Let’s build an ecological pyramid of numbers. These are simple, but informative, illustrations of ecosystems which can be used to compare one with another, or illustrate the effects of differences in environmental conditions. To build one, start with a rectangle of any arbitrary size. Draw it with a height of about one or two inches, and with a width as wide as will fit on the paper you are using. Inside this rectangle, write, “Producers.” The producer rectangle stands for the sum of all of the producers you counted. You can enter that number if you wish.

Now comes the hard part. You’ll make the rectangle which goes on top the producer rectangle in proportion to the number of primary consumers you counted. (Primary Consumers eat Producers.) This mathematics may be too difficult for your students, so here are two ways to calibrate the primary consumer rectangle. If your students aren’t yet able to do the math, demonstrate it for them. Let’s say you counted 639 producers, and 35 primary consumers. You could count by tens, starting in the middle of the top line of the producer rectangle and work out to the ends. There are roughly 320 individuals, or 32 divisions of ten on either side of the middle. Either you or your students can mark them off. The middle of one side would have a value of 16 divisions of ten, or 160 individuals, and there would be five divisions on either side of this middle. You could just eyeball to mark them evenly, and could then take the average width of a division as the division width to use to complete the rectangle. Now, if each division stands for 32 individuals, then 35 primary consumers is one division plus a thin line. The primary consumer rectangle can be placed anywhere on top of the producer rectangle. Write “Primary Consumers” in this rectangle, and their number if you are doing that.

Let’s say you counted 3 secondary consumers, and no tertiary consumers. The secondary consumer rectangle would be a little less wide than 1/10th the primary consumer rectangle. And this leads to the other way to calibrate the rectangles. Make the producer rectangle an even number of centimeters in width, then the primary consumer rectangle would be 35/639th the width of the producer rectangle in centimeters, and the secondary consumer rectangle 3/35th the width of the primary consumer rectangle in centimeters. Even if your students don’t use the mathematics of ratio and proportion yet, demonstrate it for them so they can anticipate what they will learn later on.

When the ecological pyramids of numbers have been completed, have the class post them, compare their various shapes, then discuss and try to explain differences. You can either stop here, or follow up on questions and observations which emerged.

Classroom Activity – Paramecium is the name of an interesting group of microbes. Most of us have observed them at one time or another. The usual paramecium activities describe something about paramecium, then provide directions for observing this. After a few verifications, students take a test and move on. There’s a difference between verification and inquiry. Here’s how I eventually learned to do Paramecium. I introduced them the day we started the first unit on cells. The lab had stations where students learned various things about cells. At one station, there was a culture dish of paramecia. There was a note saying these cells had been around several billion years, so take a look at them.

After we had completed our work at the stations, we reviewed each one. When  we got to paramecium, there would be a wave of commotion, and I’d ask what they had observed. They had seen dots moving inside paramecium, something swelling and contracting, an interesting body shape, etc. I asked if they’d like to find out more, and they would. So, they’d, in partnerships, decide what to find out about, write a proposal, and start the work. I’d announce that, if they were having difficulty with their observations, I’d find out what other scientists did when they encountered the same difficulty. As they’d ask, I’d ‘find’ the things they needed in the prep jroom, then ask them to show other groups who were making similar observations how to do it. At the end, groups would report, and we’d follow up if there was a direction students wanted to go. Then we’d take these learnings into our study of cells.

High School: Schoolground Activity – This project will take some time to complete. It involves observing where birds perch. You’ll need places on campus where there are trees or large shrubs. If there are no trees or shrubs nearby, you can assign observations on trees in students’ neighborhoods, or observations on birds on schoolground buildings. Since birds will probably be more active in the morning, you can assign the day and time period for making the observations. The observations are simple: date, time, name of bird (they can make up a name until they are able to identify it), where it is, what it is doing.

Have students make their observations in their own notebooks, and transfer the information to a classroom table which is accessible to all. After the weekly data is entered, ask for questions and comments. These will tell you where to go with this.

Classroom Activity – For this project, you’ll need at least one view camera, which is a bellows camera whose lenses are screwed into the shutter mechanism. If you can’t find one, most regions have camera clubs whose members love to let young people see how view cameras work. Sometimes you can find an old Kodak bellows camera in a second-hand shop. Most of these have a ground glass at the back where you see the image as you focus the lens. The center of the shutter is ‘the lens’ for this work. The center of the subject is ‘the subject,’ and the film plane (either the inside surface of the ground glass, or a mark which is a circle with a straight horizontal line through it on the top of the frame which holds the ground glass) is ‘the image.’  (If you absolutely can’t find a view camera, try a 35mm film camera. There is a circle with the horizontal line on it stamped into the top of the camera body which tells you where the image is, and use the middle of the length of the lens at the lens. Not perfect, but probably doable.)

Demonstrate what to do: Set the subject (anything you want to use) two or three feet from the lens on a very flat table top. Looking through the ground glass, move the lens forward and backwards until the image is in focus. Make sure the focus is as good as you can get it. Then, measure the distance in centimeters from the subject to the lens, and from the lens to the image.

Now, have each group move the image, refocus, and remeasure. They do this until they have ten observations. After all groups have had a chance to do this, have them analyze their data to see if they can find a common thread in the observational data. If they do, ask them to write a simple equation that says what they found. (My last year in a high school classroom, 9th graders did this with ease!) Have groups report their findings, then bring together a consensual understanding of the relationship between object, lens, and image. (I routinely do this after inquiries to see if there is anything else I should tell them.) Now, send the class into the books and the web to find out what other scientists have found.

The kind of education your students deserve is one in which we help our students learn to use their minds, and value that experience. There is a flip side to the standard verification activities students are asked to do. Instead of learning about, then manipulating, you have them manipulate, then learn about. This flip side is the way human brains learn best. I can tell you that the range for dissolved oxygen (DO) in a healthy stream is 8 to 15 parts per million, and for turbidity, 0 to 20 NTUs (nephalometric turbidity units). Then I can tell you to go out to a healthy stream to measure DO and turbidity to verify the claim that it is healthy. Or, I can show you how to measure DO and turbidity, then ask you to go to the stream to see if it is healthy. Which will produce learning for understanding? Why? We need to empower our students as they move from kindergarten to 12th grade. Even if no other teacher is doing this, you should. Each of us ought to give our students the best year in our classroom that we can. We’re the only ones who can control that.