Photo credit: Sarah Sullivan, Abernethy School, Portland

by Jim Martin
Clearing Associate Editor

T3he last time we met, students had planted seeds in parts of a garden plot they chose. So, where do they go now? They’ve made their decisions about where to plant each of their seeds. As the seeds sprout and grow, are there opportunities for them to engage in self-directed inquiries? Can they ask questions, like, “What would happen if ___?” followed by a perturbation they choose to introduce. Some possibilities that come to mind are things like sun flecks (the moving patches of sunlight in forested areas), watering schedules, companion plants, fertilizers and vitamins, pruning, hours of sunlight (photoperiod). What effect do these perturbations have on plants’ optimal growth? Kids have great imaginations, and I’m sure some of their perturbations would be more interesting than those I’ve mentioned. Doing this kind of work suggests that we are seriously entering the Experimental dimension of science inquiry. This is where you lose a little control over what students think and do, but not over how they go about their work.

The experimental dimension describes two extremes of hands-on activities, with steps between. 1) Descriptive, where the student simply observes and records phenomena. No conclusions are reached. We just know the status of those things we’ve chosen to observe. 2) Experimental, where the student manipulates experimental variables (contents of test tubes, temperatures, etc.) to effect change and thus infer causal relationships. Between the two extremes, students make comparisons or establish connections between observations of phenomena, but do not propose causality in these connections. This dimension has not been explored in K-12 science education in the same detail as the Inquiry and Structure dimensions, but it is important. It is probably also more difficult for teachers to comprehend, since most of us never engaged this dimension in our undergraduate and graduate preparation.

scientificinquiryLet’s take one of the posited perturbations and see how this plays out in the experimental dimension. We need to remember that we can’t determine cause without getting to the physiology of the plants and our perturbation. This is a time-consuming process, one that is worth exploring, but that takes particular knowledge and skills. For instance, we’d have to have intimate knowledge of what cells in our plants are doing. But, we can compare and correlate, and hypothesize a causal relationship, even though we may not have the time or capacity to test it.

One group of students decides to control their seeds’ photoperiod. At first, they plan to put a lamp near where they plant their seeds, but realize that they can’t control when the sun will shine. They talk and decide to make covers out of black plastic and place them over the seeds, and the plants when they emerge. They plant several sets of seeds, and place the bags over them for varying lengths of time each day. They realize that this means their seeds will receive light before and after school, but can’t come up with a better way to do it. So, they decide to do their experiment this way, and see what happens.

Whatever the outcome of their work, these students are engaging the Experimental dimension of science inquiry. They are young, and are experiencing their first engagement with science inquiry, as opposed to learning about and memorizing disparate science facts. Nor are they old, seasoned scientists – the well-oiled machines. Their efforts will include stumbles, but if they continue to experience science inquiry, they will learn to organize their thinking and working so that they will become the well-oiled machine themselves. My experience tells me that students rarely repeat errors in designing inquiries. The person who resides within each student sees to it. This is where their involvement and investment in their coursework ought to come from, that place where what we experience, think, and do is real, is part and parcel of our selves. The standard materials we use are addressed to the outer surfaces of the learner; the education we deliver ought to be addressed to the person who lives beneath those outer surfaces, the one who is individual, unique; learns for understanding in its own way. When we learn to recognize that, we grow in our capacity to teach effectively. In the process, we learn some interesting things about ourselves.

Students and teachers will find themselves, hopefully, exploring these continua as they go from novice to expert. In the course of a first year of science, students should develop from dependent observers and recorders of “what’s there,” to autonomous researchers “in search of truth” through controlled experiments formulated in response to self-generated questions. These are acts of the mind; critical thinking. As in life, fixation at a particular scientific inquiry developmental level is not healthy. We all have to learn to grow.

jimphotocroppedThis is a 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, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”