Teaching Science Inquiry

Teaching Science Inquiry

Can I become a science inquiry facilitator? . . . If I’ve never been one?

by Jim Martin

What do I need to be competent in, comfortable with, being a facilitator instead of a top-down teacher? I think a first thing is the recognition that people can learn on their own; that they don’t need to hear me say every single thing that I want them to know. To be free to allow that, facilitators have to be comfortable with their understandings of the content they are delivering. And, they need to be comfortable developing effective work groups. Actually, I can think of a bazillion things, but these three are, so I currently believe, essential to making the transition.

If the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are going to become more than simply another swing of the pendulum that arcs through the schools with predictive regularity, then teachers need to rally to support and develop those pieces of these initiatives which are directly targeted at the deficiencies in our teaching. Deficiencies which have landed us in a mediocre position in the educational statistics describing achievement on the globe. We’re the only ones who can do it.

Both the CCSS and NGSS initiatives profess to be based on a constructivist, active learning model of teaching and learning. This, to me, is wonderful news. Our brain is admirably organized to learn by actively constructing conceptual schemata, conceptual learnings. It does this best by asking questions of the real world. This means that teachers aren’t , of necessity, people who put learning into other people’s brains; rather, they are people who can organize their teaching environments to draw out the learning potential which resides in their students’ brains. They facilitate those brains to enter a conceptual space, engage and discuss what is there, and find out as much as they can about it. Like the little robotic vacuum cleaners, when, once their switch is turned on, clean up all the dust and litter in the room. All by themselves, with no one directing them. Once you turn on a brain, it doesn’t turn off. Unless it loses its freedom to work.

I’ve observed this dichotomy of teaching practices as long as I have taught, and been a student. Didactic, teacher-centered practices, and constructivist, student-centered practices: Is it a matter of personality, or of comfort with the content and methods being used to teach it? That makes a teacher prefer one or another? I’ve had (and observed) teachers who told me what to learn and how to learn it, then tested me on the results. Twice, in high school, I had teachers who threw out an idea, then sat back as I tried to find out more about it. I remember what I learned by finding out 60 years later. And the excitement of the learning. I carry no specific memories of learnings from the rest, except for things which personally interested me, like diagramming sentences. Which, odd it may seem, I loved to do.

The didactic teacher I had from fifth through eighth grades was the kind who told me what to learn and how to learn it all the way to the last days of eighth grade. Then, she started us on the way to pre-algebra by saying, “You don’t have to learn this. Just see if you can follow the argument.” Then, she wrote on the board the first algebraic expression I’d ever seen, a + 2 = 6. I looked at that for awhile and thought, “Wow! You can use letters to stand for anything! You could learn about anything with that!” A mind, at last free to explore.

For that brief moment, my stern, demanding teacher had become a facilitator. All by herself. That was 1952. Had her stern and demanding exterior reflected a lack of comfort with the content she was teaching and the methods used to deliver it; or, was her exterior reflecting the personality within? I can’t answer that question, but the obvious interest and enthusiasm she brought to the introduction to equations suggest she may not have actually been a stern and demanding person. It seems almost, from hindsight, relief to be free to teach as she thought she ought that I observed those very few days at the end of eighth grade. Today, more teachers have experienced being facilitators, but many have not. What would you need to become one? How can you find out?

At this point, I should leave you to find out; but, I’ll barge ahead with my own ideas, just as any didactic teacher would. Hoping all along that you’ll adopt a constructivist approach to the subject. That said, let’s start with my offering of three things a person who is a facilitator must have encountered and successfully engaged.

The first is probably the most difficult for a teacher to entertain – recognizing that people can learn on their own. When I first experienced this, I was in my first year teaching below college, in a 7th grade self-contained classroom. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had begun employing a constructivist teaching paradigm. It was hard, exciting work, yet I always felt the anxiety-producing peer pressure from colleagues whose view of school was students sitting in rows doing quiet seat work. Luckily, I had a very supportive principal, who encouraged what I was doing. And I applied what I had so far learned from raising my own children, that they do best when they are following up on choices they have made, which I had offered them, and which were within the limits I knew were workable.

So, what did I learn about using constructivist vehicles for delivering 7th grade curricula? About whether and how students can learn on their own? One, that this worked. At least, for me. They had two and a half hours each morning for language arts. During that tiem, they scheduled and worked on open-ended (but contained) writing and reading assignments. We also used speech and drama to engage active learning. (I didn’t know that’s what it is called; I simply knew it worked.) For instance, while working in groups to write and deliver one-act plays to elementary classes, they also learned the current language arts curriculum I had to deliver. Students became involved and invested in their work, and I noticed they also seemed empowered as persons. These were outcomes of the work; I wanted to know how this involvement and investment in their educations came to be. And that started my lengthy, often-interrupted journey into the human brain. A long stretch for me, with my background in intertidal marine invertebrate communities!

How would a constructivist science-inquiry delivery look in an actual classroom in two very different activities? The first is a microscope activity, where students observe for the stages of mitosis in plant cells. The second is a field activity, where students observe the effects of streamside vegetation on the temperature and dissolved oxygen content of the water adjacent to it.

When you employ a constructivist paradigm to organize the delivery of your curriculum, the students’ job is to construct the concepts you hope they’ll acquire by examining the pieces of the concept they are acquiring. Instead of you telling them the concept, they learn its essential parts by engaging them, and then use these parts to tell themselves the concept. A different way to teach; but effective. The first few attempts call for courage and confidence on the part of the teacher. And, in time, the patience to take the time to allow the learning to happen.

How does this play out? In the mitosis activity, you might start by projecting a slide of plant tissue containing cells whose chromosomes have been stained; the usual root cells most of us have observed. You have students pair up to do two things: Locate as many chromosomal configurations as they can and draw them. Or, if you know your students well, ask them to find out if there is any underlying order in the mish-mash of chromosomal configurations they see. This done, they are to organize their drawings in the order they think they occur during the progress of cell division. If you’re truly brave, you might ask them to find and draw other cellular evidence to support your placements. That done, they can present their findings, then go to the books and internet to find what other scientists have found about cell division. They will learn as much, or more, than you would have taught them. And moved further on the road to becoming life-long learners; explorers of the world they live in.

In the streamside activity, you ask each group to take a reach along the stream, then find out the effect of the vegetation on temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water along that reach. Nearly all students can do this. You can provide gentle hints about overhanging vegetation if necessary. The hard part of this work for you is locating a stream which has enough overhanging vegetation for the number of groups in your class. When they’ve collected the data, they find out what they can about temperature and dissolved oxygen, and relate that to what they observed. Next, they prepare presentations about their work, what their data tell them, and what next steps would be if they have discussed them in their groups. (Note that these are things the students and teacher do. To know what they think, we need to go into the brain.)

Eventually, with a constructivist approach to conceptual learnings, coupled with a didactic approach to things like safely lighting a bunsen burner or using a dissolved oxygen probe, I became convinced that this consistently led to solid learning. So, I slowly began to learn about the brain we carry with us, and the ways that it learns. What I found reinforced what I observed; validated it as a teaching paradigm based on real evidence. I had observed evidence over the years that students seeking answers to their own questions involved and invested them in their work; but that was just me, making observations and inferences. As I learned more about how the brain processes input from the world outside the body, I discovered that what I observed was real. Students get better and better at this. Probably quicker than you do. This relates to students as autonomous learners. Autonomous because they are pointing their needs to know, and following up on them.

The other two things a facilitator must engage, comfort with understandings of content, and comfort with developing effective work groups, are our responsibilities. Here is how I approached them. First, I recognized that they are, indeed, our responsibilities. Just as it was my responsibility to take college and graduate courses to fill the gaps in my understandings when I taught in college. Goes with the job. We’re teaching professionals, and that places the onus on us to do what is necessary to become comfortable with the content we teach. The only way to do that is to learn the content. We can take courses in it, work out an internship with someone who does the work, or teach ourselves. It’s an unfortunate fact of American education that we’ll be asked more than once in our careers to teach content we’re either marginally prepared to teach, or know next to nothing about. It will take all of us, working together, to resolve that.

When I finally decided to teach in K-12 schools, I knew nothing about teaching reading. I’d taken literature courses in college, but could only recall that we read, then discussed, then wrote papers. Not much help. I’d noticed in the few teacher education courses I’d taken that the most informative were the special education courses, so I enrolled in a course in corrective reading. It was taught by Colin Dunkeld, and delivered within a constructivist paradigm. (This was in the early 1970s!) I became comfortable enough to make my own decisions about teaching language arts. The corrective reading course was very hard and time-consuming work, but had a great payoff – confidence in content and comfort in delivery. That, and my life-long love of words helped me build a useful / effective / profitable / worthwhile7th grade language arts curriculum.

When you decided to do the mitosis and streamside vegetation activities, you marshallled together your understandings about those topics. You’d observed slides of dividing onion root-tip cells in a genetics course you took in college, and felt familiar enough with the process and observations that you would probably only have to review and practice to come up to speed in the mitosis activity. You’d also taken two botany courses because you’ve always loved plants, so felt you could understand the vegetation part of the overhanging vegetation activity. Temperature and dissolved oxygen in streams is new to you, so you decide to ask around about finding help. You contact the school district science specialist who recommends a field trip program which focuses on the riparian (streams and their banks) which includes water temperature and dissolved oxygen in its offerings. As a real bonus, the program includes measuring the effect of streamside vegetation on temperature and dissolved oxygen near the stream bank, and a field trip for you and your students. Offerings like the one described are fairly common! You do have to ask.

If your circumstances are different for your preparation to teach these two activities, how would you approach them? Leave your thoughts as a comment for others who will, you can be sure, be interested. Or, leave a question for me to answer!

Aside from knowing and teaching the learner inside each student who enters your door, your becoming comfortable with content and its delivery is something you cannot bypass. Its effect on your students is profound. Think of yourself as being assigned to perform as a heart surgeon, even though you’d never done it. Would you be satisfied knowing that, while you did have experience in knee surgery, you had none in heart surgery? Like surgeons, we directly affect the quality of our students’ lives, and must be certain we are delivering the best education possible. We can’t do that if we’re uncertain about our content understandings and delivery methodologies. Knowing is our responsibility.

If you know the learner who lives within your students, and are comfortable with the content you teach, then you’re ready to become comfortable developing and using what I call Effective Work Groups. These are small groups of students who know how to work together to accomplish tasks, and who can coalesce into larger groups to carry out projects. Humans are social beings, and can learn to work together effectively. Let’s look at the two examples of constructivist approaches to learning as they would appear from within an effective work group, or team. First, make the groups, then have each group discuss the work and decide how to organize it. After each session, they will discuss how it went, decide on any modifications, and then continue. When the work is completed, and it’s time to move on to more curriculum, they in their groups, then as a class, nail down what they know about effective work groups. (Be sure to call them that, and that they know this is a goal. Toward the end of the year, have them develop a description of effective work groups.)

Now, here is what one group has decided to do. Mitosis: Identify chromosomes; find different examples of chromosomes; each person will use a microscope because they all need to develop this skill; sort chromosomes out; declare the steps in mitosis; research what other scientists have found out about chromosomes; develop and critique their report; report to the class; assess their work. Communication is important here; one of the keys to becoming effective. You have them assess the role of communication in the effectiveness of their work after they have found and identified chromosomes, sorted them into a process, and have prepared their report to the class. They decide they’ll each observe their own slide, and will show others what they find and what they think it means. They assign tasks when they present. Streamside vegetation: They divide into temperature and dissolved oxygen teams; each team learns how to do the observation, then teaches the other group; then they divide the reach. After they arrive on site, they decide to assign a group of Mappers to map the vegetation. The group works on communication when they discuss data’s meaning, and divide jobs when they look up other scientists’ work on web and in books. You ask them to assess their roles in their group, and the outcome of their working together.

Active learning within a constructivist paradigm is effective, even at the college level. Many teachers engage it, but far from enough. It takes confidence in your students’ capacity for autonomous learning, and confidence in your capacity to do and facilitate this kind of work. And patience; lots of it. If you don’t believe students of almost any age can engage this paradigm, find a class of young students which uses it and observe them at work. When they are born, children possess wonderful potential. The environments they develop in determine, to a large extent, whether they will generate the capacity to achieve their potential. If their environment believes they cannot, more than likely they won’t. If their environment recognizes the learner within, they more than likely will. And feel this is normal.

jimphoto3This 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.”

Finding Lessons In the World Around Us: Bringing the Pieces Together

Finding Lessons In the World Around Us: Bringing the Pieces Together

Were You Assigned A Class You Have No Background or Preparation to Teach?


by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

One year, I worked with a middle-school mathematics teacher who decided to engage his class in some work on a wetland and lake bordering a large river. He did this partly as a diversion from classroom struggles – his background and training weren’t in middle school mathematics; there was no one else available to do the work. And, he was interested in the concept of engaging his students in their community – project-based learning.

So, we went down to the site and took a tour. As we walked and talked, he suddenly stopped, took a few steps back, and stood looking down a shallow slope to the lake, then up the slope toward a wooded copse. I waited a few moments, then he remarked in an excited voice that everything changed as you looked from the water to the slope, and on up to the trees. He said something made that change, and it had to do with the slope. Then, he described what students would explore on a transect along the slope, and how. Wow! His class did the project, and, within two years, he developed into a very effective teacher.

What happened here? He knew he wanted to do something. He knew where he was in his mathematics teaching. And he was interested in his students. But he didn’t get any further until he took a walk, talked about what was there and what students had done, and noticed a slope – geological and mathematical – and, in terms of subsequent progress as a teacher, clarivoyant. The pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together.

How do we move from teaching our curricula one piece at a time, a disconnected clutter of disparate parts? Parts, learned long enough to refer to in a test; then, lost in a long trail of discarded artifacts. We need clear, strong trails if we are to lead effective, self-actualized lives. Learning has the potential to help us organize our selves so that our lives produce clear, permanent trails. In his teaching the middle school mathematics teacher began to build these clear trails, both for himself, and for his students. Part of the secret is learning about the curriculum in the real world, and its connection to the disparate clutter of artifacts we teach. In the classroom and on environmental education sites. I suggest we need to integrate them.

BEETLES-2One thing this teacher did was to let the class in on the plan. Doing this at the start involved and invested them in the work, and began to empower them to take responsibility for its parts. Early on, he began to notice that students were doing good work, and that they brought different sets of skills and abilities to the work. This was a pleasant surprise for him, and he began to see the class as a group of individuals who could make the classroom work environment an interesting one to be part of.

Soon enough, he reorganized the class into work crews, each one responsible for part of the job of assessing a transect up the slope from water’s edge to wooded copse. Accomplishing this was an utterly new experience for him, but he took to it as if he’d done it for years. Within a few weeks, he was beginning to coordinate his curriculum to the work on the slope. Aware of the mathematics curricula he was charged with, he organized the school week into days dedicated to mathematics and to the project. Students didn’t divide their new sense of personal investment in school. They became reliable students each day. Why? I think, because they were learning as humans evolved to learn. How their brain is best organized to do that job. Go into the real world, find real work to do, then focus all resources on this.

I think there were several vehicles which enabled this classroom to navigate from struggling to self-powered learning place. Specifics varied among teacher and students, but each vehicle carried them through its part of the course. The teacher was charged with teaching mathematics, for which he wasn’t well-prepared to do. He was both interested in improving his teaching, and in engaging his students in learning projects in the community in which they lived. Then he saw something, a slope in a landform, that brought these two seemingly disparate entities into a dynamic construct, a conceptual foundation for real learning, learning for understanding.

His students also boarded their first vehicles: crews, embedded curricula, brain work. At first, their commitment varied, but nearly all became interested in the project when they heard about it from the teacher. At the beginning, they were randomly assigned to their groups; but, as the teacher became more aware of them as individuals, he began to reorganize them into effective working groups, crews organized to execute particular parts of the plan.

So, the relationships among the people in the class began to morph. The teacher became the project manager, and the crews became technicians and staff working with a crew leader. Project manager and crews learned to reach out to local experts for advice. The teacher, because he was managing the project, and feeling responsible for teaching mathematics, began to use the mathematics embedded in the work site and the work itself to deliver part of his curriculum.

Locating embedded curricula seems difficult at first thought, but once you try, it becomes relatively easy. For instance, students can measure the maximum width and length of a leaf, and calculate the width to length ratio. They repeat this with other leaves from the same tree to see if that ratio holds true. Then they can see if there is a ratio for the maximum width of a fir or pine cone and its length that is consistent among a sample from the same species. As they do, ratio and proportion becomes sensible, a conceptual tool to use, rather than something to memorize for a test.

This doesn’t apply just to mathematics and science. Look for examples of alliteration in a natural area or in the school’s neighborhood. I’m looking at an example just now – a small tree whose leaves are attached to thin branches in an alternating sequence. When I see a set silhouetted against the sky, their leaves tripping along the branch, I see alliteration. Looking out the same window, I see many metaphors. Metaphors which can activate the same parts of my brain that are activated when I am engaged in close pursuit of the answer to an inquiry question. A very useful brain tool.

Looking past the leaves and metaphors, I see examples of social studies, music, art, drama, history. It’s all out there, the curricula we teach, in a form our brain is organized to use. Once it is engaged, we can then move into the prepared curricula which lives in classrooms. With one difference – this curricula will come to life because it will be engaged by a need-to-know generated by the world we live in. And learned in a way that ensures it will be used. In time, you will find that you can milk the prizes found on one excursion from the classroom to the schoolground, neighborhood, or riparian area for more than the embedded curricula you find. What you find and use generally has links to other curricula, and you can extend these threads quite far before you’ve either used them up, or have become tired of them.

These are things the teacher I worked with learned during the time we explored learning for understanding. By moving into the world we live in and discovering the curricula embedded there, and the involvement and investment the experience invoked in his students, he began to reorganize his teaching. The mathematics he discovered on site clarified what he was trying to teach in the classroom. The energy and growing expertise his students brought to the work helped him learn them as persons, to know when they engaged what I call the moment of learning, and to use their individual strengths to overcome their weaknesses. And they all grew. Because, in my opinion, they engaged their brains in the way brains evolved to learn and cope. Once engaged, they were ready to enter the more formal, abstract curricula which lived in their classroom. To learn it, not to pass a test, but to build their lives.

jimphoto3This 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.”

Using snowpack data for inquiry, graphing and analysis

Using snowpack data for inquiry, graphing and analysis

Middle School Students Use Historic Snowpack Data to Gain Inquiry, Graphing and Analysis Experience

by Joe Cameron
Beaverton Middle School teacher


NRCS Oregon hydrologists Melissa Webb and Julie Koeberle measure snow on Mt. Hood. Courtesy of USDA.


What do you get when you mix researchers, teachers, authentic science opportunities and a group of GREAT people? You get three summers of intense work, reinvigorated teachers, new ideas for the classroom and lots of fun!

For the last three summers I was lucky enough to be involved in the Oregon Natural Resource Education Program’s (ONREP) Climate Change Institute where teachers are matched with researchers to bridge the gap between the classroom and field research. The last two years I worked with Oregon State University’s Dr. Anne Nolin and Travis Roth examining snow pack changes in the McKenzie River Watershed. Investigating snow collection sites and collecting data led to discussions on how best to get students involved in authentic research and science inquiry investigations.


Handout for activity below.

One of my goals for the year was to get my students involved in authentic data collection and to gain more experience and practice in graphing. From this, SWEet! was born. SWEet is an activity that engages students in using historic snow data to investigate the SWE, or Snow Water Equivalent, and the changes taking place in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Students graph and analyze data from SNOTEL sites and compare their findings with others in class to make predictions about future snowpack. In extension activities students choose their own SNOTEL sites in the Western U.S. and monitor snow data monthly throughout the snow year. This type of activity will in turn introduce students to long-term ecological studies in progress and support them to begin studies of their own.

In doing this activity with my students we first investigated their particular sites. I found this helped them personalize the data and they were very involved, especially using this “local” data. Then using their data they were able to create comparative line graphs and look for trends in the data, even with a complex and varied data set. These trends were then used to hypothesize possible effects of changes in the snowpack to their world and the economy and ecosystems found in Oregon.

SWEet! Oregon’s Snowpack and Water Supply

Author: Joe Cameron
Time: 50+ minutes
Grade Level: 6-12


SNOTEL-The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) operates and maintains an automated system (SNOwpack TELemetry or SNOTEL) designed to collect snowpack and related climatic data in the Western United States and Alaska in order to develop accurate and reliable water supply forecasts. For over 30 years, data on snow depth and SWE (Snow Water Equivalent) have been collected from SNOTEL sites throughout the western US. This activity will use yearly SWE data from three SNOTEL sites in Oregon to look for changes and relate our snowpack to Oregon’s economy and environment.


Familiarize students with Snow Water Equivalent (SWE), which is the amount of water contained in the snowpack. A simple reference for background information is http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/or/snow/?cid=nrcs142p2_046155. Also, you can do a simple class demonstration by taking a 500ml beaker of snow (or blended ice) and melting it using a hot plate. I have students predict how much water will remain after the ‘snow’ is melted. Then, we calculate the percent water in the snow to give them an example of one way to analyze this type of data.

After getting the students comfortable with SWE, you can give them the SWEet! Oregon’s Snowpack and Water Supply activity page. When I led this activity, we read through the introduction as a class and then directed the students to graph the data provided, make sense of their plot, compare their results with others in class and then draw conclusions. This lesson leads to discussions of our changing climate and possible changes in store for the people, plants and animals of Oregon.

Students will access long term ecological data.
Students will graph SWE data.
Students will compare their data with data from their classmates.
Students will identify possible effects of a decrease in snowpack.


SWE-Snow Water Equivalent; the amount of water found in snow.
SNOTEL-automated system that records snow depth and related data in the western United States
Trend-a general direction that something is changing
Snowpack-the amount of snow that is found on the ground in the mountains; usually measured at specific sites.


Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

MS-ESS2-5. Collect data to provide evidence for how the motions and complex interactions of air masses results in changes in weather.

MS-ESS3-5. Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.

Oregon Science Standards

Scientific Inquiry: Scientific inquiry is the investigation of the natural world based on observations and science principles that includes proposing questions or hypotheses, designing procedures for questioning, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting multiple forms of accurate and relevant data to produce justifiable evidence-based explanations.

Interaction and Change: The related parts within a system interact and change.
6.2E.1 Explain the water cycle and the relationship to landforms and weather.
7.2E.2 Describe the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, how it has changed over time, and implications for the future.
7.2E.3 Evaluate natural processes and human activities that affect global environmental change and suggest and evaluate possible solutions to problems.
8.2E.3 Explain the causes of patterns of atmospheric and oceanic movement and the effects on weather and climate.
8.2E.4 Analyze evidence for geologic, climatic, environmental, and life form changes over time.

For Demonstration:
1 500 ml beaker
1 50-100 ml graduated cylinder snow OR chopped/blended ice
1 hot plate

For Activity:
Copies of SWEet! Oregon’s Snowpack and Water Supply activity page
Graph paper
Optional: colored pencils/pens

Lesson Procedure

1. Give students the SWEet! Activity page.

2. As a class, read and review all directions.

3. Students may choose 1, 2, or 3 sets of data to graph. This option allows the activity to be modified to meet the individual students’ abilities. Also, students can create graphs that can be compared to multiple data sets.

4. Students graph the data in a line graph.

5. Students analyze the data. This part can be completed through drawing a trend line(s) on the graph, calculating averages, adding totals and/or comparing multiple data sets looking for similarities and differences. Note: having the students do their graphing using Excel spreadsheets is an option that is not always available in our school but from which the students would benefit.

6. Relate the observed trends in snowpack to possible effects in Oregon. Who/What will be affected? How will/might they be affected?

7. Students pose one other question OR concern they have after looking at their graphs and trends for possible additional exploration.


1-Related current event articles from Science Daily:

Warming Climate Is Affecting Cascades Snowpack In Pacific Northwest
Found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090512153335.htm

Global Warming to Cut Snow Water Storage 56 Percent in Oregon Watershed
Found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130726092431.htm

2-Students can access current snow year data online. They go to SNOTEL website, choose a specific site and collect daily, weekly or monthly data for this site throughout the winter months (the snow year stretches from November to March). Students can also access historic data going back to the late 1970’s and early 1980’s for their sites.

References Science expertise was provided by the following Oregon State University Faculty: Dr. Anne Nolin – Professor and Travis Roth-Doctoral Student in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. Data are from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) SNOTEL website at: http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov

Acknowledgements These lessons were created using information learned in the Oregon Natural Resource Education Program’s Researcher Teacher Partnerships: Making Global Climate Change Relevant in the Classroom project. This project was supported by a NASA Innovations in Climate Education award (NNXI0AT82A).

Thanks to Dr. Kari O’Connell with the Oregon Natural Resources Education Program at Oregon State University and Dr. Patricia Morrell in the College of Education at University of Portland for their thoughtful review of this article.

Joe Cameron is a teacher at Beaverton Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon. He can be contacted at joe_cameron@beaverton.k12.or.us

When you empower students, you teach more than content

When you empower students, you teach more than content

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

W3e left the teacher we have been following as she was planning a project she and her class will do on a creek at the edge of the school property. What she is doing, as well as her plans, appear to approach what the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards proposes as five important characteristics of competent teaching. The last time we saw her, she was getting ready to plan the first steps in what could become a long-term project. (By the way, her name is Meredith.) Let’s see what the main pieces of the project are, and get some idea of how they look to her so far. The first step is to provide her students with background information which will help in the Acquisition Phase of this new learning. She plans to do it by using some standard curriculum delivered more or less as usually taught, but with students working with it in groups which may or may not become the work groups who do the particular jobs at the creek. This way, they might be more likely to transfer those learnings to the field. Topics they will study are food webs, water quality, and the riparian.

Her initial plan is to use published and on-line resources to provide background on riparian areas, then move to riparian food webs, and after that to how to measure water quality, and what the measurements mean in terms of the riparian and its food webs. Her hope is that, by learning something more dynamic than an array of facts, her students will approach the creek with more nuanced expectations than if they’d simply learned some nomenclature that applies to creeks.

Next, her student groups will visit the creek site. Her plan is to prepare work groups to assess the site to decide their stations. To this end, she supplies them with tape measures and rough sketch maps of the creek and its banks. Their job is to locate the best stations for doing their work, and measure the station’s dimensions. Then, in their work groups, they will decide how to go about making their observations. The Meredith knows that these plans will probably be modified by experience.  Then, each work group will posit questions they think may help them know their part of the creek. This is most difficult for the macroinvertebrate group, because they won’t be collecting on this first trip. However, they will be asked to assess the makeup of the bottom of the creek, where the macroinvertebrates live. This completes the second part of her plan.

Designing inquiry questions takes quality time, so they will do that in the classroom. After they have posited good inquiry questions, they’ll use them to design their investigations. Meredith’s plan is to start this process while the class is making their visit to the creek site. She’ll prep this by asking them to keep track of things they notice while they’re doing their work on their particular station. As part of this prep, she suggests that they will use these things they notice to write inquiry questions to investigate. When the class returns to the classroom, they will do a quick debrief and go on to other things. (Meredith has been incubating an interesting thought that, by carrying out investigations, the class might develop a useful knowledge base about the creek and its banks. She is even contemplating using that base to drive a language arts unit and part of a math unit.)

The next class day, students will meet in their work groups to begin writing a report of their observations and decisions about locating their work stations, and a list of the questions about things they had noticed which are most interesting to them. Afterwards, each group will report its findings and questions. Then, Meredith will review the broad areas that each work group will investigate. She will ask each group to review relevant thematic information she has collected for them, and use it, along with their on-site observations, to design a plan for doing their work. As part of this work, students will be introduced to the equipment they will use, and will practice using it. After they have done this, they will meet with Meredith to review the work, receive suggestions, organize jobs within the group, and develop a fine-tuned work plan to follow when they are on the site. This is when she’ll suggest that students in each group pair up to work on their own inquiry projects. Then, she will start a discussion of inquiry questions, have students practice their own, then have students, in their pairs, write and assess an inquiry question of their own.

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.”

Meet the BEETLES: Bringing Wonder, Curiosity & Science to Residential Outdoor Schools

Meet the BEETLES: Bringing Wonder, Curiosity & Science to Residential Outdoor Schools

BEETLES-Coverphotoby Kevin Beals & Craig Strang

Imagine a residential outdoor science program where instructors—all of them—routinely combine their passion for the natural world with a deep understanding of research-based teaching approaches that are based on all we know about how people learn. BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning, Expertise & Sharing), funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, is a new project at Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley that designs professional development experiences for program leaders to use with their teaching staffs.

A group of 15 sixth grade students and their classroom teacher are on a hike led by a field instructor at a residential outdoor program. They come across a bracket fungus on the ground. The instructor, who has participated in BEETLES, calls out, “NSI,” a routine the students now recognize as Nature Scene Investigators. Quickly half the group kneels around the fungus in a tight circle. The other half stands in a circle around the inner circle.

(note: the discussions in this article are actual transcripts taken from trail hikes)
Instructor: OK, let’s hear some observations from the inner circle.
Student: It’s light.
Student: it looks charred.
Student: It looks like it’s broken off something.
Student: It looks like wood.
Student: It looks like it’s from a tree.
Instructor: Now let’s hear some questions from the outer circle.
Student: What does it feel like?
Instructor: OK, someone from the inner circle, can you say what it feels like?
Student: It’s rough here but smooth here.
Student: It feels smooth on the outside and rough on the inside.
Instructor: So, Kendra and Amir, would you agree that it’s smooth on the outside and rough on the inside?
They both examine it closely.
Student: Yep.
Student: I agree.
The students share more observations and questions, and continue to do so after the two circles have switched places and roles.
Instructor: OK, now I want you all to come up with explanations about it. Don’t forget to use evidence in your explanations.
Student: I think it was on a tree that got burned and it fell off and my evidence is because it’s black.
Instructor: Hey, did you all notice that Jared said, “I think…?” In science discussions, it’s good to use language of uncertainty, like “I think…” or “I wonder if…” because in science, you always need to be open-minded to other explanations and ideas if you find new evidence.
The students come up with several other explanations.

Instructor: Now does anyone have something to share about this that they’ve heard or read about somewhere else? But be sure to tell us your source of information.
Student: I think it’s a fungus, because we learned about fungi with our gardening teacher at school, and it looks like some of the fungi we studied.
Student: I’ve heard that they’re decomposers, and they turn dead things into dirt. I heard that from my teacher.
Instructor: This is a fungus. I’ve read that these are a type of fungus that grows on trees called bracket fungus or shelf fungus. I’ve also read that they are just the “fruit” of the fungus, and that most of the fungus looks like white threads and is spread out inside the wood. My source is a book written by a fungus expert. The book is called Mushrooms Demystified. We’re going to be checking out mysteries like this all day. We’ll be finding cool stuff, making observations, asking questions and trying to explain what we find.
Classroom Teacher: I just want to say, the more stuff you all pointed out the more I looked. You got me to look at it differently.
Instructor: Yeah that’s a great point and that’s one reason scientists often work in teams.
Student: Hey look, there’s one of those things on this tree.
Students excitedly swarm around a nearby tall stump with a few small bracket fungi on it.
Instructor: So what do you guys think now that you have this new evidence?
Student: It does grow on trees! It’s not burned because this tree isn’t burned and it’s still black.
Instructor: Is this tree alive or dead?
Student: Alive. No, wait. It’s just a big stump.
Instructor: As we hike, let’s keep our eyes out for more of these fungi and see what we find. Let’s see if we find any on living trees, or if they’re just on dead trees, like this one.
Classroom Teacher: (aside to instructor) I had no idea when I got on this hike it was going to be like this, because other hikes I’ve been on have been more about just delivering information. I want to learn as much from you as I can today about how I can do this with my students back at school.

What’s significant about this actual account, compared to many other outdoor science activities? Is any learning taking place? Why were so many student questions left unanswered?

We like NSI precisely because so much learning (and engagement) is going on. It sets a tone of inquiry, exploration, figuring things out and discussion of ideas. We want students’ minds to be at least as active as their feet. We want the students, not the instructor, to be making discoveries, asking questions, and trying to explain what they find. The instructor guides, but most of what happens is student-driven. This may look like the instructor isn’t doing much, but it is actually far more nuanced than blurting out three facts and a chant about bracket fungi.


Student (shown in photo): I feel like a scientist today.
Student: I know, I’ve never done this before.
Student: Yeah, I’ve been to the woods before, but not discovering and stuff like this.
Student: I didn’t even know I could do this.
Student: I’m gonna do this at the park near my house!

Activities like NSI taught by instructors who know how to look for evidence in the minds of learners as well as for evidence on the trail, engage students in the scientific practices called for in the soon to be published Next Generation Science Standards (National Research Council 2012) that are certain to be adopted by nearly every state in the US: asking questions, carrying out investigations, constructing explanations, engaging in argument from evidence, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. Those are tricky things to teach in a classroom, but in a rich outdoor setting, students are surrounded by opportunities to explore and investigate with these practices. Instructors have opportunities, if they know how to take advantage of them, to help students make careful observations, work together, communicate their ideas, disagree politely, remember to base their explanations on evidence, use language of appropriate uncertainty, and cite their sources of information. These thinking skills lead directly to meaning making—a very different outcome compared to memorizing the names of trees or the three different types of decomposers. And there is an added benefit. When students are talking, instructors get to hear and understand their ideas about science topics. Effective instructors build their teaching on student’s ideas, but they can only find out what those ideas are by letting students express them!

Outdoor science schools are perfectly situated to help indoor schools by focusing their teaching on scientific practices. In a rich outdoor environment with long days, myriad inquiry opportunities and a skilled instructor, students can accomplish more in a few days than they might be able to in months in a classroom.

BEETLES is designing professional development experiences that help instructors to become expert users of approaches and tools like NSI that:
• are more student-centered, less instructor-centered.
• are less about an instructor telling students information, and more about instructors giving students chances to explore, investigate and figure things out themselves.
• are less about convincing students their instructor is ”awesome,” and more about making students feel smart and capable, moved more by what nature has revealed to them than by what their instructor has revealed to them..
• empower students with skills to use when they no longer have a field instructor leading them.
• facilitate student meaning-making.
• increase students’ wonder and curiosity about the natural world.
• are less about games or activities that can be done on a playground, and more about engaging students with investigating the natural world.


Historically, investments have not been made in the development of research-based professional development and curriculum for outdoor science programs. Unlike in K-12 schools, field instructors often rely on word-of-mouth “traditions,” and tattered copies of activity outlines passed around in bruised binders. BEETLES is designing, field testing, documenting and evaluating a series of professional development sessions, each of which presents instructors with a lens through which to view and improve outdoor science instruction.

BEETLES is also creating content sessions to help field instructors grapple with their own understanding of foundational concepts basic to many outdoor science schools: cycling of matter, flow of energy, adaptation and evolution. Finally, BEETLES is designing and collecting activities, like NSI, that reflect research-based approaches and accurate science, for use in the field with children. All these materials will be available, free, via a website.

BEETLES is hosting a 5-day California Leadership Institute during Summer 2013. Pairs of leaders will be invited from 12 different outdoor science schools throughout the state. The leaders will experience the professional development sessions, activities and hikes, share their own expertise, and plan out staff training for their own staffs. We hope to empower program leaders with new materials and perspectives, but also to benefit ourselves by capturing improvements and adaptations made by the leaders.

In 2014 & 2015, BEETLES will offer a National Leadership Institute, open to program leaders around the country. Eventually the BEETLES web site will offer supporting videos that show how the activities and professional development sessions are actually led with students and staffs.

The following is from an email sent to us by a field instructor a week after she participated in a 3-day BEETLES professional development workshop:

I wanted to relay a small snippet of some kid feedback I got this week on trail. The teachers had the kids write us all notes thanking us for their week, and it was interesting the things that popped up, besides the usual “You’re the coolest everrrrrrr” messages. One note included the following: “…We learned a lot from you, because, unlike other teachers, you go in-depth on everything we learn instead of going like ‘Here’s this’ and ‘This is that.’” I know I’ve been a “Here’s this” naturalist in the past, and throughout this week was really conscious of letting kids discover and asking them broad questions, and what a cool thing to hear back the first week testing it out! Several kids mentioned NSI in their notes, and as someone who has been a naturalist for 5+ years, it was a wonderful experience this week having a new lens to look through and launch the year with. It is wonderful to continue the learning process myself, and have new tools, and test them out, and watch some of them be wildly successful. Those kids were on the edge of their seats by the end of the week after we’d noticed, wondered, and built new frames of reference and pieced together evidence for what it reminded us of for days as to what the green lacy stuff on twigs really was. Never have I had children so excited about lichen and figuring out what it was! I just wanted to share with you, because I am excited to continue experimenting with what we learned, and pass the results on.

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BEETLES invites outdoor science school instructors and leaders to participate in the development of our materials and program, and to participate in our leadership institutes. Kevin Beals (kbeals@berkeley.edu) & Craig Strang (cstrang@berkeley.edu) are the founders of BEETLES. Please visit www.lawrencehallofscience.org/beetles.