September 2011

Teaching K – 12 science in the absence of adequate classroom time and resources


Having received clear and inspiring directives for implementing change in the way we teach undergraduates science, we can now focus on mechanisms to initiate that change in instruction at an earlier stage in the education process. For the purpose of this article, we consider the science-education process as having two critical phases: an initial phase of inquiry-based learning (K–12 science) and a maturation phase of inquiry-based learning (undergraduate science education and beyond).

As you would suspect, it is much more difficult to initiate inquiry-based learning at the maturation phase than at the initiation phase. The question, then, is what we can do to induce inquiry-based instruction at the initial phase so that students enter undergraduate courses in the questioning mode rather than the passive-recipient-of-information mode. Having students who enter college in the questioning mode will allow college science instructors to implement immediately the exciting changes a national conference organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and supported by the National Science Foundation recommended for improving undergraduate science education.

So how can the K – 12 science teacher initiate the inquiry-based learning phase when there is little classroom time left to teach science and no resources to purchase science teaching materials?

One answer is that students don't need lots of classroom time or resources to ask questions that reflect an innate need to know or natural curiosity. Later, in college, they can learn how to formulate scientific questions and utilize scientific tools.

Nature already has performed many of the experiments that can be used in K – 12. In addition, nearby research institutions can help train K – 12 teachers using faculty-based research. Thus, the teacher needs only to learn how to use nature's experiments to get the students to ask questions – questions such as, "How do we know?"

Once students understand that scientific information is based on evidence and that they have the right to ask for that evidence, then they are ready to understand the scientific process.

Here's hoping that resource or time limits inspire numerous creative ways for K – 12 teachers to initiate inquiry-based learning so that students enter undergraduate science courses in the questioning mode.

A few ideas

Methods to induce inquiry-based learning at the K – 12 level:
Use newspaper and Internet articles
about current hot topics in science and research to start discussion. Stem-cell research is a favorite. Questions give the teacher the opportunity to incorporate biological principles into the discussion.

Invite local researchers to lead demonstrations. A real plus in doing this is that the scientist can bring portable equipment. The equipment should not be used for show and tell but as a starting point for inquiry-based instruction. If I'm working on something without saying what I'm doing, then students will ask the following questions: What is that? Why are you doing that? How does that work? Who made that?

Perform an experiment to engage students in discussion. For instance, use your imagination to generate questions using only foil, a magnifying glass and soil from outside your building. After the first round of observations and questions, pour water on the soil.

peppersTake advantage of a natural experiment. Bring agricultural and other natural resources to the classroom. Different colored vegetables (of the same kind) or flowers are real winners.

Margaret Johnson Margaret Johnson ( is an associate professor at the University of Alabama.

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