30 March 2010

Maui: ISEE, Inquiry and Exoplanets

I spent the last week in Maui (poor me) at a workshop for science and engineering educators.  Most of the participants were STEM graduate students or post-docs from UCSC or University of Hawaii, but with a little bit of astrophysics research experience under my belt I fit right in, despite my newly minted social scientist identity.  

The workshop focused on "inquiry," a word abused by curriculum developers, politicians and school organizations alike.  Inquiry is often confused with descriptives like "hands-on," or "using the scientific method," or described as some kind of unstructured free play.  Barry Kluger-Bell, drawing on his experience with the Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium in San Fransisco, led us in an inquiry about light and shadow that was illuminating even to participants with PhDs in physics.  My group presented our discoveries to the group on the poster to the left.

The Exploratorium's Institute for Inquiry, where my advisor Doris Ash spent many years, has developed the following description of a "true" inquiry activity: 

"an approach to learning that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world, and that leads to asking questions, making discoveries, and testing those discoveries in the search for new understanding."

 This definition seems at once vague (exploring the natural or material world?) and yet very specific (questions, then discoveries, then testing, then new understanding).  In the broader sense, inquiry is learning about science in a way that is as authentic as possible to the experience of occupational research scientists.  This does not by any means describe hands-on learning, which is often rigidly structured and seldom ventures from direct teaching methods.  

Nor does this describe "the scientific method" as set forth in textbooks.  To teach science as a list of actions followed strictly by every scientist in order to do "real science" is inaccurate and can be damaging. In reality, the process of doing real science is loosely structured and exploratory.  Research questions evolve, and numbered procedures are almost never written up beforehand.  Only in writing the paper are structures assigned and investigative steps labelled in order to be published.

Of course, inquiry learning is typically done in the context of a curriculum, and that means that there are specific content goals for the participants to arrive at.  Because of this, the activity cannot be a free-for-all, as it is portrayed by skeptics.  I like to think of the difference between developing a traditional classroom activity and an inquiry activity as the difference between writing a short novel, and a complex choose your own adventure book.  The story needs to be written in such a way that no matter what path a student takes, he or she arrives at a similar conclusion.  This takes intricate planning and development.  But when it's pulled off well, it's well worth the effort.  Education research has shown time and again that inquiry learning is effective and engaging.  It allows learners to set their own pace, follow their own interests, and mold their own knowledge structures to accommodate new information.

I am currently working on an inquiry design with a team of four other scientists that we will implement at a local community college in the next few months.  The inquiry is about using transits to get information about extra-solar planetary systems.  This is our team in the Maui conference room, enjoying a Guinness while we work.

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