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Contemporary K-12 Schools

If it’s been more than five years since you graduate from high school, what you remember about it may have little resemblance to what’s going on in today's schools. First of all, schools are becoming increasingly diverse (NCES, 2005), which means that teachers have to use new teaching strategies to ensure that all children learn. Also, in an effort to improve education, all states have adopted standards that provide guidance on content and assessment, and these greatly influence what’s taught. Another recent influence on the classroom and the school is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed in 2001, which sought to ensure that all U.S. children receive a high-quality education. Finally, the view of what constitutes high-quality science education has changed over the years. People accustomed to a traditional science classroom where the teacher directly communicates factual information will likely be surprised if they find themselves in a science class that’s using inquiry-based learning.

Science Education Reform

The Science Education Reform Movement

There is broad general agreement on what constitutes high-quality science education. At the risk of oversimplification, the bottom line is that we must move from a system that promotes science primarily as recall of factual information and rote computation to one that emphasizes conceptual understanding and logical process skills. The traditional methodology in which the teacher communicates information to the students should decrease in favor of hands-on activities in which students conduct investigations, discover key principles, and practice applying those principles in a variety of situations. This modified approach to science education, which has been practiced by leading teachers for many years, is variously termed "reformed," "constructivist," "inquiry-based," "hands-on," or "discovery-based" learning. The contrasting views of traditional and reformed science education are summarized in Table 2.1.

Table 2.1. Comparison of traditional and modern views of science education.
View of:TraditionalReformed
StudentsPassive receivers of new knowledgeActive participants in their construction of new understanding
TeachersDispensers of informationGuides to and clarifiers of discovery experiences
KnowledgeStatic group of facts, principles, and procedures that can be recalledDynamic body of integrated knowledge that can be applied in a variety of settings, including how to develop further knowledge
Significant materialScience content: scientific principles, facts, equations, applications, etc.Science content plus the process of science: experimentation and logical thought
Who can/should learn sciencePrimarily above-average students destined to become technical professionalsAll students: future citizens
Individual involvement in educationSomething to do prior to your careerLifelong process
AssessmentMultiple-choice, pencil-and-paper tests mostly measuring recallVaried assessments integrated into the learning process that also measure ability to reason and apply knowledge

Teaching Science as Inquiry

Inquiry may not be a term you have heard before in relation to science education, but you surely know what it is! On the most basic level, inquiry refers to the process of doing science. Inquiry-based learning engages students in the investigative nature of science. Using inquiry to teach science helps students put materials into a meaningful context, fosters critical thinking (Narode et al., 1987), engages students so they develop positive attitudes toward science (Kyle et al., 1985; Rakow, 1986), and improves their communication skills (Rodriguez and Bethel, 1983). Inquiry shifts the focus of education to cognitive abilities such as reasoning with data, constructing an argument, and making a logically coherent explanation.

Using inquiry to teach science can, we believe, serve to develop a number of the New Basic Skills and help students prepare for the world of work. Inquiry-based science can give students practice reading and understanding the rich scenarios and activities that typify this mode of teaching. Inquiry-based science activities frequently ask students to create and test hypotheses; use math, graphs, and other approaches to analyze data; work as part of a problem-solving team; and communicate findings and conclusions orally or in writing.

To be certain, science class is not the only place that students can learn these skills. If students are exposed to a set of rich, inquiry-oriented science lessons over the years, though, they will have a great deal of practice developing the skills and abilities that are highly prized in the 21st-century workplace, whether or not they plan to attend college. Unfortunately, inquiry-based teaching is not the norm in most classrooms. To read more about the features of inquiry-based learning, see "What Is Inquiry?"

Why Should Scientists Be Involved in Inquiry-Based Science Education? (BSCS, 2008)

The simple answer to this question is, Who better to teach students about how to think like a scientist than the people who do just that every day? The parallels between the way scientists learn new information through research and the way students learn through inquiry-based teaching are striking (Table 2.2).

Table 2.2. Practicing science versus teaching science.*
Scientific research approachInquiry-based teaching approach
Raise fundamental question of interest that is addressable via scientific investigation.Engage student interest; guide the development of questions (i.e., establish basis for inquiry) in a specific area of content.
Research what is already known.Discuss with students what they already "know" or think they know (prior knowledge assessment) to help address the question(s).
Make a prediction or hypothesis in answer to the question of interest.Ask students to make a prediction or hypothesis in answer to the question of interest.
Plan and implement an experiment to test the prediction.Plan and implement an experiment to test the prediction (hands-on activity).
Reflect on the results of the experiment and how they affect what was known before. Be alert for how the new data do or do not readily fit into the existing structure of scientific understanding.Reflect with students on the results of their hands-on activity or investigation and use their predictions to assist them with gaining new and deeper understanding of content. Be alert for any shifts from "prior knowledge" as students integrate their new experiences.
Communicate new knowledge via talks and papers. Science community judges the validity and value of the results. New questions are raised.Communicate new knowledge via presentations, papers, demonstrations, exams (means of student assessment). Teachers judge students’ learning and guide them to apply it to new circumstances.
* Courtesy Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., and the Space Science Institute.

It should be clear from this comparison that the fundamental process of science has direct links to inquiry-based science teaching. Scientists’ knowledge of the scientific process makes them invaluable in facilitating student education. As you contemplate the role you would like to play in science education, consider the information on practicing science versus teaching science and consider how you might incorporate this knowledge into what you do.

For more information about inquiry-based learning and its importance in modern science education at all levels, including undergraduate education, see "What Is Inquiry and Why Is It Important in Science?"; "A Wake Up Call" (Alberts, 2005); and Ready, Set, Science! (Michaels et al., 2008).

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