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What Is Inquiry (and Why Is It Important in Science Education)? (BSCS, 2008)

The National Science Education Standards External Web Site Policy (NRC, 1996) presented inquiry as a prominent theme. It stated,

Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world
The specific standard states, “As a result of activities in grades 9–12, all students should develop both abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and understandings about scientific inquiry.” The Standards shifted the implementation of the “science as inquiry” theme from an emphasis on the processes to a focus on developing cognitive abilities such as reasoning with data, constructing an argument, and making a logically coherent explanation. Further, the Standards made it clear that the aims of science education include students’ understanding scientific inquiry.

It is important to realize, however, that these abilities are not important only to students planning to attend college and major in science. Critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, as well as the application of information to real-world problems, are important to all students as they enter the workforce.

How does one’s physician arrive at the correct diagnosis? A physician considers the symptoms and laboratory results, analyzes this information, and employs clinical judgment that comes from years of experience before reaching a conclusion. Furthermore, the physician must be able to justify the diagnosis to the patient, to other healthcare professionals, and even to the insurance company.

How might an air traffic controller use inquiry-based skills? Not only must she be familiar with advanced technology, she must integrate her various sources of information, from the pilots, the radar, and the other air traffic controllers, into a mental picture of what is happening in the sky. Recognizing that any given piece of information could be in error, she must also be able to skeptically “test” each bit of data as she reasons her way through any emergency situations in order to find a safe solution. The split-second decision to order an errant aircraft into a new position can mean the difference between life and death for many passengers.

Assembly-line workers in a modern auto factory are expected to provide a quality-control function that was not the responsibility of earlier generations of similar workers. When some aspect of the production drifts “out of specification,” these workers form impromptu problem-solving teams, create hypotheses, and test their ideas, until the source of the problem is identified and corrected. Few people realize the extent to which these workers are expected to apply inquiry in their daily jobs. And those who are highly proficient at this skill can accumulate sufficient bonus points to eventually merit a free car!

Even the airline agent must solve problems by examining options, ticket prices, schedules, and available seats. She will have to use logic and information to get you to your destination on time and at a price you can afford.

What Are the Essential Features of Inquiry?

For you to understand how you might incorporate inquiry into the role you take in science education, it is important to consider the five essential features of inquiry outlined in Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 2000).

These are:

  • Learner engages in scientifically oriented questions.
  • Learner gives priority to evidence in responding to questions.
  • Learner formulates explanations from evidence.
  • Learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge.
  • Learner communicates and justifies explanations.
Let’s take a look at what each of these statements means according to Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards.

Essential Feature 1:

Learner engages in scientifically oriented questions. Scientifically oriented questions center on objects, organisms, and events in the natural world; they connect to the science concepts described in the content standards. They are questions that lend themselves to empirical investigation and lead to gathering and using data to develop explanations for scientific phenomena. Scientists recognize two primary kinds of scientific questions. Existence questions probe origins and include many "why" questions. Why do objects fall toward Earth? Why do some rocks contain crystals? Why do humans have chambered hearts? Many "why" questions cannot be addressed by science. There are also causal and functional questions, which probe mechanisms and include most of the “how” questions. How does sunlight help plants grow? How are crystals formed?

Students often ask "why" questions. In the context of school science, many of these questions can be changed into "how" questions and thus lend themselves to scientific inquiry. Such change narrows and sharpens the inquiry and contributes to its being scientific.

Essential Feature 2:

Learner gives priority to evidence, which allows the learner to develop and evaluate explanations that address scientifically oriented questions. As the National Science Education Standards (NSES) notes, science distinguishes itself from other ways of knowing through the use of empirical evidence as the basis for explanations about how the natural world works (NRC, 1996). Scientists concentrate on getting accurate data from observations of phenomena. They obtain evidence from observations and measurements taken in natural settings such as oceans, or in contrived settings such as laboratories. They use their senses; instruments, such as telescopes, to enhance their senses; and instruments that measure characteristics that humans cannot sense, such as magnetic fields. In some instances, scientists can control conditions to obtain their evidence; in other instances, they cannot control the conditions, or control would distort the phenomena, so they gather data over a wide range of naturally occurring conditions and over a long enough period of time that they can infer what the influence of different factors might be. The accuracy of the evidence gathered is verified by checking measurements, repeating the observations, or gathering different kinds of data related to the same phenomena. The evidence is subject to questioning and further investigation.

You can help students with some of these new skills. In their classroom inquiries, students use evidence to develop explanations for scientific phenomena. They observe plants, animals, and rocks and carefully describe their characteristics. They take measurements of temperature, distances, and time and carefully record them. They observe chemical reactions and moon phases and chart their progress. Or they obtain evidence from their teachers, instructional materials, the Internet, or elsewhere to “fuel” their inquiries.

Essential Feature 3:

Learner formulates explanations from evidence to address scientifically oriented questions. This aspect of inquiry emphasizes the path from evidence to explanation, rather than the criteria for and characteristics of the evidence. Scientific explanations are based on reason. They provide causes for effects and establish relationships based on evidence and logical argument. They must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature. They respect rules of evidence, are open to criticism, and require the use of various cognitive processes generally associated with science—for example, classification, analysis, inference, and prediction—and general processes such as critical reasoning and logic.
Explanations are ways to learn about what is unfamiliar by relating what is observed to what is already known. So, explanations go beyond current knowledge and propose some new understanding. For science, this means building upon the existing knowledge base. For students, this means building new ideas upon their current understandings. In both cases, the result is proposed new knowledge. For example, students may use observational and other evidence to propose an explanation for the phases of the moon, for why plants die under certain conditions and thrive in others, and for the relationship of diet to health.

Essential Feature 4:

Learner evaluates his or her own explanations in light of alternative explanations, particularly those reflecting scientific understanding. Evaluation, and possible elimination or revision of explanations, is one feature that distinguishes scientific inquiry from other forms of inquiry and subsequent explanations. One can ask questions such as, Does the evidence support the proposed explanation? Does the explanation adequately answer the questions? Are there any apparent biases or flaws in the reasoning connecting evidence and explanation? Can other reasonable explanations be derived from the evidence?

Alternative explanations may be reviewed as students engage in dialogues, compare results, or check their results with those proposed by the teacher or instructional materials. An essential component of this feature is ensuring that students make the connection between their results and the scientific knowledge appropriate to their level of development. That is, student explanations should ultimately be consistent with currently accepted scientific knowledge.

Essential Feature 5:

Learner communicates and justifies his or her proposed explanations. Scientists communicate their explanations in such a way that their results can be reproduced. This requires clear articulation of the question, procedures, evidence, and proposed explanation and a review of alternative explanations. It provides for further skeptical review and the opportunity for other scientists to use the explanation in work on new questions. Having students share their explanations gives others the opportunity to ask questions, examine evidence, identify faulty reasoning, point out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggest alternative explanations for the same observations. Sharing explanations can bring into question or fortify the connections students have made among the evidence, existing scientific knowledge, and their proposed explanations. As a result, students can resolve contradictions and solidify an empirically based argument.

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