Inquiry: Letting kids wonder

“Scientific inquiry” is one of those things I thought I knew how to do. I had taught middle school science and I’d worked several seasons of outdoor science school. I loved doing experiments with kids and I tried to incorporate them into my teaching as much as possible. I got into this field because of my love of doing science with kids. So I must have it down, right?

But as I researched ways to incorporate inquiry into environmental education for my “Trends in EE” class, I discovered that I still had a lot to learn. I slowly came to the realization that most of my attempts to “do science” with kids had actually been far too scripted to qualify as real science. I had followed the all-mighty “Scientific Method” because it was in all my textbooks. How could it be wrong? Besides, it was the only way I remembered learning science. As a teacher, I had tried to get kids to ask and then test their own questions (one of the key elements of “authentic” inquiry), but it had been extraordinarily difficult. The more I learned about authentic inquiry through my research, the more I realized that it didn’t have to be so hard.

Kids are naturally able to evaluate, critique, and defend their ideas based on validity and reasoning. They just need us to provide them with a meaningful context and some encouragement to begin “wondering.” When it comes to testing their own questions, the “tests” don’t always have to happen in the lab. One of the articles I read pointed out that, while “school science” nearly always includes testing one variable in the lab and controlling all others, many real scientists don’t work this way. Field biologists engage in descriptive and comparative studies. They build models and do surveys. The reason I had found it so hard for my students to investigate their own questions was that I was trying to squeeze all of their questions into a narrow mold. My research on scientific inquiry showed me a new way.

I’m not the only teacher who struggled to incorporate inquiry into the science classroom. Inquiry requires a subject interesting enough that students want to ask questions about it. It’s even more likely to be successful if students feel their investigation will make a difference in their world.  Environmental education can provide both of these things, since nature provides an endless about of complex subject matter and plenty of unsolved environmental issues. For this reason, I believe we can increase our students’ scientific literacy by incorporating environmental education into science classes at all levels. At the same time, inquiry is a sure way to develop traits essential to environmentally literate citizens. Inquiry can nurture an interest in natural systems as well as an understanding of their complexity. At the same time, inquiry develops the agency, critical thinking, and collaboration skills that are so desperately needed to move our students from knowledge to action. Authentic inquiry and environmental action are natural partners.

All this new knowledge makes me feel pretty guilty about my scientific method past. But I pledge, from here on out, to look beyond the textbooks to where the real learning happens.  I am thrilled to be part of a team designing an inquiry framework for our Fall in the Field outdoor science program. And of course, I plan to incorporate inquiry into my student teaching lessons as well. I look forward to the next steps in my inquiry journey and I can’t wait for the discoveries to come.

(Katie MacDiarmid)

Students at DCC
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