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In order to fully develop critical thinking skills necessary to function in the world of science, and the world in general, science teachers must incorporate more robust authentic inquiry activities, as part of their overall science curriculum. However, in my experience as a science teacher (18 years) and a science program director (3 years) in inner-city high schools in Boston, students do not have the opportunity to engage in robust authentic inquiry activities.
Using my years’ experience in the public education system, it is clear to me that factors, such as teachers’ inadequate content knowledge, lack of motivation to implement inquiry, pressure to teach to high stake standardized tests, lack of experience conducting scientific research, and belief systems, hamper their ability and willingness to implement robust inquiry activities as part of their teaching. As a result, students suffer by not only missing the opportunity to fully engage in authentic inquiry, but also become unmotivated to engage in scientific research and or pursue scientific careers.
The most effective means by which to overcome this authentic inquiry deficit is through the implementation of science fair projects, which go beyond traditional “cookbook lab” teaching methodologies. And while I am fully cognizant of the fact that my experience in this matter is biased based upon the workings of the Boston inner-city school system only, academics, such as Thienhuong Hoang, agree that science fair allow students to conduct scientific experiments thereby engaging them in inquiry process, rather than only allowing them to learn concepts. 2010) Inquiry and the Science Fair Project For decades, inquiry has been the focus of science teaching.
The National Research Council (NRC), for example, refers to inquiry as the central strategy for teaching science‚ (1996), and defines inquiry as “the diverse way in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on evidence derived from their work. ” (1996) In addition, NRC notes that inquiry seeks to create opportunities for learners to engage in science and to build an in-depth understanding based on their previous ideas and experiences.
Further, NRC recommends that teachers engage students in inquiry asking scientific questions, using evidence in responding to questions, formulating explanations from evidence, connecting explanations to scientific knowledge, and communicating and justifying findings. (2000) I fully concur with the position of NRC regarding inquiry, and have, throughout both my prior teaching career and current position as a science program director, included and required teachers to include inquiry – and particularly science fair – as the foundation of their teaching.
As a result, students have achieved deeper content knowledge and broader understanding of scientific processes. Inquiry through science fair projects, rather than traditional “cookbook lab” methods of science teaching and learning, in which students follow a predetermined protocol and the results of the experiment are known in advance, allow students to more fully engage in critical thinking and learning. Further, only inquiry – and specifically science fair – helps students better develop and understand the need to engage in probing questions to scientific problems.
This, in turn, affords students increased opportunities to propose and develop their own methodologies, and increases their scientific literacy skills. Thus, science fair projects are a key link between science education and the work of scientists in real life. An aspect of scientists’ work that I believe is crucial for students to acquire is the significance of ethics and conclusions based on data collected through scientific research, due to the potential implication of the scientist’s work on society.
For example, the racial classification in the early 18th century of the superiority and inferiority of races, which became part of the Western racial ideology, was the result of scientific research involving different human characteristics, which was later determined to be falsified. (Carlton, 2008) Similarly, western gender stereotypes have biased historical research of gender studies in the south (Fennell and Arnot, 2008); thereby rendering such research limited in its historical significance and material use.
Thus, exposing students to authentic scientific inquiry via science fair projects is not only necessary to the student’s academic success, it is, in my opinion, a vital component of the development of critical thinking skills necessary to separate authentic scientific data and research results from potentially questionable results; like the superiority/inferiority of different races and other biases.
Teacher Beliefs and Experience Teachers’ actions in the classroom tend to reflect their own belief systems. This holds true both in my own experience working in the field of education, and other academics. For as Wallace and Kang note in their article “An Investigation of Experienced Secondary Science Teachers’ Beliefs About Inquiry: An Examination of Competing Beliefs Sets”, “what a teacher actually does in the classroom is representative of her beliefs. (2004)
Additionally, in conducting research for their article “White Male Teachers on Differences: Narratives of Contact and Tensions”, Jupp and Slattery note the comments of one of the participants in the research project as stating “…teachers are certainly biased against certain children, especially if they don’t know them, and often are surprised at the amount of intelligence and cultural awareness of minority children who have been raised in quote-unquote the right way, you know, the middle class family type of situation…” (2010) A teacher holding this ideology, for example, is likely to engage students in an inferior level of inquiry because the teacher’s assumption is that such students are incapable of critical thinking.
Jupp and Slattery also noted in the interview of participants (Ibid), “…you can see that people are going out of their way to be sure that students don’t feel divorced from the curriculum…” This translates to teachers’ beliefs that if the emphasis is placed on inquiry – and specifically science fair projects, which requires a great deal of time – it will be at the expense of teaching for high stake standardized tests. Finally, Wallace and Kang, (2004) in their article “An Investigation of Experienced Secondary Science Teachers’ Beliefs About Inquiry: An Examination of Competing Beliefs Sets”, note that the teacher’s knowledge, or lack thereof, dictates his or her actions in the classroom. 2004) Therefore, it is clear to me – both in my own experiences in the field of education and based upon the literature – the possession of strong content knowledge, as well as research and science teaching experience, is essential to the effective teaching of inquiry, since a teacher that possesses this necessary skill set is better equipped to help students develop their ideas through probing at a deeper level.
The use of science fair projects, therefore, is a key bridge in this knowledge gap, since science fair allows students the ability to conduct their own scientific research and develop their own scientific hypotheses. Barriers to Inquiry Studies show that there exist many barriers affecting the implementation of inquiry. For example, Trautmann, MaKinster, and Avery, in their article “What Makes Inquiry so Hard (And Why is it Worth it? )”, cite that the main reason teachers are reluctant to implement inquiry stems from the need to be efficient. 2004)
Teachers feel they have to choose between teaching facts which students later regurgitate on standardized tests, and teaching with a focus on in-depth learning, which is more effectively attained through inquiry – and specifically through science fair projects. Trautmann, MaKinster and Avery also noted that the pressure placed upon teachers and schools to prepare students for high stake standardized tests impedes the implementation of inquiry in science classes. (Ibid) As a result, science teachers feel the need to maintain control of their classroom, as a method of controlling the curriculum required for standardized tests, rather than allow students to work independently on science fair projects.
Another obstacle hampering the implementation of authentic scientific inquiry teaching – and specifically the implementation of science fair projects – is that teachers have a tendency to employ the same teaching strategies as the ones they experienced as students. (Davis, 2003) As such, they resist change and miss the opportunity to be innovative in their teaching by incorporating inquiry into their curriculum – especially with respect to science fair projects. Further, teacher training, in general, does not offer an effective model for the practice of science instruction based on inquiry. As a consequence, teachers are limited in their ability to carry out authentic inquiry, in general, in their classrooms. This inability to teach via authentic inquiry prohibits them from adopting science fair projects as part of their curriculum.