Inquiry: The Emphasis of a Bold, New Science Curriculum

by Dr. Lawrence F. Lowery University of California, Berkeley A question of primary concern to today's science educators is "How do children best learn science?" Researchers restate the question by asking "Under what conditions do elementary-school students grasp the essential concepts in science?" Constructivist researchers, those who believe that learners must construct knowledge for themselves by manipulating and transforming materials, think that the answers to these questions are found in well-designed "hands-on/minds-on" learning experiences -- experiences in which students cover less material in greater depth (as compared with the traditional textbook's superficial coverage of many topics) -- experiences that are integrated with mathematics, reading, multimedia and other technology resources. Hands-on/Minds-on Curricula Fundamentally, the term "hands-on/minds-on" highlights a biological perspective on human learning -- the natural way by which humans inquire about the world around them. People learn by doing and thinking about what they do. In a thoughtfully designed curriculum, what the mind learns from hands-on experiences can be extended toward abstraction through representational experiences (still and action pictures, drawings, photographs, video and videodisc). Full abstraction, then, can be reached through appropriate narrative and expository writings. Recognizing this, modern science programs now offer activities that integrate math, reading and writing skills with technologies such as videodiscs and other electronic learning materials. In the past few years there has been an outpouring of new science curricula. Statewide adoption processes, including 1992's important California science adoption, increasingly focus on non-textbook-based approaches to science education. And virtually all the new programs share one significant element: they have veered from the traditional textbook path of reading about science to a more personal student inquiry process with access to technologies. One Successful Project As current researchers in this field, my team and I, based at the Center for Multisensory Learning at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California-Berkeley, worked under an NSF grant to advance a hands-on/minds-on learning approach to teaching science. The approach has become the commercial program called the Full Option Science System (FOSS). Today, this activity-centered, inquiry-oriented program is integrated with videodisc and multimedia technologies to form the Britannica Science System (BSS). Both FOSS and the BSS are marketed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corp. of Chicago, Ill., and both span K-6 grades. A middle school component is under preparation. When development began more than half a decade ago, we used these working hypotheses: * Learning takes place best via first-hand, direct-inquiry experiences and progresses to depth and abstraction through representation and narrative/expository experiences; * Learning is enhanced when learners work collaboratively; and * Science is both process (how we come to know something) and content (what is worth knowing). We stressed seven particularly powerful thinking processes that enable youngsters to build scientific concepts: observing, communicating, comparing, organizing, relating, inferring and applying. Program Testing Is a Key FOSS and BSS are the result of extensive research and years of classroom testing. Each of the 27 modules in FOSS took two years to develop. Developers taught preliminary ideas and tested the materials in classrooms, reworked them into effective sequences, then prepared trial guides for teachers. Feedback from teachers and students provided input for further revisions which, in turn, were tested at ten national sites. Feedback again led to revisions and then final versions. In class, students get significant exposure to each of four science areas: Life Science, Earth Science, Physical Science, and Scientific Reasoning and Technology. For example, a visitor to a fifth-grade classroom might find students learning about landforms. This module covers eight to ten weeks of instruction. Students, for example, learn about geological erosion by using stream tables to run water through earth materials and then see the effects. Their explorations are extended by video segments such as How D'es Wind Shape the Earth's Surface? These show time-lapse views of erosion and deposition plus aerial views of landforms -- views that provide students with information they could not obtain any other way. The shaping of glaciers, deepening of canyons, movement of sand dunes and creation of a delta are just a few of the many views. Video segments are designed so students can stop the action and perform experiments related to what they are seeing. In addition, students construct a model of Mt. Shasta from materials included with the system. Students then compare their model, first with an aerial photograph, then with a topographic map. Both the aerial photo (a pictorial representation) and map (a symbolic representation) are in scale with the model. This allows students to line up their models on top of the representations so as to better interpret and understand them. Other prominent landforms, like Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, are explored similarly. The multimedia components of the BSS expose students to the best visuals and technology available. BSS can be used with three levels of multimedia interactivity -- videotape, videodisc with bar codes and videodisc with software. For schools offering the latter, students can genuinely interact with visuals. They are able to cut and paste segments to produce their own audiovisual reports, a task requiring reflective, organizational and reporting skills. Collaboration The science-inquiry experiences are usually carried out by groups of four students. At times, members work cooperatively, taking turns being responsible for different roles. Beyond that, students also work collaboratively, each bringing his or her own talents and prior experiences to design experiments and explore ideas. Activities vary with each module. Sometimes students collaborate in constructing an electrical circuit to telegraph messages to another destination; sometimes they decide how to mix solutions to determine factors in chemical reactions; sometimes they build solar houses and test the efficiency of their designs in keeping the houses cool or warm. In all, there are hundreds of activities in this K-6 curriculum. The components of the program are organized in a developmental, progressive way. Prior knowledge contributes to later experiences. Subsequent knowledge builds upon prior knowledge. Results and Reactions One researcher who has studied the program is Sally Dudley, an instructional specialist for Elementary Science and Health at the Science Health Resource Center in Seagoville, Texas. She reviewed the implementation of FOSS as part of an interdisciplinary program in Dallas. In her review, published in a regional publication (The Texas Science Teacher), she cited results from 134 teacher surveys handed in at the close of the program, noting that many students changed their attitudes about learning. However, she pointed out that "the most important and long-lasting change took place in teacher attitudes toward science." This is clearly an important finding. "Rather than placing science at the end of the day (if there is enough time)," Dudley elaborated, "teachers are placing science at the beginning of the day and using the real-world experiences as a core for constructing all learning." Other studies have found that the program produces significantly higher science content scores, process skill performance, and general reading scores when compared to standard textbook programs.1 Teachers have been integrating the program into their classes with enthusiasm. As their confidence and competence increases, more science and better-quality experiences will be taught to the next generation of students. The intended result is that they will possess a heightened interest in the world around them and a better understanding of scientific phenomena -- characteristics that are important if we are to have a scientifically literate society in the next century.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.