Constantly Striving for Inquiry-Based Learning

I received an email from a science educator colleague and friend, and he included a copy of a paper that he presented last fall at conference among science teacher educators. The paper, entitled “The journey from powerful ideas to classroom practice:Enacting inquiry pedagogy through co-construction, not indoctrination,” by Michael Dias, Kennesaw State University. The paper also earned the “outstanding faculty position paper” award at the conference. The paper traces the issues related to attempts by science teacher educators to develop inquiry-oriented programs to prepare secondary science teachers. It’s been a difficult journey. Inquiry-based teaching was not really in the mainstream of teacher preparation until the 1960s, and yes it was related to the massive response by the National Science Foundation to the launching by the USSR of Sputnik. Science education responded with the emergence of a host of science curriculum projects and were developed from late 1950s and into the early 1970s.

On a personal note, Sputnik enabled me to receive a Ph.D. in science education in the late 1960s because the NSF funded Academic Year Institutes at many universities around the country. Hundreds of science and mathematics teachers (like myself) spent a year in full-time study–in my case (and many others as well) I stayed on at the university (Ohio State) and completed my doctorate, and did not return to high school teaching.

Inquiry-based teaching was a theme of many of the NSF funded science projects such as PSSC Physics, Chem Study, BSCS Biology, Earth Science Curriculum Project, Introductory Physical Science, Individualized Science Curriculum Study. Elementary projects such as Elementary Science Study (ESS) followed the inquiry theme. And during the 1970s many teachers earning their Ph.D. degree in science education focused their dissertations on these projects and their impact on student learning. Many of the studies compared these NSF projects to the more “traditional” text book oriented programs. Oddly, all of the NSF programs produced texts (except for the elmentary science projects). Most studies found little difference in the “academic” achievement of students in either NSF or traditional programs. Years later, using more sophisticated methods (essentially looking at a whole bunch of studies and using the data to draw conclusions), researchers reported that the NSF projects did have significant differences in impacting students understanding of inquiry and attitudes toward science.

Yet, inquiry-oriented teaching is not the staple of secondary science classrooms. Texts, lecture and testing still dominate the classroom. And even when major universities develop what appear to be strong-inquiry-oriented science teacher education programs, the long term effects seem to be nill.

So Dr. Dias’ paper sheds light on this issue, and he suggests changes that are needed in teacher education, e.g. “practice to theory” and “co-construction” of inquiry-based science.” In his view:

” …Collaboration with teachers using this framework has resulted in the realistic view of inquiry that I wish to promote. The essential features framework allows us to acknowledge with teachers the elements of inquiry pedagogy already present in their practice, and also provides direction for extending student opportunities for working at a higher level of independent and collaborative thought. With this tool we can take teachers from the common initial notions of inquiry as “hands-on activity” or “discovery” or “design an experiment” to a more varied view of endeavors congruent with the nature of science.”

There are programs that have initiated these changes, but if history is of value here, to reverse the trend of constantly striving for inquiry-based learning will take significant changes. I think Mike is on the right track!

International Space Station Advances; Impact on Research

NASA announced, after a meeting in Florida among all of the participating countries (United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada), that a new plan for the completing the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS) was worked out. NASA indicated that it would take 16 flights of the space shuttle (Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour) in order to deliver equipment and materials needed to complete the various components of the ISS.

Of course this has resulted in some controversy among scientists, engineers and managers. At a hearing in Washington, some members of Congress expressed concern over the loss of research projects and the disruption of project teams. At the hearing, some scientists argued that NASA was sacrificing small space projects valuable for training graduate students and advancing science to sustain some big programs. Others said the United States was risking its leadership in space science.

This is a difficult issue. We want the Space Station completed. It will be useful to future space research projects, and it will be used for future expeditions to the moon and beyond. Yet, some say that the continued costs associated with the Space Station are impacting science research projects.

One of the key issues here is what are NASA’s goals for the future of space research and exploration, and do these goals. This past year, out of the blue, the Bush Administration announced plans for putting astronauts on Mars in this new century. NASA has been plaqued for nearly two decades with two space shuttle disasters, each of which appeared to caused by the mis-management at the highest levels of NASA. What is driving NASA at this time? Have we really reached any kind of a consensus on goals that should drive NASA in the future? When NASA announces that it going to make 16 launches of the Orbiter, one has to raise questions.

Back to the Moon and Then Onto Mars

In the last post I reported that new goals for NASA, established by the current Administration, not only involve sending astronauts to Mars, but a return series of trips to the moon. Instead of Apollo, the astronauts will travel in an “apollo-like” spacecraft called CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle). I think NASA administrators are involved in naming this vehicle—the CEV?

Here is what it looks like:

It’s bigger than Apollo (18 feet vs 12 feet in diameter) and can hold four astronauts; it will also be launched by a smaller rocket than the Saturn V which shot Apollo into orbit; all four astronauts will be able to land on the moon, and when it returns to Earth, it will return to a land-base location, rather than being dropped into the ocean as the Apollo missions did. Returning to the moon won’t happen until, perhaps, 2018, with missions to Mars beyond that. Here is the moon lander:

It will be expensive to do this. However, perhaps there is a way to retain the smaller, more scientific projects that might be cut from future NASA budgets. Surely, an integrated approach, combings space exploration, engineering and technology, and science should be at the heart of any NASA project.

NASA’s Budget: Funding Big; Loss for Small Projects

Last year, President Bush established a goal for NASA that would put astronauts on Mars by 2020. This has naturally impacted (intended) NASA’s budget. Although the NASA budget will increase this year, many projects that are much smaller in scope than completing the International Space Station, creating a successor to the Orbitor, and working on the Mission to Mars are suffering. Unfortunately, many of these smaller projects advance scientific knowledge and understanding of the universe, and are being eliminated, or put on hold.

For example, NASA just announced that the project to visit two comets has been cancelled. Although the project costs nearly $400 million, in the scope of NASA, it is a smaller sized project. The Dawn spacecraft was supposed to lift off in June on a nine-year voyage to two of the solar system’s largest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, which reside in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroids are believed to be remnants from the solar system’s formation about 4.5 billion years ago, and studying them could provide clues into how the sun and planets formed.

Sending Astronauts to Mars, apparently is a more politically correct project these days.

Why ID Should Not Be Taught in a Science Course

Intelligent Design (ID) advocates are clever folks. They know that a religious belief (like the creation story) can not be taught in a science course because it is not science, although for years “creation science” proponents tried in just about every state to get school districts to demand equal time with evolution by natural selection. That idea didn’t work. So in the last ten years, a group of individuals who organized themselves around the concept of Intelligent Design and then attached themselves to the Discovery Institute have been attempting to “wedge” the concept into the science curriculum, claiming that Intelligent Design is indeed science. A judge in Pennsylvania ruled that indeed ID was not science, and ordered the Dover school district to stop messing with the science curriculum, and leave the design of science courses to science educators. About time!

I’ve been reading Forrest Church’s book, The Separation of Church and State, which is a collection of writings on a fundamental freedom by America’s founders, e.g. Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. As Jefferson said, the First Amendment to the Constituiion creates a “wall of separation” has been built between the church and state. The ID proponents know this. That’s why they had to abandon creation science, and invent a new concept (ID) claiming it to be science. And they have gone to great lengths to try and convince others (they even have the President on their side on this) that ID is science, and should be a part of the science curriculum. But the courts so far have interpreted the attempts to ‘wedge” ID into science as infringement of the First Amendment (the establishment clause), and have thrown it out. The Discovery Institute propaganda arm is always out there commenting on any court case, any state legislature’s or school board’s decision against ID (recently in Utah). As Church points out in his book, the founders conceived of the separation of church and state to protect freedom of conscience and belief. Any attempt at trying to impose a specific religous belief by the state will be challenged, and supported by ideas that emerged more than 200 years ago.