How do scientists figure out things? How do they go from asking a question that hasn’t been answered before and work toward understanding?
Science experiments in the classroom are often an endeavor where an answer is already there—an exercise in verification. For science educators, how can we involve students in that process of questioning, learning, and research, within the constraints of our curriculum and classrooms?
The June 2019 issue of the Journal of Chemical Education (JCE) provides one possible answer in the article Recipe for Developing High-School Research Projects Illustrated by a Student's Interpretation of Historical Metal Casting (available to JCE subscribers, ACS, or AACT members*), based on the authors’ experience at a STEM-centered high school. Spencer and Liang describe the journey of one student through a research project, through the lens of Harwood’s model of inquiry, including such stages as asking questions, a literature search, experiment design, data analysis, and sharing results with others. With one of the most difficult stages for a high school student seen as coming up with a question/topic, they offer several suggestions: periodicals, a newspaper’s science section, and in particular the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Chemical & Engineering News. The student settled on explorations related to binders used when casting tin and lead. The materials and equipment were not highly specialized, although the student was able to arrange to use a scanning electron microscope at a nearby university.
This is not the only model. Student research can be brought into the classroom in many different ways, with dramatically different levels of involvement. Further examples from the ChemEd X community and ACS publications are:
In a ChemEd X blog post, Deanna Cullen discusses reading research articles with students, but before they dive into assigned articles, she gives them a chance for a self-designed research experience. She suggests using activities already in your curriculum, or includes citations to two JCE Classroom Activities, as jumping-off points for students. They expand on what is already investigated in the activity, asking their own question and creating experiments.
Authentic Research within the Grasp of High School Students (available to JCE subscribers, ACS, or AACT members*)
A past JCE article by Annis Hapkiewicz highlights the idea that materials do not need to be complex. Her students, from those in ninth grade science up to Advanced Placement chemistry, asked "Will an ice cube melt faster in salt water or tap water?" They considered multiple variables and embarked on the challenge to come up with a potential model to what they observed in experiments.
In a ChemEd X blog post this year, Tom Kuntzleman, writes about using more of a partnership between a teacher and student to carry out inquiry, rather than a student having total freedom. He makes the case that this can give greater learning gains and points out that this is also realistic for a scientist’s path in the real world, in that they train with advisors before becoming totally independent. As in the Spencer and Liang article, Kuntzleman also provides sources for students to find questions.
This chapter by Mark S. Hannum from the ACS Symposium Series eBook The Power and Promise of Early Research (available to JCE subscribers, ACS, or AACT members*) is an extreme example, with multi-year projects in senior research labs at a STEM-focused high school or in an outside lab with a mentor. Other schools could use their model as inspiration, at any level. Some nuggets on helping students to begin to think like scientists:
“Build a culture of investigation.”
“…involve every subject and every discipline in the construction of opportunities for students to develop testable questions and support students in every way possible to pursue them.”
“Spend time developing a school wide philosophy of how to get students to not just be consumers of science, but users of scientific knowledge and scientific ways of thinking.”
“Reach out to the surrounding community of professionals.”
I also like his advice for teachers who wish to dive in and test the waters of facilitating student research: “Like scientists, be ready to experiment”, as we work to figure out what works in our particular classroom situation, with our students.
More from the June 2019 Issue
Mary Saecker shares her monthly summary of the most recent issue of the Journal of Chemical Education at JCE 96.06 June 2019 Issue Highlights. This month’s cover (see image with this post), from the article Characterizing Color with Reflectance would be another possibility for kicking off student questions to investigate related to art and pigments.
Do you integrate research projects in your classroom? Share! Start by submitting a contribution form, explaining you’d like to contribute to the Especially JCE column. Then, put your thoughts together in a blog post. Questions? Contact us using the ChemEd X contact form.