Doing Inquiry in the Natural Sciences

Lee Schmitt
Science Museum of Minnesota
St. Paul, MN
Coordinator of Educational Resources
1995 ASTC Annual Conference
San Diego, CA
October 15, 1995

Interesting story here. As all my co-presenters know, I had planned one thing and wound up doing another. I had shipped a "hash" of small Ordovician fossils from Minnesota along with art supplies and tools. The intent was for participants to extract fossils from the mix and "present" what they had discovered about fossils in some organized fashion to each other. In other words, design a classification/presentation strategy.

The box of fossils did not arrive. Time to improvise. Friends and I collected leaves from all around the convention complex. A quick trip to the mall for art supplies and I was ready.

The ten participants in the group began by going around the table and each sharing "their first experience with science". It was obvious that this first encounter did not happen in school, but occurred on the farm, in the back yard, on the beach, etc. Nature provides most people with their first memorable experience with science. I then dumped my stash of leaves on the table and set the challenge. Each team of two (with two individuals deciding to work alone) was challenged to sort through the leaves and 30 minutes later present "what they discovered about leaves" to each other. They were provided with paper, glue, markers, construction paper, post-it notes, scissors, etc. The only rule was to have fun and be creative.

Again, my mission was to support their efforts, tell everyone how well they were doing, and pose questions about leaves above and beyond what they were discovering. It was difficult to get people to stop their fun and present.

We went around the table. I'd never seen such intriguing "products". One group had produced a human-like figure using leaves. It occurred to all of us that this showed the diversity in leaf design. (Why did this leaf look like a foot? This one like an arm? a nose, etc.?) Another group had a "water collector" made of leaves. (Why were leaves different sizes with some shaped like funnels?) Another looked at marks or spots on leaves. They had found some patterns. (What are these marks? Why do they occur in certain places?) Still another group did a presentation on leaf edges discovering a direct link to the established classification system. Another did a skit called "Ask the Plant Person" wearing hats made of leaves. Everyone was very proud of their work. We applauded after each group presentation.

The discussion in San Diego was more "sophisticated" than Portland. In 1994, many participants were discovering inquiry for the first time. In San Diego, my group at least, had all done some inquiry-type experiences with visitors. They were looking for new ideas, for confirmation of their approach, and for more information, i.e., the next step.

In our discussion we addressed the questions of emotion (discomfort, then fun), learning (raising lots of questions with few answers), and facilitation strategies (open, collegial, relaxed, and product/presentation). Everyone had something to say. This small group work also encouraged more involvement in the large group discussion.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

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