Best Practices for Field Days E-Tips for Environmental Educators
Welcome to this edition of the EE E-Tip for Field Days - the quarterly source for practical tips to raise the impact of field day programs. We want to hear your suggestions for improving this resource. Send your ideas to Nate Meyer.
EE E-TIP: Involve students in learning through inquiry
Participants in our new Best Practices for Field Days Observation Assessment Tool workshops learn to watch for different kinds of teaching methods during field day and water festival presentations. They learn to distinguish between presenters lecturing, using models or diagrams to demonstrate important concepts, or involving their students in discussions. Our participants also learn to look for guided inquiry activities, in which presenters involve students in asking and answering their own scientific questions.
Each of these methods is important for engaging students in different kinds of learning. But research and teacher experience suggest that guided inquiry activities are especially important for teaching students to think and act scientifically.
Inquiry embodies thinking like a scientist.
Our world is constantly responding to and influenced by new scientific discoveries. As a result, some of the most important skills youth will need throughout their lives include science process skills such as questioning, seeking evidence and reasoning critically.
Science is driven by inquiry.
The process of inquiry can be both profoundly simple (ask questions, methodically pursue answers) and mind bogglingly complex (a 10-step process with piles of variables and mountains of data). Scientific discoveries are made through the process of inquiry, although scientists often use the word 'research' to describe what they do - detailed examination with the goal of discovering and interpreting new knowledge. When you think of the words 'new knowledge' inclusively (knowledge that is new to human-kind or to a small group of people, or even just to the person doing the research), then you're on the road to understanding inquiry.
Inquiry teaches science skills.
When people learn through inquiry, they are actively engaged in the construction of ideas and explanations (National Research Council, 2000). Their own observations of the world around them lead them to ask questions about what they see. They conceptualize explanations, or hypotheses, for their questions, and gather evidence that might lead them to favor one explanation over another. Ideally, they are given the opportunity to design experiments or conduct other kinds of study to answer their questions, and to share their findings with their peers. Inquiry is often cyclical, with reflections on the experience sparking new questions for study. View a model of the cyclical nature of inquiry learning at www.inquirylearn.com.
Guided inquiry can be a part of your field day and water festival presentations.
In field day learning stations, students often learn about science. But, in some cases, they also learn by actually doing science. When students take on the role of scientist, they come to understand the very nature of scientific inquiry. They begin acquire the thinking skills important in every day life, and may even set on a course toward pursuing careers in science (National Research Council, 2000).
In a Field Day setting, it may not be possible to carry out the entire process of observing, asking a question, developing alternative explanations, conducting an experiment, and sharing findings. However, one or two steps of the process can still make for a powerful learning experience.
Try out the following techniques in your next presentations:
- Involve your students in making observations and asking their own questions. For example, a presenter at a station on birds, might ask students to sit quietly for a minute or five, and in their head or on paper, list everything they hear. She could then facilitate her students' questioning of what they've heard, beginning with the phrase, 'I wonder'. They might ask such questions as "I wonder why all the 'chirp chirp' sounds come only from that direction?" or "I wonder how the sounds we hear would be different at night or in the winter?" The students could brainstorm potential answers to their 'I wonder' statements, thus setting them down the road to developing hypotheses.
- Involve your students in testing hypotheses. Imagine a presenter at a station on water quality, presenting students with a jar of 'polluted' water (with dirt, sand, food coloring, etc.) and a variety of mechanisms for 'cleaning' the water (strainers, coffee filters, sponges, buckets, etc.). In this case, the presenter might ask the provocative question, "How can we clean up the polluted water?" In small groups, the students form hypotheses, for example, "We think the water will get clean if we pour it through the sponge." The students test their hypotheses, make notes and report their findings. After reflecting on what worked and what didn't, they might develop new hypotheses to test. At the end of the session, each group could report on what they learned.
Be a 'guide on the side' rather than 'sage on the stage' presenter.
Because inquiry is learner-driven, not teacher-driven, the presenter must take a back seat to her or his participants' curiosity. To prepare for an inquiry-learning activity, you can create a facilitation plan instead of a lesson plan. A facilitation plan helps you think ahead to the many different ways an activity may turn out, and helps you to plan how to retain your focus on the essential learning points you want students to take away from the experience, while still allowing the students to drive the specific results.
The Center for Inquiry-based Learning at Duke University provides a helpful overview of inquiry learning, and highlights a suite of skills an educator practices when using inquiry. For example, they remind us that inquiry requires flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity, and an emphasis on student skill building.
Other useful resources for adding inquiry to your teaching:
- Search a slew of downloadable inquiry-based exercises from the Center for Inquiry-based Learning at Duke University.
- The Inquiry Page based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign offers a searchable list of inquiry units and projects.
- The Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium in San Francisco provides a variety of interesting articles with specific examples of how inquiry takes place in K-5 classrooms. Some of these examples are easily adapted to field day settings.
Two step-by-step guides for facilitating inquiry projects:
Inquiry-learning is driven, as much as possible, by the learner's questions rather than by what the instructor wants to teach. At its core, it draws on and feeds a student's natural curiosity. Through inquiry-based experiences, students develop essential life skills, those that help them learn how to learn. Making guided inquiry presentations a part of field days and water festivals will help students grow their abilities to think and act scientifically throughout their lives.
For more information on using effective teaching methods for field day presentations, review the Use Experiential Teaching Methods section of the Best Practices for Field Days: A Program Planning Guidebook for Organizers, Presenters, Teachers and Volunteers - pages 61 to 73. Curriculum copies, workshop and other information are available online at http://www.extension.umn.edu/FieldDays.
Use the new Best Practices for Field Days Events Calendar to promote your field days and festivals, connect with presenters and volunteers. Learn more about the calendar and get started at http://www.extension.umn.edu/FieldDays/Calendar/.
Learn more about evaluating field days and water festivals with the Best Practices for Field Days Observation Assessment Tool online at http://www.extension.umn.edu/FieldDays/evaltool.html.
To learn more about the Best Practices for Field Days, read our short article in the online Journal of Extension http://www.joe.org/joe/2004october/tt4.shtml.
Best Practices for Field Days is a University of Minnesota Extension program. The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the University of Minnesota Extension is implied.
National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.