Unit 3: Scientific Inquiry Skills for Middle Grade Students

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Prerequisite for Unit #3

Before beginning this unit of the mini-course, the learner should be able to identify basic scientific inquiry skills in middle-grade level lessons.

Introduction to Scientific Inquiry Skills for Middle Grade Students

It's important to remember that instruction that focuses on "teaching to the test" does not directly promote life-long learning. Instead, Darling-Hammond writes, "Thinking deeply about one's prior ideas about scientific knowledge is one of the most essential science education practices for developing an understanding of science." (Darling-Hammond, Pg. 157. 2008). Based on their previous knowledge, students may hold misconceptions, which are ideas that are not considered scientifically credible. In order to teach for understanding, science teachers need to identify the misconceptions students may hold before they begin the unit. These misconceptions can be discovered through pre-test data, but can also be uncovered in conversations with students. Carrying this idea forward, it is important that when teachers address misconceptions, they do so through the use of interactive activities that allow students to visualize why their misconceptions are invalid. This type of instruction involves scientific inquiry, and the five abilities/scientific inquiry skills that grades 5-8 students should acquire are as follows:

  • They should be able to reformulate and clarify questions until they can be answered through scientific investigation.
  • They should be able to create and carry out a scientific investigation, interpret the data to provide explanations, and use further data to revise explanations.
  • They should be able to identify the tools necessary to gather and analyze data. They should be able to use computer hardware to store, organize, and gather data.
  • They should be able to provide descriptions and explanations, create models, and make predictions based on the body of knowledge they possess.
  • They should be able to explain cause and effect relationships using explanations and data from experiments.

When watching the following experiments, consider how the educators promote these skills/abilities throughout their lessons.

Experiment #1: The Lifesaver Experiment (5th Grade)

The following experiment does not focus on a specific NGSS standard, but rather provides an example of how to implement Crosscutting Concepts through a lesson about cause and effect relationships.

I particularly like this example because I conducted a very similar experiment with my own students back in 2019. In this video, the teacher takes the time to explain her thought process to the viewer, and at the end of the video she explains what her next steps will be in the learning process. Her teacher reflection at the end of the lesson is arguably the most important part of the instructional design in her scientific inquiry activity. This self-reflection allows her to determine what she can improve upon when she teaches this lesson again, and also allows her to see what her students are understanding or misunderstanding in the unit. When a teacher can effectively self-reflect on their instructional approaches, they are ensuring that they will continue to improve upon their current teaching strategies. When watching the following experiment, it would be to your benefit to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the focus for this experiment? Why is important for students to know the focus for the lesson before beginning their scientific inquiry?
  2. What variables are being tested in this experiment?
  3. How many variables is each group testing? Why is this number important?
  4. What observations and predictions are the students making throughout this experiment?
  5. What strategies does the teacher use to guide her students through the lesson?
  6. What strategies does the teacher use to promote student engagement?
  7. How does the teacher make sure that her students are understanding the steps for the activity?
  8. How did the students use their collected data/evidence to provide an explanation for the cause and effect relationships?
  9. Since this is a small group activity, how will the teacher be able to assess student knowledge for students individually?
  10. How did the students communicate the results of the experiment?

To finish the first section of Unit #3, please click on the following link to review your answers to the questions listed above:

Experiment #1 - The Lifesaver Experiment (Cause and Effect)

Experiment #2 - Radiation, Convection, and Conduction (6th Grade)

The following experiment focuses on the NGSS standard MS-PS1-4

In the following example, 6th grade teacher Sarah Jarrard gives an interactive science lesson on radiation, convection and conduction. What I love about this lesson is that the teacher makes sure that her students are constantly engaged with the lesson. Oftentimes PowerPoint presentations are mundane, and students end up staring blankly at the presentation without interacting with each other or the content of the lesson. However, in this example the teacher ensures that her students are focused on the lesson by encouraging them to answer questions, make predictions, take part in demonstrations, and provide explanations to the experiments they have observed. According to Darling-Hammond, teaching science for understanding, "...involves a model of conceptual change that accounts for the iterative (or sometimes sudden and revolutionary) restructuring of knowledge and includes much more than direct instruction. It involves reflecting on one's own knowledge and how it is structured around a given phenomena." (Darling-Hammond, Pg. 168. 2008). This quote is highlighted throughout this lesson, because the students are using their previous knowledge to make predictions and provide explanations. When watching the video provided below, you should answer the following questions:

  1. How does the instructor begin the lesson? Why is this a good segue into the new topic?
  2. What is the ‘learning target’ that they will be focusing on? In other words, what should students be able to do by the end of the lesson?
  3. How does the teacher introduce the new topic?
  4. How does the teacher make sure that she teaches in a way that is beneficial to a wide variety of learners? (Visual learners, auditory learners, etc.)
  5. What strategies does the teacher use to promote student engagement?
  6. Did students make predictions based on the body of knowledge they already possessed? Provide an example.
  7. How does the teacher make sure students are focused throughout the lesson?
  8. What cause and effect relationships were highlighted in this lesson?
  9. How did the students use what they learned to provide explanations for their decisions during the activity?
  10. How does the teacher conclude the lesson? Why is this an important last step to the scientific inquiry lesson/activity that they completed?


To finish the second section of Unit #3, please click on the following link to review your answers to the questions listed above:

Experiment #2 - Radiation, Convection, and Conduction (Answers)

Experiment #3 - Forensics Lesson (8th Grade)

The final experiment in Unit #3 does not focus on a specific NGSS standard, but rather provides an example of students following the NGSS practice of Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information in a forensics lesson.

This is not a fully recorded lesson, but rather a teacher's self-reflection on the way she teaches forensic science to her 8th grade students. She explains the importance of encouraging student collaboration and the use of technology, as well as making connections to real-life applications. These are very important aspects of scientific inquiry, and they are highlighted throughout this example. Since this a much shorter video, there are only eight questions that you should be able to answer while watching this example:

  1. What types of learners does the educator say she is working with in her first period class?
  2. How does she tie the lesson into her students’ interests, as well as real-life applications?
  3. What are students working on in this lesson, and what technology are they using to complete this task?
  4. According to the instructor, why is it important to use technology in the classroom?
  5. How can the use of technology in the classroom encourage student collaboration?
  6. How did the students report their findings?
  7. Why is the use of a classroom blog helpful for students who often need information repeated to them?
  8. How does she keep students engaged?


To finish the last section of Unit #3, please click on the following link to review your answers to the questions listed above:

Experiment #3 - Forensic Lesson (Answers)

Self-Assessment for Unit #3

After completing Unit #3, please answer the following questions:

  • What are the scientific inquiry skills (five abilities) that students in grades 5-8 should acquire?
  • Why do middle grade level teachers need to develop scientific inquiry skills in their classroom?
  • How did the teachers in each example experiment promote the use of scientific inquiry skills with their students?
  • How did the teachers in each example experiment promote a deeper level of understanding of science with their students?
  • How would you incorporate these scientific inquiry skills into your middle grade level classroom?
  • What new strategies would you use to promote scientific inquiry skills in your curriculum?


Click on the following link to continue on to the next unit of this mini-course: Unit 4: Scientific Inquiry Skills for Older Students

References

Darling-Hammond, L., Barron, B., Pearson, P., Schoenfeld, A., Stage, E., Zimmerman, T., . . . Chen, M. (2008, July 08). Textbook. Powerful Learning: What We Know About Teaching for Understanding.

Next Generation Science Standards. (2020, September 03). Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.nextgenscience.org/ All standards were taken from this website.

Scientific Inquiry Skills for Middle Grade Students (2020). In NYSTCE Earth Science (008) Test Secrets Study Guide: NYSTCE Exam Review for the New York State Teacher Certification Examinations (pp. 38-39). Place of publication not identified: Mometrix Media Llc.

YouTube Links (listed in order of appearance):

       Garcia, Julie. Next Generation Science Standards Lesson. March 2nd, 2019. 
       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YS3TSUyG6iI
       TheKCSD. KCSD Lesson Series Sarah Jarrard 6th Grade Science "Radiation, Convection, Conduction". 
       March 24th, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rX4Qc3XAosk&feature=emb_logo
       powerontexas. Forensics Science Lesson, 8th grade, Science. July, 15th, 2011.
       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yMU40wkrHo&feature=emb_logo