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July 15, 2009 > Newark teachers experience inquiry-based science techniques

Newark teachers experience inquiry-based science techniques

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Amy Snider

"Inquiry has a different approach when teaching kids. It's about giving the learner more control in his/her own thinking," says Jocelyn De Asis, Kindergarten teacher at Musick Elementary in Newark. "Instead of the teacher giving the student the answer, the student engages in a thoughtful process of thinking. The teacher guides the student through activities, by questioning."

De Asis and approximately 35 other elementary teachers from the Newark and Novato school districts recently took part in a unique two-year pilot program, "Classroom Strategies for Hands-On, Inquiry-Based Science." Part of the Teacher Leadership Academy for the BaySci Project, this project is funded by a generous grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. (Gordon Moore co-founded Intel Corporation.) The foundation focuses in three main areas: environmental conservation, science and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hosted by the Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium, "The five-day program helps teachers learn processes and gives guidance to students, giving them an opportunity to ask questions based on engagement from phenomena about the world around us," explains Lynn Rankin, the Institute's director. A follow up workshop is planned for the teachers at the Lawrence Hall of Science, one of its partners in this program.

Another Newark participant, Erin Snider, 5th/6th grade teacher at Milani Elementary, describes the workshops. "They were very practical and taught a lot of good approaches; I have many experiences to share with the other teachers on staff and my principal. The "big idea" is to continue to provide children the direction to follow this process in order to learn how to ask questions about science."

Fifth grade teacher, Jacqueline Rastrullo of Snow Elementary adds, "I always knew that inquiry was a great way to teach science. However, I always felt it was so open-ended. Through this workshop, I learned that inquiry can be done in a classroom with "subtle shifts." We learned that inquiry increases the opportunity for students' learning responsibility."

During the sessions, teachers were able to put the techniques they were learning into practice, giving them a chance to understand science at a higher level. Snider says, "We took existing curriculum and chose a lab from a section to implement and model questions to reflect our students. The techniques were applicable to each grade level. How do you teach students to become curious and want to learn science? Learn to observe. Give students one focus question and see where it leads. Raise questions, make a plan, investigate, interpret data, hypothesize and apply."

Many of the teachers use the FOSS (Full Option Science System) materials in their classroom. This is a kindergarten through grade-5 curriculum that teaches science in an interesting and involving way, utilizing hands-on materials, kits and manuals. FOSS was developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. It has been adopted by the state of California and is aligned with the Science Framework for California and the Science Content Standards for California Public Schools.

De Asis adds, "I feel that all the areas of Science were covered and I feel comfortable approaching the FOSS curriculum with a new kind of learning that is with an inquiry approach. Even though science is so rich in content, I learned from the workshop that there are numerous ways to promote inquiry, even in my Kindergarten classroom."

Reflecting on what she learned during this process, Rastrullo says, "I always knew that inquiry was a great way to teach science; however, I always felt it was so open-ended. Through this workshop, I learned inquiry can be done in a classroom with "subtle shifts." Inquiry increases the opportunity for students' learning responsibility. I will give my students more time to observe in order to notice and wonder."

"Next year, says Snider, "I plan on getting science notebooks for my students, where they can write down in their own journals their plans, questions and hypotheses. Writing will be a reflection of what they've learned."

"I'm excited to take what I've learned through the workshop and use new strategies not just in science, but in other subject areas," says De Asis. "What I've learned is something that can be applied to all. I am also ready to share this information with my colleagues to help our students be successful."

"The inquiry process provides intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and taps into the different learning styles of my students, showing them that there isn't only one right way to get to an answer," sums up Rastrullo.

The Institute for Inquiry is hoping to expand the potential of this program by exploring options to include additional school districts in the future.

For information contact:

The Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium
(415) 561-0397

Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley
(510) 643-0311

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