November 04, 2005
Inquiring minds: Extension project helps teachers build students’ understanding of science
“Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” It’s an ancient Chinese proverb that gets at the heart of 4-H’s learn-by-doing approach to helping young people gain knowledge and develop life skills. And it is the essence of the inquiry-based learning movement in education.
In Transylvania and Haywood counties, North Carolina Cooperative Extension educators are teaming with local school systems and an N.C. State University teaching outreach program to increase the use of inquiry in the county’s classrooms.
The ultimate goal: greater scientific literacy – and greater chances for economic development in remote counties that have lost major industries in recent years.
This spring, with seed grants from N.C. State University’s Office of Extension and Engagement, the Cooperative Extension centers in each county hosted workshops to help elementary and middle school teachers better understand the power of inquiry-based learning. Because of the interest and momentum gained during the workshops, the partners have made plans to bring the teachers back together for additional meetings so they can share the lesson plans they’ve developed and learn from each others’ insights and experiences.
The grant funding helped pay for supplies and for substitute teachers so the participants could attend the workshops. The workshops were led by Lindsay Moody, outreach coordinator for the Asheville satellite office of N.C. State University’s Science House.
The Science House helps K-12 teachers improve their students’ understanding of science and math through hands-on learning. Through the workshops, Moody’s goal was to help participating teachers get a handle on how they could “incorporate inquiry into their classrooms.”
“We didn’t want the teachers to think inquiry was something new we were asking them to do – they already have too many things to do –- but we wanted to show them how inquiry could be incorporated into things they were already doing,” she says. “We wanted to make it easy on them.”
Through the workshops, teachers learned classroom management tips and age-appropriate activities using common household items. They also discussed what makes inquiry-based learning truly different from traditional teaching and even hands-on activities. And they took away lessons, activities and materials they can use in their classrooms and share with other teachers in their schools.
Mary Arnaudin, a 4-H agent in Transylvania County and a former science teacher, explains that in inquiry-based learning, students gain knowledge and understanding through a process of questioning, testing and drawing conclusions from the answers to those questions.
Pointing to a definition from the book Doing Good Science in Middle School, she says it’s “a shift away from textbook-centered, direct instruction that emphasizes discrete factual knowledge claims and passive observation of science phenomena toward active, learner-centered, hands-on, minds-on investigations ... by students themselves.”
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s standard course of study recommends inquiry-based learning, as the National Science Teachers Association does in its science standards.
And research has shown that the approach increases test scores not only in science but also in reading, math and writing, Arnaudin says. That’s important because the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires science testing in elementary and middle schools by 2007.
“The school system is seeking ways to improve science teaching, but as a small rural county, Transylvania has long lacked the resources to offer adequate inquiry training for teachers,” she says.
The same is true in Haywood County, where County Extension Director Bill Skelton organized a Science House workshop for 23 teachers representing every elementary and middle school in the county.
“The Haywood School’s central office support staff is not large enough to provide a full-time science coordinator,” he says. “They rely on the generosity of outside agencies to partner with them to provide opportunities for students and teachers.”
Sandy Caldwell, elementary supervisor for Haywood County Schools, expressed appreciation for Extension kick-starting the process by securing a grant.
“Haywood County Schools is grateful to Bill Skelton for writing a grant proposal that allowed our teachers the ... opportunity to participate in an inquiry-based science workshop,” she says. “Lindsay Moody from the Science House did a wonderful job giving our teachers strategies and activities to teach science. Our teachers learned what differentiates true inquiry-based ‘experiential learning’ from hands-on activities. It is our wish that our students will become as excited learning about science as their teachers were learning these new strategies.”
One of the workshops’ major objectives was to help connect elementary and middle school science teachers to resources available through The Science House, Cooperative Extension and other N.C. State University programs, as well as through area public forests and parks and other agencies.
The workshops also served to help build a network among teachers so that they can help each other through an important transition in science education.
Ron Rudd, the director of curriculum and instruction for the Transylvania County Public Schools, said that network-building was among the greatest benefits of the workshops.
“Teachers are out there on an island, and they don’t have a lot of opportunity to interact,” he said. “They really appreciated being able to get out of the building and getting to be together.”
In their evaluations, teachers praised the workshops, saying they’d given them new ideas for presenting “science in a more meaningful way to encourage student involvement,” for “increasing knowledge and interest in science,” and for promoting “high student success” and improving students’ analytical skills.
Based on how warmly the project has been received, Arnaudin sees the potential for it to be a springboard for similar partnerships across the state.
“Inquiry-based learning incorporates a learning cycle that is very much like 4-H’s learn-by-doing experiential learning model. 4-H agents who bring science school-enrichment programs to classrooms have the potential to be model presenters of inquiry-based teaching,” she says. “And students who learn through inquiry-based methods gain many of the same life skills 4-H programs promote – team work, decision making, problem solving, critical thinking, planning and organizing, keeping records, communication and cooperation.”
Especially in remote rural counties with limited professional development resources available for teachers, such collaboration could have a big impact, she says.
“The timing was perfect, with the changing in instructional focus of the science curriculum and the science testing that is to come.
“The delivery of the workshop was excellent,” he adds. “And the followup and the partnerships built -– that’s perhaps the most important thing that has come out of this project.”
Thanks to Cooperative Extension’s initiative, teachers who participated “now know they have resources among themselves and through The Science House to make this transition. ...
“It’s been awesome.”
-- Dee Shore
Posted by deeshore at November 4, 2005 04:29 PM