Science magazine honors method that teaches essence of experimentation

January 26, 2012
Pictured are Explorations in Physics designers from Dickinson College, Priscilla Laws and David Jackson. Credit: Image courtesy of Carl Socolow, Dickinson College

Priscilla Laws' love of learning almost came to an abrupt end very early on—when she left kindergarten, where learning was by doing, and entered first grade, where learning was rote. "They promoted me to first grade, and it was dreadful," says Laws, a research professor of physics at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. "I was sitting in a seat and copying letters from a board."

Luckily, after heading to Reed College to study math, she discovered physics, which reawakened her creativity and love of learning by doing. Laws and two colleagues who had similar experiences with creativity and science learning, Dickinson Associate Professor of Physics David Jackson and Rochester Institute of Technology Professor of Physics Scott Franklin, are being honored for having developed an inquiry-focused curriculum for students who are not majors in science called Explorations in Physics (EiP). The curriculum is a winner of the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

The Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory college science courses. The materials must be effective at encouraging students' natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than at delivering facts and principles about what scientists have so far discovered. Organized as one free-standing "module," the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about EiP will be published on January 27.

"We want to recognize innovators in science education, as well as the institutions that support them," says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. "At the same time, this competition will promote those inquiry-based laboratory modules with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an essay in Science on each winning module will encourage more college teachers to use these outstanding resources, thereby promoting science literacy."

Previous to working on EiP, Laws had been focused on an activity-based curriculum for physics majors, but an interest in the development of future teachers took her toward the idea of science curriculum materials for students who were not majoring in science. David Jackson, meanwhile, was finding as a graduate student at Princeton University that teaching science to students who weren't majoring in the sciences gave him great flexibility to explore different approaches.

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Priscilla Laws discusses Explorations in Physics. Credit: Video courtesy of Sarah Sheriff, Dickinson College

"You didn't have to teach them X, Y, and Z," says Jackson. "I just kind of fell in love with that."

The three collaborators were all working on teaching physics through inquiry—"to get students to think about concepts, rather than equations," Franklin says—by the time they began working as a team. They were also committed to "systematic research toward whether the approach was successful or not," he says.

The national dialogue around science education at the time EiP was first being developed fit well with the questions the three collaborators were exploring. U.S. science education seemed to need revamping, judging by students' test scores, the tendency for many students to "drop out" of science early in their academic careers, and the acceptance by the public of information with no evidence to back it up. The EiP developers asked themselves what people thought it meant to learn science and whether students recognized the importance of experiments in science.

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David Jackson discusses Explorations in Physics. Credit: Video courtesy of Sarah Sheriff, Dickinson College

Because of their realization that students needed above all to understand how science works in order to be able to make informed decisions about the issues that affect us all, the creators of EiP focused on guiding students directly to performing their own experiments. Rather than filling the students with facts and figures to memorize, like in a standard introductory science lecture class, a "guided inquiry" intro gave students only the very basic background needed to "scaffold" them in coming up with an experiment within a certain unit. An example of an EiP unit is one entitled "Light, Sight, and Rainbows," which explores the nature of light and its interaction with matter, how the eye organizes visual information from light, the properties of light that enable us to see colors, and natural phenomena such as rainbows, blue skies, and red sunsets.

"The whole approach was to save about one-third to one-half of the semester for the students to do their own experiment," Jackson says.

"Explorations in Physics serves as an alternative to 'science class as usual,'" says Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. "EiP enjoys the luxury of time, as it does not cover a complete physics curriculum, and 100 percent of in-class time can be spent working on inquiry-based student-directed projects."

The best projects, the team says, are those that the students come up with on their own, based on their own curiosity. "They have a strong interest in seeing the project through," says Franklin. "Because they have ownership, they're the experts. They can't say, 'Is this right?,' because the professor doesn't know if it's right. Only they do."

The hardest and most important step for students is figuring out what they're going to study and how they're going to do it.

"That is the hardest part of science," Franklin says. "This is the essence of science that we're trying to get across."

The developers of EiP have a goal that is expressed in the essay that will appear in Science. They hope the opportunity of becoming scientifically literate through self-directed exploration will be available "to students everywhere, helping them to use investigative skills in their future endeavors and to serve as scientifically literate citizens who contribute to the creation of a better world."

Explore further: Scientific literacy happens -- when students think for themselves

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