Tom Alena, Seth Bonnett, Cynthia Brisson, David Cox, Ken Huff, Nathan Poore, Kathy Rossman, Jerry Roth, and Valerie L. Thomas.
The History of Winter (HOW) is a project co-sponsored by Blueice International and NASA that introduces teachers to the application of inquiry-based learning to study snow and ice. Concurrent with the 2002 Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City, Utah, nine teachers from Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut traveled to Lake Placid, New York, the site of the 1932 and the 1980 Winter Olympics. Lake Placid lies in the Adirondack Mountains- an area that receives more annual snowfall than any other region in New York State. The location proved an ideal location for the study of winter. During our visit, the weather proved variable with temperatures ranging from -17° C to 4 C°. Precipitation occurred all but two of the days and ranged from moderate rain to moderate snowfall. To enhance our appreciation of winter conditions, we camped near our main facility in tents set on 40 cm of drifted snow.
Inquiry-based learning is defined as research with guidance that allows the learner to formulate an investigable question and compile the data necessary to arrive at a logical conclusion. This is accomplished by providing sufficient information to students allowing them to examine resources related to their observations and measurements. The students act as scientists by learning to use the tools related to data collection, investigate natural phenomena by keeping accurate records of their data acquisition, and providing a logical interpretation of their results. Adequate instruction is provided in a hands-on environment where the learner is exposed to, and instructed on, the use and calibration of the tools used in data collection. Instruction is not initially provided as to why the instruments are used or how the data is to be interpreted. The focus is on correct use of the instrumentation to gather data relating to the topic at hand.
It should be noted that the classroom using inquiry is work-intensive for both instructor and student alike. Instructors need a high level of knowledge in the content area being examined. Those instructors new to inquiry-based learning should be prepared for additional workload because the nature of the inquiry-based classroom requires extensive preplanning and precludes the predictability found in the traditional classroom. Be prepared to leave your zone of comfort. Different sections of the same class may have different questions and perhaps even a different focus on the results. For the students, an inquiry based classroom presents a challenge since it may be the first time a student has had to deduce results instead of having results presented to them in a lecture.
The advantages of inquiry-based learning are that it provides a greater conceptual understanding of the content, and allows for the application of the concepts to different subject areas of science. Inquiry promotes cooperative learning, logical thinking, and problem solving skills. It also enhances the responsibility and accountability of the student by requiring regular journal entries detailing work completed and reflective evaluations of the student’s work.
Inquiry-based instruction also has significant benefits for teachers. It fosters differentiated instruction and allows concepts to be taught to mixed-level classes all the while addressing the student’s individual needs. Different roles in groups allow students to work within their areas of strength- students with artistic talents can sketch field observations, concrete learners can analyze data, and kinesthetic students can be performing the experiments.
Our fieldwork in the HOW program allowed us to experience all facets of inquiry-based learning. Events throughout the week highlighted the importance of accurate journaling, and the detailed recording all observations. Ice-sampling protocols were not well understood, which resulted in incomplete data collection from two of the sites. Over the week techniques and sampling become more concise and effected a clear analysis of test results and variables ultimately resulting in the acceptance and rejection of hypotheses. Frequent checks must be made to ensure that no steps are skipped and no data goes unrecorded. Renewed emphasis on these skills allowed us to carry out authentic science.
Our inquiry-based experience also fostered a dialogue with our peers. We found that through this communication, a deeper understanding of both the context and the process evolved. This honing of ideas through reasoning allowed us to clarify points of agreement and disagreement. An un-calibrated scale used to measure snow water equivalency was a source of continuous debate amongst group members. Group members made numerous mathematical checks and comparisons with no consensus being reached. Through discussion and direction from our primary instructors, we were able to recognize that these results needed to be discarded. This situation illustrates the need for continued communication amongst group members and with the teacher or instructors.
Inquiry works for many reasons. The foremost reason is that it is student driven work. Students are forced to take problems and questions about a topic and are expected to produce solutions to the problem. The independent nature of the work promotes responsibility for the work they complete. The students are the ones generating the answers to the questions instead of the teachers providing them. They are scientists working to find logical explanations for their observations.
Double-checking the results and protocols of experiments is another important aspect of inquiry. The students are required to be continually thinking of and recording explanations of what they are learning. They have to look at their entire experiment with a critical eye and keep refining both variables and procedures. This includes identifying errors generated by instrument error and finding other methods to verify their results.
Learning by doing is perhaps the most efficient way that students can be trained in the methods of science. It is an active subject—ever changing, ever reevaluating its own understanding, and ever evolving—the only thing that remains constant is the methods used to find new discoveries. Rote learning and direct instruction can provide excellent game show contestants but cannot compare to a student actively working in the field and analyzing the data they gathered.
Inquiry simulates real world applications of skills used daily by professionals and experts in many fields of study. Problem solving, collaborative work ethic, peer observations, and recognizing trends are some of the many derived from inquiry. These skills are necessary to prepare students for secondary education and careers. If these skills are not developed and encouraged during students schooling they will very often have to learn these skills without the benefit of an instructor to direct their learning.
Inquiry is an essential component of an effective science education. With inquiry based instruction students are scientists. This process allows students to construct explanations for natural phenomena with minimal guidance. Proper protocols and accurate data collection become a part of their science education and helps the student refine their thinking. By taking a more active role in their own learning, students gain a better understanding of the content as well as making additional connections to the world of science. The History of Winter program allowed us, as educators, to make connections between the natural phenomena in Lake Placid to that of our own local areas.