Teaching Science Content Through Inquiry: A Week with the History of Winter
Tom Alena – Talcott Mountain Science Center, Avon, Connecticut
Seth Bonnett – Manchester Elementary-Middle School, Manchester, Vermont
Cynthia Brisson – Mount Abraham Middle School, Bristol, Vermont
David Cox – East Middle School, Westminster, Maryland
Ken Huff – Mill Middle School, Williamsville, New York
Nate Poore –University of Vermont Student Intern @ Mount Abraham High School, Burlington, Vermont
Kathy Rossman – Rock Point School, Burlington, Vermont
Jerry Roth – Cape May High School, Cape May, New Jersey
Valerie L. Thomas – Minority University-Space Interdisciplinary Network, Maryland
Tony Gow, Researcher, U.S. Army CRREL, Hanover, New Hampshire
Peter Wasilewski, Principle Investigator, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
Rosemary Millham, Aerospace Education Specialist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
For the week of February 17th through February 23rd a group of middle school and high school teachers and student teachers from New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Ohio, Vermont and New Jersey met at Northwood School, Lake Placid, New York to study snow and ice. We were participants in the History Of Winter (HOW) 2002 event sponsored by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Blueice International. In addition to learning about the environmental implications of snow and ice a major objective of the week’s activities was to promote inquiry-based learning.
Inquiry is a learning style that starts with a question and leads to a student-conducted investigation in which the student incorporates concepts and skills to answer the question. Inquiry allows students to act as scientists by using tools for data collection and keeping accurate accounts of the data leading to logical interpretation of the results. Content is learned through the process of investigation.
The inquiry of the week was to understand how the events of winter could be described through the study of snow and ice. We were given direction through the protocols provided at http://www.blueiceonline.com/howsite/howindex.html. The protocols provided the stimulus for asking questions about the history of winter in Lake Placid, 2002.
Inquiry: Why is it important to calibrate instruments prior to using them?
Our initial job was to prepare our thermometers for a week of field-testing. We were given 2 sets of thermometers, one digital and one analog, and beakers containing an ice-water slush bath. Group members collaborated to develop a logical procedure to complete the task. The corrected temperature readings provided the precision of subsequent data collection.
Inquiry: What can lake ice tell us about the history of winter?
We collected three ice core samples from Cascade Lake, Mirror Lake and Lake Placid. From these samples we were able to find the thickness of the total ice and the amount of snow ice versus actual lake ice. We were able to describe that a series of snow, thaw, and freeze sequences had occurred. Furthermore, we were able to identify local variations in lake ice development due to environmental and geographical conditions. These samples were labeled and preserved for future analysis.
Inquiry: What can layers of snow tell us about the history of winter in an area?
We dug snow pits at two locations. Following protocols from the HOW website, data was collected for each layer. The data included snow density, temperature, thickness, snow-water equivalent, and grain size and shape. We interpreted the series of snowfall and thaw events that contributed to the overall snow pack. Our observations led us to further inquiry, specifically why the temperature increased toward the bottom of the snow pack.
Inquiry: What can observations of ice tell us about its formation?
Using polarized light we observed thin sections of ice from the lake sites, icicles and a frozen water balloon. We looked at both vertical and horizontal cross-sections. Our observations included different growth patterns and lengths of crystals within each sample as show in the picture below. This led us to inquire about the environments in which ice crystals grow.
Inquiry: What can we learn from looking at the structure of snow crystals?
The beautiful hexagonal structure of snow can be observed using a magnifying lens directed toward a surface on which newly fallen crystals have fallen. Look at individual crystals against a dark background to enhance contrast, like the observer below is doing.
Using readily available technology, we adapted snow observation into an inquiry-based classroom activity. We used the Intel Play microscope, which connects directly to a PC. This microscope can display and record the crystals beautifully for student observation and study. As a demonstration of this, we placed the microscope outside in below-freezing temperatures while the cable connected to the computer inside the lab. Crystals were collected on a black thin strip of plastic and placed under the microscope, brought into focus, and saved as an image or movie. Such preservation allows structure details to be studied unlike that of the traditional lens observation. The image below was taken during a light snowfall at temperatures just below freezing using the 60X magnification objective on the microscope.
Inquiry: What is it about the data collected at Lake Placid that can be used to help student’s understand the "global perspective" i.e. pole to pole?
This inquiry is an example of the degree to which a teacher can expand a simple exercise or experiment. Through inquiry-based learning, students are challenged to build on the knowledge that they have accumulated by completing a series of related, yet not directly connected, exercises. This we feel is the essence of true science, in that one never stops questioning.