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Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009 | Cindy Hilliker scissored off the end of the frozen water balloon and peeled the yellow latex away from the icy globe on her tray. She peered down at the ice over her glasses, along with her partner. Hilliker sprinkled salt on it and it melted. She poured on sugar and it seemed to freeze. Holding copper wire against the ice melted it; blue food coloring made spidery patterns on the melting orb.

“Who knew a block of ice could be so entertaining?” joked Melissa Caram, her lab partner.

It looked like an elementary school science lab. But Hilliker and Caram are not traditional students — they are teachers. And they weren’t learning about ice that summer day at the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. They were learning to rethink the whole way they teach science, focusing more on questions than answers, and letting children come up with those questions for themselves.

The method is called inquiry, and it is popular among science reformers who believe that science has been shortchanged as a cavalcade of facts about igneous rocks, frog anatomy or the force of gravity instead of a way of understanding the world.

Cristina Trecha, who directs the project at the Fleet Center, described inquiry as a way to explore questions, instead of simply serving up the facts for children to digest. She coaxed the teachers to think up questions to investigate, such as whether more salt would make the ice melt faster or whether the rate the ice melted under a copper wire changed over time.

Inquiry can involve tinkering with ice, rocks or other objects firsthand, but it also goes a step further than what Trecha dubbed “cookbook” labs, where students follow a fixed set of instructions to get an expected result, much like a recipe for a cake. Instead, students come up with their own questions about the things they observe. They decide how to investigate them. And it can end without a clear answer, much like the messy process of science in the real world, where breakthroughs are the exception.

The idea behind the method is to capitalize on kids’ curiosity and to teach them how science is done so that they become better scientific thinkers, able to seek answers to new questions of their own.

“It’s about getting kids to realize that science isn’t perfect,” said Hilliker, who teaches special education students in a Lakeside middle school. She started using the new methods in her class this week, bringing the class outside to make observations and come up with questions about what they saw. “You may not always get the answer to your question — and that’s part of being a scientist.”

Trecha and her coworkers at Fleet are among the handful of San Diego scientists and educators trying to shift science teaching towards inquiry. But that can be a tall order, especially in elementary schools. The idea is not universally accepted, nor does everyone agree what “inquiry” really means. Teachers sometimes struggle to fit science into elementary schools at all, let alone spend hours on a sprawling lab where students pose their own questions. Many see science as a foreign language they dread.

“The kids would ask questions and I didn’t have answers,” said Erin Gannon, who teaches 2nd grade at Leonardo da Vinci Health Sciences Charter School in Chula Vista and took part in a three-year program at Fleet. “We would do experiments with electricity and I really didn’t know anything about how circuits worked.”

Elementary school teachers are rarely science majors, who tend to gravitate toward teaching middle school and high school if they aren’t already lured to other fields with better paychecks. They take few classes about science to get their credentials, which cover all types of subjects at the elementary grades. Their discomfort with science can translate into more rote lessons: Gannon said she used to just teach children the names of rocks and showed them pictures. She feared that letting them do something more interactive, such as sorting through different rocks by hand, might prompt them to ask questions she couldn’t answer.

“I didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable with the content,” said Valentyna Banner, a 3rd grade teacher at Nubia Leadership Academy who took the free Fleet class this summer. “It’s easier to just follow the directions that are given to you.”

Nor does science get the same spotlight as reading, writing or mathematics on state tests. California children are not tested in science until 5th grade, and in most cases, those tests add up to only 5 percent of the overall scores that elementary schools stake their reputations on under No Child Left Behind. Science educators argue that while literacy and math are important, science needs to be taught so that children can learn to think like scientists and take on big problems such as climate change or the water crisis. Industry leaders say they need a homegrown workforce to compete with other countries.

Nationwide, a sizable chunk of schools seem to have whittled down science class: One study by the Center on Education Policy found that more than a quarter of elementary schools had cut down on science classes over the last five years, slimming them down 33 percent on average

“We’d tell teachers, ‘Take the whole period and let the students answer a question,’” said Fred Goldberg, a physics professor at San Diego State who is studying the inquiry model. “And they said, ‘What do you mean, take the whole period?’ They couldn’t imagine giving it more than five minutes.”

Hilliker said some of her special education students got no science at all last year because their schedules were so weighted towards literacy; Gannon said she used to spend an hour every other week, sometimes less, before the Fleet program got her excited about science.

Squeezed for time and pushed to focus on ideas that will be tested — such as the fact that people once thought earth, wind, fire and water were the basic elements of the world — sticking to the textbook tends to be the easier option, said Sharon Freeburn, director of the Science and Technology Teacher Resource Center, which trains teachers in science methods and activities. It’s straightforward. It’s less messy. And it doesn’t require the same supplies. She believes that’s a mistake.

But the push to revamp science may revive bad memories. One attempt to inject inquiry into science teaching on a massive scale in 2001 — by altering the curriculum at San Diego Unified — proved explosive and was later reversed amid parent complaints in 2006. The school system put physics first in high school, promoted interactive experiments meant to promote inquiry, and included booklets with cartoons that some teachers derided as simplistic. More students began taking science, but scores barely improved.

“Inquiry is a necessary process. But they took it and blew it up way beyond where it’s supposed to be,” said Christopher Lawrence, director of the Renewable Energy Leadership Institute and a science teacher at Mira Mesa High School.

Yet other studies have shown that inquiry can boost test scores. A Fleet program that trained teachers in Chula Vista and Lemon Grove showed significant gains on standardized science tests. One problem with judging whether inquiry works is that educators seem to have different ideas of what it actually is, said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

Goldberg is part of a team of researchers at San Diego State University who are now studying whether elementary schools can push toward scientific inquiry without losing out on facts, zeroing in on lessons taught by 14 educators at several San Diego Unified elementary schools. One such teacher is Carolyn Vega, whose 3rd grade class at Hardy Elementary has long been a science haven. She talks excitedly about children studying snails and growing hydroponic plants and won a science award this year.

Yet changing her methods is a challenge for Vega. She is trying to stopper the impulse to automatically correct children who guess that summertime is warmer because the sun gets closer to the earth (it does so because of the tilt of the earth) and instead test their ideas with more questions. She wonders how she’ll work inquiry into astronomy, which is harder to test firsthand. Goldberg described one example lesson: a group of 5th graders who noticed that a puddle in the school parking lot had disappeared later in the day after a morning shower, a phenomenon that “generated days and days of discussion.”

“Frankly, I’m nervous because it’s going to take a lot longer time,” Vega said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. But I have a sneaky feeling that because kids are thinking hard about it — I’m hoping that it will make more sense to them.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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