The importance of inquiry practices for online secondary science education

By Cynthia Clark
Doctoral Candidate, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Findings from dissertation study, February 22, 2016

In order for deep learning to occur in online secondary science courses, effective methods for inquiry must be developed so that students can engage in authentic scientific experiences and scientific argumentation practices.

This blog post pertains to the issues believed to be most relevant to online secondary science education. The dissertation study conducted by the author — The Experience of Teaching Online Secondary Science — used developmental phenomenography, a methodology that allowed the teachers to describe the phenomenon in their own words. The overall purpose of the study was to obtain an understanding of how online secondary science teachers experience their teaching in a way that will enable change to occur. After obtaining data using in-depth phenomenographic interviews, the experiences of the online secondary science teachers were compared to each other and to their experiences teaching secondary science in brick and mortar classrooms.

Thirteen teachers from four states and two countries participated in the study, with interviews conducted via Skype. Two of the teachers taught earth/space science, five taught biology, two taught chemistry, and four taught physical science. The majority of the teachers involved in the study taught using curriculum either developed by a private entity or developed by the school district. Only three of the teachers developed their own curriculum for their courses. All of the teachers were teaching all of their courses online at the time. Five teachers taught at charter schools, seven taught at state-run schools, and one teacher taught at a province-run school in Canada.

Developmental phenomenography was employed in order to develop a ‘structure of awareness’ for the phenomenon of teaching online secondary science. This structure of awareness consists of three parts:

  1. The theme. This is the critical aspect of the phenomenon, what is at the height of focus for the participants during the time of the interview;
  2. The thematic field. This is related to the theme and consists of the structural aspects that are simultaneously present during the participants’ experience of the phenomenon; and
  3. The margin. This consists of aspects not directly related to the theme but playing a part in how the theme is experienced.

The phenomenon of focus for this study was teaching online secondary science. The questions pertained to the participants’ experiences and to their experiences of their students’ learning. Questions such as “How do you experience your teaching online?” and “How do you experience your students’ learning?” were asked. In order to ensure the interview structure expressed the experiences of the participants and not the researcher, terms contained in the responses of the interviewees were used in the follow-up questions.

The transcripts of the interviews were analyzed individually and as a whole in order to identify the themes, thematic fields, and margins. The results of the phenomenographic interview analysis revealed seven themes that were in critical focus for the teachers at the time of the interviews:

  1. Virtual Labs and Learning,
  2. Student Learning and Factors Involved,
  3. Communication and Instruction,
  4. Teaching as Collaboration/Social Aspect,
  5. Teaching and Learning as Assessment,
  6. Curriculum Effects on Teaching and Learning, and
  7. Online Structure Effects on Teaching and Learning.

This blog post will focus on a theme which pertains primarily to the science education realm, Virtual Labs and Learning, and a theme which the researcher expected to develop but was absent from the online secondary science courses, Scientific Argumentation.

Dichotomy of Experiences

When asked how they experienced investigatory practices, all of the teachers reported that they used simulations or virtual labs for inquiry practices for their online secondary science courses. These virtual labs were experienced in two different ways. Some of the teachers found the virtual labs to be more effective than labs conducted in brick-and-mortar schools as it was easier to receive the “correct” results. There were fewer classroom management issues, and it was believed the students could be more focused on the concepts.

The virtual labs allowed access to materials and experiences that may not have been available in the traditional classroom. Some of the teachers found the virtual labs to be more effective when students were able to collaborate in the LMS breakout rooms. The teachers who experienced the virtual labs as effective for student learning felt the purpose of labs was to help students practice scientific procedures and to obtain experience working with lab equipment, even if that equipment was in the virtual setting. The teachers also felt the purpose of the virtual labs was to confirm what had been discussed during the course.

Okay for chemistry we have virtual labs and they’re actually pretty good. For the flame lab, I could never get these types of results in a laboratory. We had the chemicals and stuff and some of them, like the green, burned really green, and the sodium burned really yellow, but other colors like potassium it was really hard to see the purple in the flame, it wasn’t really obvious. And if the burners were contaminated, then no holds barred. You know if your burner was contaminated your results weren’t good. (ST8)

Those teachers who experienced virtual labs as ineffective for student learning felt that the virtual labs were “cookie-cutter” and “one size fits all.” This group of teachers felt that students should be allowed to formulate their own questions and collect their own data. Providing these types of inquiry experiences would allow online secondary science students to experience science more authentically, in a manner similar to actual scientists.

In terms of differences, it’s been a challenge to try to find some hands-on experiences for my online class obviously. The lab work though has been a concern of mine so I’ve tried to adapt some existing labs to make them more, I guess to provide students with some lab experience because I’ve always felt that was sort of neglected with online. … But the virtual labs, I find, it’s really hard to find virtual labs that are authentic in the sense that they contain some openness for mistakes. They tend to be very generic and very like one pathway to the right answer kind of deal. So I’ve found that that’s been a real challenge. (ST10)

In terms of differences, it’s been a challenge to try to find some hands-on experiences for my online class obviously. The lab work though has been a concern of mine so I’ve tried to adapt some existing labs to make them more, I guess to provide students with some lab experience because I’ve always felt that was sort of neglected with online. …But the virtual labs, I find, it’s really hard to find virtual labs that are authentic in the sense that they contain some openness for mistakes. They tend to be very generic and very like one pathway to the right answer kind of deal. So I’ve found that that’s been a real challenge. (ST10)

Scientific Argumentation

One of the reflection questions asked during the interviews was “How do you experience scientific argumentation in your course”? This question was included for two reasons. The first was that scientific argumentation has been demonstrated by the literature on science education to be important for the development of an advanced understanding of science. Secondly, without this prompt, scientific argumentation would not have been discussed by the teachers. While the main purpose of developmental phenomenography is to focus on what is in critical focus for the participants, some prompts can be used to ensure the interview focus aligns with the goals of the study. As two of the goals of this study were to help guide the development of online secondary science curriculum and teaching methods, understanding of how the participants experienced scientific argumentation was critical.

For the purpose of this study, scientific argumentation pertains to engaging in arguments based on evidence as discussed in A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2012). In order to engage in scientific practices, students must be able to justify their claims. When practicing scientific argumentation, students make claims about a particular scientific phenomenon and then collect and analyze data in order to support or oppose those claims. Peer collaboration is an important aspect of scientific argumentation. Working with others allows students to defend their claims and to collaborate to find plausible explanations of the analyses in regards to the phenomenon.

The analysis of the data showed that scientific argumentation did not occur for most of the online secondary science students in the courses taught by the participants. One of the barriers discussed by the teachers was the lack of synchronicity of students with their peers and teachers. Another barrier was the lack of support for scientific argumentation in the curriculum. Some participants did not want to stray from the curriculum they used to teach their courses.

(When asked about student participation in scientific argumentation) Probably not as much as I would like because of the way the program is run. Yeah, asynchronous makes it more challenging because students are on at all periods of times and we have students with varying backgrounds. We have high school students that are taking a 6th class, we also have people who are working full time and they have children. So their access to the course can vary. And also the continuous intake model that makes it even more difficult, right?  So I found that we’ve had to go away more from our discussion board, discussion of topics and stuff like that, and more/less peer assessment and to a more individualized approach to learning. (SC10)

Five of the participants did include scientific argumentation as part of their course but on a limited basis. Instances of scientific argumentation occurred during the weekly live lessons. Live lessons were weekly synchronous meetings between the teachers and students, with a typical duration of one hour. Unfortunately, very few of the online secondary science students took advantage of these sessions, with an average attendance rate of 15 students, usually the same students each week. Given that most of the teachers could have anywhere from 90 to 200 students in one course, this equates to 7.5% to 16.6% of the students practicing scientific argumentation.

Right, right. We do, I personally host what we call a live lesson on the “properties of water” lesson … In that particular one, I would say in my lesson you get it a lot more than in the regular assignments, but I do a lot of collaboration in that one, a lot of verbal collaboration. So I have them come up with their hypothesis of what they think is going to happen in this particular experiment that they go over. They talk about why they think it’s going to happen and then at that point I stop them and I say, you’re a group of three people. Tell me “Johnny, why do you think this?”, “Sarah, why do you think this?”, and considering both sides let’s talk about that. You know, why there are different opinions. Why does Sarah think this when Johnny thinks something totally opposite? And back up your claims. Why, what’s your basis for what you’re saying, that kind of thing. So in the live, virtual classroom, I think there’s a lot more of that. In my opinion, a big part of that is doing it with another person … We work on that a lot in the live lessons but it I think lacks a little bit in the written ones. (SC7)

Recommendations

Both the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the National Research Council (NRC) recognize how important it is to allow students to conduct science investigations in a manner similar to true scientific investigation. For this to occur, labs must be open-ended in nature and ideally allow students to develop questions to solve problems of interest to them. There are several online and digital affordances that can be incorporated in online secondary science education that could make this possible.

Teachers and students have real-time access to large databases, such as those found on the NASA Wavelength website. This site provides databases on issues such as weather, satellite missions, and global warming, as well as the tools needed to analyze the data. Students can obtain a better understanding of phenomenon by manipulating messy data because that requires the ability to identify what is data and what is noise. There are distributed networks of experts available to students through social media and citizen science sites. By following the hashtag #SciStuChat on Twitter, online secondary science students can collaborate with scientists, science educators, and other science students. Students can use the sensors available on their smartphones to collect their own data to answer questions about their environment. Free apps such as Physics Toolbox Apps allow for the collection of data on sound, light, motion, the magnetic field, location, and force. Both the NASA Wavelength website and the Physics Toolbox Apps website provide lesson plans that could be adapted to the online environment. However, this type of adaption would require that the online secondary science teachers be allowed flexibility within the course curriculum.

An inquiry-based online secondary science course could implement these tools in a manner that allows students to address issues related to the course concepts that students experience in their daily lives, as suggested by the National Research Council. This allows the students to bring in their own past experiences, knowledge, and ideas to design the procedures they feel should be used to answer those questions. Such practices not only help contribute to students’ science knowledge but also help them to develop inquiry skills that can be used outside of their science courses.

These types of inquiry practices could be incorporated into online science teacher education programs so that preservice teachers acquire experience using such affordances. For example, preservice teachers could receive training on the use of breakout rooms contained in learning managements systems to help conduct collaborative inquiry experiences for students. Both preservice and in-service online secondary science teachers could practice providing metacognitive scaffolding supports that allow students to evaluate and monitor their inquiry skills. An example of this would be to implement White and Frederiksen’s four stages of inquiry practices: questioning, planning, analyzing, and interpreting. These practices align with the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices of: (1) asking questions, (2) developing models, (3) planning and carrying out investigations, and (4) analyzing and interpreting data.

The NGSS address the methods to be used to help students practice science and engineering in an authentic manner. The result of these authentic practices is that inquiry activities and scientific argumentation are closely tied. Not only are students expected to develop procedures that can lead to the answers they seek, they must be able to interpret and communicate the analysis of the data that come from those procedures. Part of that communication may include using the evidence they have acquired in argumentation. One of the difficulties in incorporating scientific argumentation may be that virtual labs, which offer cookie-cutter steps that lead to one answer, do not provide students the ownership of the data nor the authenticity that could lead to their desire to participate in scientific argumentation. Allowing online secondary science students the freedom to develop their own claims, backed by their own reasoning, to collect their own data (support), and then use that the data to infer support for their claims (warrants) could increase the motivation of students to engage in scientific argumentation.

The focus placed on the STEM fields by the government makes it increasingly important that effective science education occurs in all types of learning environments. As the number of online science course enrollments increases, it is imperative that the online learning experience provides students with the ability to develop authentic inquiry and argumentation skills. Today’s technology offers various pathways that can ensure that online secondary science students have access to high-quality inquiry experiences that will allow them to participate in authentic scientific argumentation. It is up to online teacher education programs and online curriculum developers to assure these methods are incorporated as part of the online science experience.

Today’s technology offers various pathways that can ensure that online secondary science students have access to high-quality inquiry experiences that will allow them to participate in authentic scientific argumentation. It is up to online teacher education programs and online curriculum developers to assure these methods are incorporated as part of the online science experience.

 

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