Investigative Science: Role in the Program

Page Prepared for SERC by Sadredin C. Moosavi, Ph.D.

A discussion of the design and implementation of a capstone course for elementary and middle school pre-service teachers at Western Washington University, created by Susan DeBari, Ph.D.

A description of this course and its goals is available.

What Role Does this Course Play in Teacher Preparation?

Investigative Science integrates the process of desiging and performing student initiated experiments relating to an interdisciplinary instructor selected theme.
  1. Students develop a deeper understanding of how the process of science works.
  2. Students construct their own body of knowledge relating to a theme with broad applications throughout science.
  3. Students gain a positive experience involving scientific inquiry.
  4. Students gain skill in using inquiry to answer scientific questions.

How does the Course Address Each Role?

  1. Students experience the joys and frustrations of asking a question, developing a hypothesis, designing experiments to address the hypothesis, collecting data and analyzing the data to answer their original question. This powerful experience serves to guide future pedagogy by these pre-service teachers. This inquiry-based approach is unlike most students' experiences with science and serves as an example of what it possible and desirable in a science classroom.
  2. Interdisciplinary analysis of the course theme requires students to draw on knowledge from all the scientific disciplines to answer fundamental questions. Without input from all the disciplines, the student would be unable to design a suite of experiments capable of addressing their primary questions. Because the students must design their own experiments (with guidance from a team of instructors) the knowledge they construct is genuinely theirs.
  3. The series of experiments students design provide a more genuine experience of how science occurs with the joy of discovery preserved as compared to more traditional cookbook laboratories where the student confirms a stated principle or observation rather than using reason to seek an explanation for a mysterious phenomenon.
  4. Self-directed development of multiple related experiments with support from peers affords students the opportunity to practice genuine scientific inquiry with external guidance from experienced faculty experts accustomed to the trials, tribulations and triumphs that any scientific inquiry elicits. The pre-service teachers learn by doing enabling them to get the perspective of what their own future students and personal insight into how to meet their needs.

How do Students Integrate Learning & Teaching?

Most teachers teach in the manner they were taught. The inquiry-based approach in this course shows pre-service teachers what is possible in a practical fashion that they are more likely to emulate than a hypothetical example of best practices in pedagogy taught in a lecture style! Further, the interdependence of all the students' experiments to a holistic understanding of the theme affords the pre-service teachers ample opportunities to learn from and teach each other, again a skill to be encouraged in group projects in the classrooms these students will oversee in the future.

How does the Course Transition Pre-service Teachers into the Classroom?

As a capstone course, Investigative Science ties the content and pedagogy threads developed in preceding classes together into a functional whole that all new teachers must learn to achieve. Working through the kinks of inquiry in a science classroom prior to student teaching removes a major impediment on the pre-service teachers learning curve.

How is the Course Content Aligned with the National Science Education Standards?

The National Science Education Standards are the basis for Washington State standards which this course prepares pre-service teachers to meet.

How does the Course Meet Certification Requirements?

While Washington State has no specific certification for elementary educators, this course is needed to fulfill science certification and receive a middle school science endorsement.

What Challenges have been Encountered in Teaching this Course? How have they been Resolved?

As a student-driven, interdisciplinary, inquiry-based course directed toward pre-service elementary and middle school teachers, Investigative Science requires students approach learning new and unfamiliar material in a far different way than most of their previous experience. This poses special challenges to the faculty who have designed this course.
  1. Lack of Student Motivation

    Investigative Science requires students to brainstorm questions and design experiments addressing a broad theme. This unusual degree of freedom can be difficult for students accustomed to following the strict guidelines of a teacher in a lecture style environment. The task is made more difficult if students lack a clear understanding of science and scientific thinking (which is what the students are about to engage in).

    This lack of motivation has been partially overcome by selecting broad themes that have practical and relevant applications in the lives of the students and can be easily integrated into K-8 classrooms. This combined relevancy gets students over the initial hump of not knowing where to begin until experiments are drawn up and students can anticipate results for their interpretation. Strong faculty preparation in anticipation of student questions and experimental needs is essential for successful navigation of this challenge.

  2. Insufficient Student Preparation

    Initial offerings of Investigative Science were taught as an optional course after students completed a basic series of physical, earth and life science courses. Many of the students did not have sufficient strength in their science content or understanding of the processes of science to bridge the gap to fully independent inquiry sought in this course.

    This problem was resolved by thorough revision of the introductory science series. The new series focuses on Matter and Energy flow in natural systems and begins the preparation for the process aspects more fully developed in Investigating Science. Further information is available for Matter and Energy in Earth Systems.

  3. Breadth of Possible Experiments Relating to a Theme

    As an interdisciplinary, student-driven, inquiry-based class, considerably more preparation is required at the design stage than in a traditional lecture or instructor driven lab course.

    Investigative Science was reworked as part of a larger program-wide curriculum revision. A team of faculty members from physics, chemistry, biology and earth science were involved in the redesign of the course and the experiments needed for exploration of the course themes. Careful selection of themes by the committee limited the scope of demands placed on the instructors and lab resources. The team collectively attempted to identify major questions students were likely to select and the experiments needed to find their answers. Experiments were conducted to insure results could be obtained by students in a timely fashion.

    Upon implementation, team teaching of the course limits the preparatory demands placed on any one faculty member while ensuring that students have expert advice in all disciplines. The continued involvement of the faculty team also serves as an example of how actual scientific teams operate.