The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Inquiry Experiments

Elementary teachers in Urbana spent a considerable amount of time last school year exploring concepts surrounding inquiry. We talked about the different types of inquiry, such as structured, guided, and open. One of the goals we set as a staff across the district was to use more inquiry focus in our science instruction; to get students away from textbooks, articles, and videos and into actually creating, doing, and discussing as they explored concepts.

Some of the concepts that fourth graders are supposed to learn and understand don’t lend themselves very well to inquiry of this sort. Understanding that energy is transferred through waves, for example, is challenging to teach through hands-on inquiry lessons. Understanding that weathering and erosion can and do change land formations, on the other hand, is quite fun to teach through open inquiry!

We did this as a short three-week unit in my classroom that started before Winter Break and finished today. For the first two weeks, the students did a lot of reading, researched concepts, and watched videos that introduced these concepts. We wrapped up this week with one of the most open approaches to guided inquiry I have ever used.

I provided the students with a variety of materials, such as sand, gravel, plastic containers, and water, then told them that they were to work in small groups to plan, design, build, and demonstrate a model that would show the effects of weathering and/or erosion. I gave no directions on how to do this, nor did I tell students what I expected. My only requirement was that they found a way to show how weathering breaks up rocks and soil and/or that erosion moves rocks and soil to a new location.

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After making their plans earlier in the week, today was the day to actually build and demonstrate. It was so much fun watching and listening as they all worked together in their groups. Yes, they made a huge mess. Yes, there were hands stained green and red from the food dye that they randomly discovered and decided to use. And yes, there was a lot of talking and laughing and bumping into each other. But the students also all worked together as a class to clean up afterwards, to get the spilled water and the wet sand cleaned up and properly disposed of so that our room was once again a clean place to work and learn together.

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We let the models rest during lunch and then the groups did their demonstrations in the afternoon. We had models of mountains, hills, and canyons with demonstrations of rain fall, floods, and rock slides. The students gathered around and listened to one another and made observations about how water could cause both weathering (breaking things up) and erosion (carrying them away). They encouraged one another and helped clean up after the demonstrations.

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All in all, it was a fantastic end to our first week back after the Winter Break! We are going to move into a new social studies unit on Monday and I am really excited about the possibilities we have before us, but I am so pleased that my students were able to so confidently demonstrate their learning. They were especially excited when one of the fifth grade teachers came in and they were able to explain to her what they were doing!

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