Many students will recall their first real science lessons fondly. Recalling the first time they were allowed to use a bunsen burner, the excitement of switching from the orange safety flame to the blue flame, the sense of danger and the thrill of playing with fire in a classroom. The lesson was probably the same for most, 'heat water in a beaker and record its boiling point’. This lesson is probably one of the first almost any student of science does and sadly for too many students of science an indication of what is to come; science by the numbers with little chance for real discovery. But does it have to be this way?
One of the goals of CREST, a programme managed by CSIRO aims to encourage an innovative approach to science. The goal is to reward students who engage in open ended science investigation and to provide a range of resources that enable their learning. At its advanced level CREST aims to "Advanced CREST enables students to experience the exciting world of scientific research and technological development through a structured program that supports them in choosing, organising and undertaking their own open-ended experimental science or technology project.” This is a very different scenario to that presented in the boiling water experiment.
It is worth considering the levels of complexity and opportunity for inquiry that exists across a range of science lessons. At the most simple level is our boiling water experiment, an example of a 'guided explanation' lesson. In this style of lesson the student is guided by the teacher, they are provided with the equipment and the steps they take to complete the experiment. In this guided explanation nothing new is discovered, in most cases the desired result of the experiment is already known by the teacher and in most cases the students. Assuming the students follow the instructions the results will be expected and each group will present identical results. This sort of lesson might play a role in providing practice with lab routines and procedures for documenting an experiment but resembles real science as much as colour by numbers represents artistic expression. Consider Blooms' Taxonomy and you see that in this case students may require their memories but little else. In fact as the instructions are probably displayed on the board or in a handout students are not even required to remember the details. How many science lessons are of this type? Maybe the experiment is a little more complex, maybe it requires the use of expensive even complex lab equipment and numerous chemicals but does it require students to much with their brains other than follow a recipe?
It is not just science where this highly controlled model of learning can be found. I recall my time in Year Eight and the excitement of moving from Woodwork to Metal Work. The class was presented with the problem of keeping the classroom tidy and the need for dustpans. Over the coming weeks we fashioned from sheets of raw steel dustpans that were works of beauty and all exactly the same. Years later my eldest step-son entered Year Eight and although at a different school he too produced a metal dustpan. I don’t have the dust pan I made, I don’t have the one made by eldest but I do have the one produced my youngest step-son four years later. Each one is for all intents and purposes exactly the same. I have seen similar projects in many schools and have even seen schools celebrate their technological advancement by having the students construct this same dustpan with the help of a laser cutter, surely we can not be too far from having them 3D printed.
Grant Wiggins writing for te@chthough deals with this problem in an article titled 'Experiential Learning: Just Because It’s Hands-On Doesn’t Mean It’s Minds-On’. Grant asks students three questions that reveal the level to which they are cognitively engaged with the task at hand; What are you doing? Why are you doing it? and What does this help you do that’s important? How many students if asked these questions would reply that they are following the steps indicated and that they need to follow the steps to complete the task? Grant’s full article is worth reading and can be found on his blog, ‘Granted, and. . .'
The next level is a little more challenging and is possibly the first step towards open ended scientific inquiry. In this 'guided discovery’ model students are presented with a question and given some idea of how to proceed with an experiment. The teacher has an idea of what the experiment will look like and provides appropriate materials but does not describe the steps. The students have a degree of freedom although it is most likely freedom to guess at what the teacher wants anyway they like. In this model the results between groups or individual students are likely to differ and the discussion at the conclusion can offer opportunities for students to compare their methods to others. In terms of Blooms’ this model has students at least understanding the question, applying skills and knowledge to a slightly new situation and possibly even analysing the results.
A simple example of ‘guided discovery’ was shared with a group of scientists and teachers at a recent CSIRO ‘Scientists in Schools’ event. In this example participants were asked to determine which brand of paper towel was best. Participants formed groups and were provided with four types of paper towel, a plastic plate, an eye dropper, a plastic cup, a small measuring cylinder, a ruler and a stop watch. The task was to use what was on offer to determine with evidence and on a scale from 1 to 4 which paper towel was best. The range of options for testing were not huge and yet when sharing each groups efforts after an appropriate time of experimentation differences were visible. The discussion at the conclusion revealed that some thinking had occurred and problems encountered and overcome. An initial idea for a test method might prove unsuitable and the method was changed, suggestions for future experiments with different equipment were offered. Although n group had broken new ground and each worked within the scope of instructors initial conception for the lesson there was evidence of thinking at Blooms levels of evaluation and maybe the fleet ingest signs of creativity.
The next level is where it for most teachers it gets scary and for the students it gets most exciting; Open ended scientific exploration. At its extreme there is no question, no answer, no methodology, no list of required equipment. In CREST this is the ‘Advanced Level’, in the real world this is scientific discovery. Although a lovely idea and something to encourage students towards this ‘Advanced’ level is not for every lesson, somewhere between ‘guided discovery’ and completely open exploration lies the sweet spot for the typical science class. The realities of meeting the demands of a syllabus will mean at least a degree of focus will need to be provided to the questions generated and explored.
Considering an example, students in Stage Three study in NSW as part of the new Science syllabus might be investigating rapid changes at the earths surface. In a class aiming for an open ended inquiry students will be encouraged to participate in the initial question forming stage of this inquiry before moving on to developing ideas to explore through experimentation and research before drawing conclusions and possibly suggesting plans for action. Although the topic is dictated by the syllabus it is still possible to allow the students to play a significant part in designing an experimental methodology to investigate the relevant phenomenon. By playing a part in the process of generating questions the students are able to develop a deeper understanding of the scientific method from beginning to end and in doing so develop the skills they will use when planning entirely independent research and experimentation.
An essential element of this approach is the inclusion of elements of creativity. Students are not following a prescribed methodology or locating answers to a set of questions but actively engaging in a process of evaluating what is important and creating ways of gathering data and ultimately solving problems. One goal of the exploration of rapid changes at the earth surface might be to develop building methods that are resistant to the forces discovered during the exploration phases. Alternatively students might decide to focus on detection methods or the identification of areas most susceptible to rapid changes. In each case the results should be unique and illustrate the creative input of the students as they engage in a scientific inquiry.
Turning to an ‘open ended technology’ task we could reimagine our tried and tested dustpan project. Now instead of providing the students with the plans and materials for a dustpan we present the students with a problem; ‘How can we keep the workshop clean?’ This might not be the most important technological challenge faced by humanity but posed in this way the students can approach the task in a wide range of ways. Some might even chose to construct a dustpan, others might decide the problem lies in the choice of materials used in the workshop and replace them all with a biodegrading plastic that breaks down to a harmless gas when exposed to sunlight.
Janet Ivey in her TEDx Talk describes 'AWE (Art, Wonder and Experiential) Inspired Science'. In this inspiring talk Janet outlines how creativity plays an important role in scientific exploration. Anyone who doubts that creativity is essential for scientific inquiry, who has forgotten that in the times of Leonard Da Vinci art and science were one needs to watch this talk. The key message here is that by incorporating art, dance and music into a science lessons sends a message that creativity is an essential part of science and forces students to bring their whole self to their lessons. Janet makes a powerful case for encouraging students to wonder and out of that to ask big questions that might have scientific and technological answers. AWE is the essential ingredient for creating students enthused and passionate about what they experience and imagine.
Sarah Wagstaff is a senior at Saint George’s School and presents a TEDx talk on how she discovered her potential for creativity in science. Fuelled by her passion for science and a quest for creativity Sarah discovers that the answer to her needs was in front of her all the time. With access to a Scanning Electron Microscope Sarah undertakes a scientific investigation into the wings of bees. In this TEDx Talk she presents the results of her study and describes the process of inquiry that went into her work. What is clear is that Sarah’s learning journey would not have been possible without the opportunity to explore beyond the script of a traditional ‘guided explanation’ lesson. Sarah’s advice is ‘be lost in your passion so much that you find creativity’.
For schools looking at ways of incorporating creativity into their science and technology teaching CREST offers a useful pathway. With options suitable for primary students through to upper senior and with a focus on building skills and mindsets required for open ended exploration linked to personal passions there is bound to be the right challenge for any student. The programme is supported by well developed resources with a structured program that ultimately supports advanced participants in choosing, organising and undertaking their own open-ended experimental science or technology project. Details about the programme can be found online at CREST - CREativity in Science and Technology.
by Nigel Coutts