The Materials World Modules (MWM) use design as a means to engage students in scientific inquiry. Inquiry and design work together to help students better understand science. By engaging in inquiry, students identify important scientific principles that they can apply to their design. Conversely, by engaging in design, students discover what it is that they need to know to improve their designs. Activities in the Materials World Modules give students an opportunity to engage in scientific inquiry in addition to learning how materials science concepts relate to real world design problems.
What is inquiry?
Science is an ongoing search for better explanations of what we see and experience around us. The Materials World Modules give students an opportunity to act as scientists do, participating in the search to find explanations for phenomena that they find interesting.
At its best, this process of inquiry begins with students' questions and their prior knowledge and experience. By seeking answers to their questions, students may discover new, related questions and a sense of wonderment to continue the process. Achieving an answer to questions usually involves experimentation or research; in either case, the student is responsible for designing the investigation.
As adapted from the National Science Education Standards, the scientific inquiry process can be captured by the following characteristics:
- Develop researchable questions to guide scientific investigations
- Design and conduct scientific investigations using appropriate tool and mathematical analysis
- State scientific explanations and devise models following rules of logic and evidence
- Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and models
- Communicate and defend the conclusions of scientific investigations
What Makes Design a Good Context for Inquiry?
There are several reasons why design problems are good opportunities for student inquiry:
- Design problems are often tied to real-world problems. Students may have knowledge or experience from outside of school that they can relate to the task.
- Design problems are typically ill-defined or open-ended. Students have to make decisions about what kinds of materials to use, how they will test their design, and how they will build their design. The process of resolving and justifying these decisions often results in student experimentation.
- Building and testing designs results in data - data that students can use to reason about which design is better. Being able to use evidence to support scientific explanations is an important aspect of inquiry.
- Design is iterative. This means that each design cycle can provide information that students can use to improve their design. To take advantage of these iterations, students often create experiments to test how different designs work, with the awareness that they will be able to take advantage of what they learn in the next design cycle.
- Design problems offer a context for scientific communication. Students who are working on different solutions to the same design problem can learn from others' ideas, not just their own.
Not all design problems possess all five of these characteristics, and design can create obstacles to student inquiry. However, design problems that fit these descriptions are design problems that are well suited to students learning through inquiry.
Some Challenges with Inquiry
The MWM Program addresses concerns of teaching with inquiry through a particular approach called the inquiry through design, in which authentic inquiry experiences are situated within an engineering design context.
|The Difficulty with Inquiry|
Activities that provide opportunities for student inquiry, though promising, also place a greater burden on students with additional responsibility of directing their own learning. Supporting student inquiry faces several obstacles, for students differ dramatically in their individual success with learning through inquiry. Students who come to the task with more sophisticated prior knowledge and with more effective hypothesis generation, experimentation, and data organization skills learn more from their experimentation. Moreover, many students have trouble successfully engaging in various aspects of inquiry, including developing researchable questions, planning investigations, and reasoning about data.
|Formulating researchable questions|
Not all student questions are amenable to classroom investigation. Questions may be overly simplistic, where answers come in the form of a one or two word answer or can be looked up in a book. On the other extreme, questions may be too complex and impossible to investigate given the time and resource constraints of the classroom. Students may need to learn to define productive, researchable questions.
Student heuristics for planning experiments to test hypotheses may not be effective; for example, students often exhibit a tendency to search for confirming cases but not for disconfirming evidence. Students may need help planning experiments to generate suitable evidence to inform their reasoning.
|Relating data to arguments|
Students have trouble relating scientific data to scientific argument. Student inquiry that produces data may need additional support if students are to successfully build sound scientific explanations that rest on credible evidence.
The Inquiry Through Design: A model for situating inquiry in design contexts
Inquiry through design is a model for engaging students in scientific inquiry through the use of design projects. While the design project is central to the curriculum, inquiry through design provides supporting activities and materials that structure and guide the learning experience. This approach takes advantage of the benefits of design projects while providing support for processes that are difficult for students.
The promise of design context lies in its potential to support student engagement in the three challenging aspects of inquiry: asking questions, planning investigations, and reasoning from data. For example, design projects may help students define researchable questions. The design project challenges students to determine what constitutes an effective design, a driving question that focuses student investigation throughout the project. In one of the modules, this driving question essentially takes the form: What makes a good fishing pole? Two sets of questions arise from this challenge, both of which students must define and pursue in the course of their design. The first set of questions involves researching design criteria: understanding what the design must do and what these functions mean in terms of the properties that the design must have. Students investigate the relationship between properties and develop an understanding for what the properties are. As students refine their design criteria, they address a second set of questions that concerns the particular materials that might be used in the design. Students must research these materials in terms of the properties laid out in the design criteria.
Since design projects are open-ended and afford many different solutions to a single challenge, each student group is actually engaging in a unique, but related, investigation. This creates an environment in which student-generated questions have value, as each student group has the opportunity to generate knowledge that benefits everyone in the class. For example, one group of students may explore the effect of different kinds of tape on their fishing pole design, while another group investigates the role of directional reinforcement. Both group's findings will be of use to the class.
Design projects also provide opportunities for students to plan investigations that help them discriminate among the effects of different design ideas. Because designed objects can be tested, they naturally lead to planning investigations that compare the performance of different designs. For instance, suppose a student predicts that reinforcing a fishing pole design with tape will improve strength. The student can test that prediction by building a design that includes the tape and comparing its performance to a design without tape. Alternatively, the student could build several designs that vary the kind of tape used or the amount of tape applied in order to generate comparative data that could be used to reason about the effect of different kinds of tape.
MWM and the Inquiry Continuum
The Design Process
In the Design Projects of the Materials World Modules, students follow a process of iterative design, as shown in the diagram. Through this process, students learn something about their initial design and then apply what they have learned as they work on a redesigned product. Because the design process is iterative, students get to apply what they learn in real and satisfying ways.
Moreover, real-world designs are often a compromise of performance and cost, wrapped in a package that will appeal to the consumer. When students work on the Design Projects, they can incorporate such design constraints as cost, ease of construction, durability, environmental impact, and customer appeal. For their final report or presentation, they can prepare advertising campaigns or marketing plans for their products, or suggest new markets and new applications for the products that they designed.
|State Design Goals|
Each module culminates in a design challenge, a project in which students must apply what they have learned in the module to design a new material or object that makes use of materials from the module. For example, in the Composites module, students are challenged to design a prototype fishing pole based on a regular drinking straw.
The design challenge may be posed by the teacher (for instance, design a fishing pole) or be left to the students; each module includes both a teacher-directed and student-directed design project.
Once the topic is chosen, students and teachers collaborate to identify the constraints of the design. These criteria then lead to identification of the means of testing the design, which is usually based on tests performed in earlier activities.
|Brainstorm and Select Best Option|
After the design task is sufficiently framed and guidelines or constraints established, students now have a clear idea of the specific object to design. But the means to accomplish that has been left up to the students.
Students are encouraged to spend some time brainstorming design ideas. Focusing on the product's goals as well as constraints will help them weigh the pros and cons of each design. Each student team should write down all possible ideas, even the ones that they decided won't work for some reason. They should start with their best option. The other design options may come in handy later to give the team further insight into something they didn't quite understand before.
|The Design Proposal|
Once the design goals are established and students have had a chance to brainstorm, they are ready to propose designs that they believe will meet the design goals. The structure of the module encourages students to vary one variable across a number of prototypes so that they will be able to explore the effect of that variable on their design.
Students also make predictions about the effect their variable will have on their design, including how they expect their prototypes to perform.
Student design proposals typically include detailed information about how they will build the design, along with a materials lists. Once this is complete, building will commence.
|Build the Design|
The process of building the design is, surprisingly, an iterative process. Students often make small changes to their design as they build, usually because once they can actually see how the design is taking shape, they realize that various aspects of the design will not work as well as they had imagined.
The net result of this tinkering process is that student designs often look little like those for the design proposal. Student predictions also often change during the building, because they start experimenting with their designs and learn more about how they perform. This is one reason why it is important for students to write down their predictions prior to starting to build their design.
Once students have built the set of variants based on their design, they are ready to test them.
|Test the Design|
The method of evaluating different designs is usually based on the constraints that the design is intended to meet. Often this method can be decided by the students, although most teacher-directed design challenges in the modules suggest at least on possible testing method.
These tests are meant to mimic the behavior that the design will perform in the real world, in addition to measuring the inherent properties of the material. This focuses students on the relationship between these properties and real-world applications.
For example, in the fishing pole design project, students generate a list of characteristics of a fishing pole, such as flexibility, strength, weight, and cost. Students then decide which of these characteristics are the most important, and decide on a method to test each one.
Once students have interpreted the results of their tests and determined the performance of their designs, they can reflect on the relationship between their predictions and their results.
|Evaluate the Design|
Once students build, test, and evaluate their initial designs, they are asked to reflect on what they have learned from the first design in order to build a second design that will improve on the original. Support for reflection is embedded in the student journal in the form of questions for the students to consider.
Students should be able to identify variables they have found to be causal in the initial design, and create a design that maximizes (or minimizes) the effects of the known variables.
Students often present their results to the class and use class feedback to reflect on the pros and cons of their designs.
Students then execute and test the redesign, and reflect on this design's performance in light of what they had learned about their earlier design.
This process may be repeated indefinitely, as students can continue to apply what they learned in earlier iterations while exploring new variables in the design space. Students may also take advantage of each other's design results, in effect exploring the design space in parallel.