Materials World Modules

An Inquiry & Design-Based Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Program

Inquiry & Design

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?

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?

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

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.

Planning experiments

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

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

MWM and the Inquiry Continuum

Scientific inquiry is such an integral part of student learning that the framers of the National Science Standards decided to make it a content standard and not label it as a skill. By doing that, they emphasized the importance of inquiry as an overall expectation of science classrooms.

But what is inquiry? Inquiry is the process of pursuing and refining explanations for scientific phenomena. But what that looks like in practice varies from one individual to another. Some consider traditional replication experiments to be inquiry, while others do not. It is helpful to think of inquiry as a continuum, which has been suggested by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's Math and Science Center . The model presented here is a modified version used by one of our MWM teachers, Renee DeWald of Evanston Township High School of Illinois.


The Inquiry Continuum

Inquiry can be done on different levels: limited, structured, guided, open, or anywhere in between.


Limited Inquiry

On the low end of the continuum are traditional laboratory activities. These are confirmation activities in which students may have known the answer in advance, do not choose the question, and do not choose the experimental method. To do inquiry does not mean to throw out many of the good labs that have been part of science classes for years. It does mean trying to move these labs up on the inquiry continuum by focusing on a specific inquiry skill.

For example, in the traditional copper-silver nitrate solution lab, students typically find the mass of the silver nitrate before reaction with copper wire, find the mass of the silver after the reaction, convert both to moles, compare the equation, and then the stoichiometry is verified. However, a small modification in this lab can create a situation in which students need to make a prediction that increases their investment in learning.

Structured Inquiry

In this type of activity students do not know the answer in advance, but do not choose the question or the experimental method. Many of the exploratory or staging activities in the MWM modules are of this nature. They are more scripted investigations that precede the design project. They provide a foundation for student understanding of the principles and concepts that inform the design project. For example, the activity "Testing a Foam Composite" prompts students to predict which kinds of layered foam beams will be the strongest and most flexible. Students measure the strength and stiffness of different kinds of layered composites made from posterboard and foam in order to explore how reinforcement contributes to strength and stiffness. Following the activity, where students gather data on the strength and stiffness of different beams, they reflect on their original predictions and consider how what they have learned might apply to later design decisions.

Many traditional labs can be stepped up a notch on the inquiry continuum with some minor tweaking. For example, to move the traditional copper-silver nitrate solution lab up on the inquiry continuum, students could instead be given a sample of silver nitrate without knowing the mass, find the mass of copper wire, react it with the solution, clean the copper, and put it in a sealed envelope. By obtaining the mass of the silver produced, the mass of the copper wire in the envelope can be predicted. It's exciting when the moment of truth comes and students place their copper wire on the balance to compare the prediction with the actual results.

Guided Inquiry

In the mid area of the continuum are experiments or design activities in which the teacher asks a question and students must design the experimental procedure to answer it. Here are some examples:

While studying thermodynamics, students are given an assortment of solids and are asked to conduct an experiment to determine the best substances to use in designing a hot pack and a cold pack. The recommendation must consider heat, safety, and cost factors.

To show that they understand the concept of reaction rate, students can be provided with an acid, a strip of magnesium ribbon, and an assigned reaction rate for the production of gas. Using the scenario that students are members of a blimp manufacturer, they plan an experiment to determine the set of conditions that will achieve the assigned rate for the blimp design.

The first of the two design projects in the MWM modules follows the structure of the teacher-guided inquiry. Once students have finished the exploratory activities, the design project allows students to pursue their own investigation within design constraints similar to the above examples.

Open Inquiry

Moving up the continuum to an even higher level of inquiry, the teacher provides the topic that serves as a framework from which students are responsible for choosing a question to investigate, and designing the experimental method as well. For example, the teacher facilitates the students conducting open-ended polymers design in the MWM module to pursue their own questions of interest and design and test a set of prototypes that would be a new application or a possible improvement on an existing application of polymers.


The Design Process

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.


Design Process

Design Projects

@ Materials World Modules