Design projects may be good contexts for student inquiry, but they aren't perfect. There is inherent difficulty when students try to decide among competing ideas. Students may adapt strategies that lead them to pursue design solutions in a haphazard manner, sacrificing more through experimentation to develop a causal explanation for design performance.
Engaging students in inquiry through the design process itself requires focused support within the design project. This support includes an explicit goal, where it is clear to students that developing an explanation for design performance is part of the project.
Teachers can create opportunities for students to engage in inquiry by structuring the design projects to support student inquiry. By making the explanatory goals of inquiry an explicit part of the task, students are prompted to explore and document their explanations and evidence as well as the basic performance of their design.
Teachers also support student work more directly by providing coaching to students who have difficulty with inquiry and design.
Inquiry in each module
Students are typically presented an open-ended, thought-provoking introduction to a topic that is motivating and fun. This is followed by several short activities that precede the design project. In these activities, students investigate specific properties and materials that relate to the design challenge and the module learning goals. This provides a foundation for understanding the principles and concepts that inform the design project, and exercise inquiry and design processes that students draw upon during the design project.
Once students have finished the introductory staging activities, the design project allows them to pursue their own investigations, applying what they learned in the earlier activities. Integrating the design process of Propose, Build, Test, and Evaluate with the inquiry process of Question, Predict, Experiment, and Reflect gives students strategies to help structure their inquiry.
Design Project Support - The Difficulty With Inquiry
Design projects may be good contexts for student inquiry, but they are not perfect. One important difference between design and inquiry is that the goals of each are different. Design goals are usually centered on performance, whereas inquiry is about understanding.
While these goals can coexist, it is very easy for students to get wrapped up in making their design as good as it can be. One result is that students will try several different design changes at once. While these changes may improve the performance of the design, students can't tell which of these changes were actually responsible for the improvement. Helping students create good experiments to test their design decisions is an important part of supporting student inquiry.
Design Project Support - Example Of How To Support Inquiry
How did one high school chemistry teacher support student inquiry during a design project?
Laura was concerned at the start of the module that her students would have trouble creating good experiments to test their designs. If their experiments were not designed well, students would not be able to tell which components of their design contributed to its success.
Laura addressed this concern in two ways:
First, she made good experimental design a goal by incorporating it directly into the assessment rubric and by stressing that goal when she described the rubric to the students.
Second, she actively questioned students about their experimental design, specifically the variable they chose, as she toured from group to group.
About Laura and her class
Laura teaches chemistry at a suburban high school in the Chicago area where she has taught for four years. Her undergraduate degree is in chemistry. Laura is a co-author of the Composites Module and had tested early drafts of the module over the course of two years. She is quite familiar with the module.
The class was Laura's regular level sophomore chemistry class. Class periods were 55 minutes; the module was used during the week immediately prior to winter break. The module served as the culminating activity for a six-week unit on hydrocarbons. This was an early-bird class that met during period "zero", from 6:45 to 7:40am. The class was quite small: nine girls and one boy.
Design Project Support - Example Of How To Engage Student-Centered Learning
How did one high school chemistry teacher engage student-centered learning during a design project?
There are two key ways for teachers to create student-centered learning environments:
- to create environments where students can engage in inquiry and
- to coach students to learn from their experimentation.
David, a high school chemistry teacher, was worried prior to the start of the design project that the decisions students would make as part of the student-directed (Inquiry Continuum: open inquiry) design project would be too difficult and would take up too much time. In fact, David almost switched design projects at the last minute, replacing the student-directed project with the teacher-directed (Inquiry Continuum: guided inquiry) roofing tile project, which eliminates some of the decisions students must make.