Date of Award

2007

Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

Department

Teaching

Advisor

Molly Schauffler

Second Committee Member

Susan McKay

Third Committee Member

James McKenna

Abstract

There is increasing concern about science education and the declining performance in science subjects by secondary school students in the United States. One response to this has been the widespread promotion of inquiry-based teaching methodologies. These methods take many different forms and effective learning results have been found in certain areas of education research, like Physics Education Research and in the problem-based learning programs used in many medical schools. The efficacy of these programs has not been as well studied in the areas of environmental, earth, and ecological sciences, and the empirical studies that have been done in those disciplines show mixed learning results for students. This study investigates the use of a particular "guided inquiry" approach with 92 seventh-grade students in five life science classes at a middle school in Bangor, Maine. A three-week curriculum was developed and used by the researcher to guide students through a sequence of increasingly autonomous classroom activities involving the use of online scientific data. The activities required the students to access, download, manipulate, and graph data with a specific real-world environmental question in mind. Pre/post testing instruments and an attitude survey were used to measure the effects of the treatment curriculum on student learning and on students' views toward science. The data were evaluated using a mixed methods approach that employed parametric and nonparametric tests and evaluations of observed frequencies of students' ordinal scores. Students were able to improve their creation and use of graphs but not necessarily their interpretation of them or their ability to use data to support a conclusion. The gains they made were not necessarily tied to their participation in the treatment curriculum. The study shows that the traditional classroom environment is not conducive to short-term inquiry-oriented teaching methods and in this context such a treatment is not likely to produce significant learning results for seventh grade students. Students also require more time and practice developing mental habits more suited to inquiry-based learning methods. Students' views about science were found not to agree with those of trained scientists and the students appeared to be overly trusting of scientific studies in general and information they find on the Internet. Despite the wide promotion of inquiry-based learning in state and national learning standards, many teachers are still reluctant to use inquiry-based teaching with their students. The study discusses the variety of online data that are available and many reasons why the use of such data offers valuable educational potential to teachers and students. Recommendations are offered for teachers interested in using a similar curriculum with their students.

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