When science educator Erin Saitta was a graduate student, she was invited to participate in a program in which students from kindergarten to high-school age would do inquiry-based scienceŚconducting real research labs without known outcomes, with the emphasis on learning how science works. Although skeptical about how such labs could succeed in the classroom, Saitta accepted the invitation, which came with a tuition waiver and a stipend. It was only after she started co-teaching the labs with middle- and high-school teachers, however, that she was won over.
"Here were these students and teachers and scientists, and we had these amazing discussions about science concepts that were supposed to be quite simple. It was phenomenal," Saitta says. "I couldn't go back to teaching the other way."
Now, several years later, Saitta and her colleagues are being recognized with the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction. Their award-winning curriculum, "An Inquiry into the Water Around Us," allows undergraduates and high-school students to conduct real research into the water quality of their local communities.
Science's IBI Prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students' natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing "module," the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about An Inquiry into the Water Around Us will be published on August 30.
"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," says editor-in-chief emeritus Bruce Alberts. "We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding laboratory modules promoting student inquiry to reach a wider audience. Each winning module will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to these valuable free resources."
As a child, Saitta was always interested in science, but when she started high school, she also dreamed of being a fashion designer. Surprisingly, her two interests merged in a high-school chemistry class as she contemplated why a certain fingernail polish seemed to change color. That brought her to her next plan: to work in chemical applications related to cosmetics and medicine. It was only after becoming a chemistry tutor in her senior year that she discovered how much she loved teaching.
"By that time, I had grown to love chemistry even more, but the more I worked with students, the more I knew I wanted to be an educator," she says. "Teaching them about chemistry was like sharing this amazing story."
Although committed to becoming a science educator, Saitta went on to earn a PhD in materials chemistry. "I wanted to make sure I knew what it took to be a chemist," she says. "I wanted to really understand research."
It was when Saitta was a graduate student that she started teaching inquiry labs and became a committed advocate of inquiry-based learning. Then, when she became a graduate teaching assistant, she got permission to change the labs she was teaching to inquiry labs. The students did exceptionally well, and the administration at the University of Central Florida asked her to instruct other teaching assistants in how to conduct inquiry labs in the classroom.
Now the assistant director of the Faculty Center of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF), Saitta has helped develop An Inquiry into the Water Around Us as a three-pronged teaching tool. The unit allows students to collect water samples in their own community and to analyze them. In the spirit of true inquiry, the students design their own research procedures, with guidance only as needed.
"They're the ones who are in charge of telling us what's in the water," Saitta says. "They feel that they get to actually use what they're learning."
The second element of the curriculum's approach is "service learning," an emphasis at UCF, wherein students use what they are learning to give back to the community. In this case, the undergraduates give back by working with high-school students and by investigating local water. Their program helps to promote recruitment of science, technology, engineering and math majors, including underrepresented and female middle- and high-school students. It also encourages future scientists to be more civically engaged.
Saitta explains that this generation of undergraduates tends to have a strong desire to contribute to the community at large and is glad to have the opportunity. She says service learning helps them to step into the role of scientists. "They start to see themselves and project themselves as scientists."
The third focus of the module is communicating science, which extends the service orientation of the module and allows the undergraduates to learn by doing as they communicate with the high-school students via Skype or FaceTime and through personal letters. Concentrating on how to communicate science to a lay audience, the students learn, for instance, about words that are routinely used in science but can be misconstrued by non-scientists. The word "error," for example, refers to a constant in scientific research, but a lay audience hears the word, "error" and thinks the research is flawed. Another example the students discuss is "negative correlation," which can be construed as something bad, rather than simply a relationship between two variables.
Through inquiry-based learning, service learning, and learning to communicate their results, the students are captivated, Saitta says. "They keep reporting that it's their favorite module of the year," she says.
Melissa McCartney, associate editor at Science, lauds the approach. "College students get to serve as the 'experts,' which motivates them in their studies, and younger students are able to see science as challenging, interesting, and relevant, which may motivate them to choose STEM majors in college."
To Saitta, winning the IBI prize and having an essay published in Science is thrilling.
"Science is the best platform for sharing this module," she says. "The module is simple and so easily implemented, so it's very exciting to show it to just the right people, who can use it and bring it to so many other students."
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