Inquiring Into the Teaching and Learning of Science: An Initiative from a Research University

by Connie Blasie, Cath Milne and Hai-Lung Dai

If you read the newspaper or listen to radio news, then you've read or heard about secondary education content standards, about the poor performance of U.S. secondary students on international math and science tests and about the declining number of US students pursuing scientific careers. Within the Department of Chemistry, concern over these issues has culminated in the development and implementation, beginning June 2000, of a collaborative initiative of the Department of Chemistry and the Graduate School of Education: The Master of Chemistry Education (MCE) Program. This ten-course degree program was designed specifically for secondary school science teachers and combines rigorous chemistry content and science pedagogy with the goal of advancing participants' chemistry understanding, laboratory skills, and use of information technology as a teaching and learning tool. The response to the program by the first cohort class of twenty participants has been very positive. In this article, we reflect on the development of the inquiry model used by the chemistry faculty involved in this program, on the inquiry model itself, and on the value of collaboration among university departments and schools.

When a small group in the Penn Chemistry Department, a highly successful research department, began thinking about teaching secondary school teachers our initial answer was just to "Teach Them More Chemistry!" We thought that if teachers just knew more chemistry, they could teach more effectively. But, as a research department, we also did extensive research to verify this. What we learned was that the answer was not this simple and that teaching and learning need to be thought of as inseparable.

Two of the most important things we learned were the generally accepted adage that "People teach in the same way that they were taught" and from both the National Science Education Standards 1 and Benchmarks for Science Literacy 2 that inquiry learning was the method of teaching science which results in the most positive learning outcomes. To us this meant that we would need to model 'inquiry learning' in the chemistry content courses we taught. But we couldn't model it until we knew what it meant to us. And thus began our adventure into a new way of thinking about teaching chemistry.

As part of a research oriented science department, immersed in the culture of research, we tackled the question, "What does inquiry learning mean to us" as we tackle all questions which arise in research:

  • We researched it--reading chemistry education literature, science education literature, visiting high schools, conducting focus groups of teachers
  • We reflected on all of this individually; we discussed all of this as a group.
  • Then we read, reflected, wrote, visited and talked even more.

Until, finally, we realized that doing scientific research IS doing inquiry learning! This, then, was how we wanted to teach the chemistry content courses in the MCE Program. This was how, in a context familiar to us, we could interpret 'inquiry learning' and therefore how we could model 'inquiry teaching'.

Because this is the model of inquiry teaching and learning that we decided to adopt for the chemistry courses, the chemistry faculty among us quickly realized that they would not solely be giving lectures. It meant that for our participant teachers to be learning, they would be actively searching out answers, discussing them among themselves and with us, presenting their understandings to the class, doing additional research Not exactly your normal university chemistry lecture classroom!

Now that the MCE Program has begun and the Penn Instructional Model is being used in the teaching and learning in the chemistry courses, the faculty teaching the chemistry and the chemistry education courses are continuously collaborating to ensure a co-mingling of chemistry and chemistry education. It is only with this on-going high level of collaboration that the program curriculum continues to be developed to achieve the goals of teaching and learning both the content and the pedagogy that teachers need in order to teach chemistry in the science curricula in high schools--and that their students need in order to learn that science.

This rather unique combination of employing an explicit inquiry model in the teaching and learning of the content courses along with a high level of collaboration between the Department of Chemistry and the Graduate School of Education helps to develop a rich learning environment for both the university educators and the teachers in the program. Chemistry Professor Dr. Bryan Roberts, who is currently teaching in the MCE program has said, "This has been a transformative process for me. I'm now even considering how I can use an inquiry-type of approach in my undergraduate Organic Chemistry classes."

We think that an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning, and collaboration across disciplines hold great promise for the development of other curricula within the university. 

Initial Question

What is our initial question? A question posed by an instructor, a student, a text, a group

Existing Information?

What personal information do we already have about this question? What knowledge do we need from other sources (e.g., library, on-line, experiments, experts) to help answer this question?

Reflect and Organize

Reflect on the knowledge that we have gathered. Ask ourselves how we can integrate this knowledge and organize it so that it makes sense to us. This will probably lead us to ask additional questions that require more information--even doing experiments that create new knowledge--and will probably start the cycle over again. Include others in our questioning, reflecting and organizing--outside input is invaluable! It helps us to determine what we do and do not understand.

Results and Peer Review

When we think we have results, i.e., understanding, present our knowledge claims to our colleagues. Let them question us. We will need to justify our knowledge claims and in the process of this justification, our peers might lead us to change or reject some of our arguments, or they might accept our ideas.

Completed Body of Work

In the process of defending our claims within a community of learners we build up our knowledge and at the same time the community builds its knowledge. Only then will we have learned. We will probably always have some new questions as a result, so just be ready to keep repeating the entire cycle!

1 National Science Education Standards, National Academy Press, 1995

2 Benchmarks for Science Literacy, Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993

 Constance Blasie is Associate Director of the MCE Program and a member of the Chemistry Department's Undergraduate Education Committee.

Dr. Catherine Milne is a post-doctoral fellow in the Graduate School of Education and a course instructor in the MCE Program.

Dr. Hai-Lung Dai is a Professor of Chemistry and Chairman of the Department of Chemistry.

This essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series, now in its seventh year as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 19, January 23, 2001