Euglena inquiry

Euglena Vials

Euglena in vials

After complaining that I struggle with inquiry in biology, I was confronted with a great opportunity to take a non-inquiry lab and bend it to my inquiry will!

The lab involves students observing Euglena (a photosynthetic protist) and their response to limited light. The basic lab consists of placing the Euglena in a container wrapped with black paper and cutting a small hole with a chosen shape in the paper. The Euglena then move to the location of the hole to get the needed light. Rather than just having the students do the lab as is and move on, I am going to ask them to generate questions about the Euglena and design an experiment to test their questions. We will do this in a whole class inquiry style where each group will test a variable and report their findings back to the class.

The key will be making the photosynthetic properties of the Euglena the central feature of the inquiries. In other words, students won’t be adding chemicals to the medium or doing other tangential inquiries.

Our process:

  1. Brainstorm variables that may affect the photosynthesis of the Euglena
  2. Eliminate any that we can’t measure or are inappropriate
  3. Select our top 6 that we think are the most interesting or important
  4. Each group selects one variable to test and plans their experiment
  5. Once their plan is approved, each group carries out their experiment and gathers their data
  6. Each group uses a whiteboard to organize their findings and report back to the class
  7. We have a whole class discussion about our findings and connect our results to photosynthesis

Once we’re done – I’ll report the results!

Igniting inquiry

We have liftoff

Inquiry, we have liftoff

Before students begin a new inquiry investigation, they must have questions.  Inquiry really gets off the ground when kids have a burning “need to know.”  There are several ways that I like to help give them that inspiration:

  • Play with a purpose activities
  • Current events
  • Demonstrations (preferably a “discrepant event”)
  • Guided inquiry labs
  • Video, images, or other multimedia
  • Guest speakers
  • Randomly generated student questions and ideas (maybe the best place to start inquiry!)

What I’ve found (and also heard from other teachers) is that kids often have a hard time generationg good questions in an open-inquiry type situation.  To ask a good question, one must have some context – some background knowledge.  One way to do this is to place content in front of the inquiry.  Unfortunately, the most common way to do this is with traditional instruction.  There is a better way, though; this is where inquiry ignitors come in.

Inquiry ignitors give students a framework within which to ask their questions.  They help the teacher to guide the student in a productive direction without limiting their curiosity.  It allow educators to guide open-inquiry toward a standard or learning goal without taking away the most important part of the student’s role – asking a question that he or she wants to answer.

Look for future posts describing ways to use each of the inquiry ignitors I mentioned above

Photo courtesy of NASA

Play with a purpose

play with a purpose

play with a purpose

During last week’s scichat (#scichat) on Twitter, I mentioned, “play with a purpose.”  Play with a purpose is a saying that I often use with students.  It means checking out something new in a systematic way; having fun in an organized fashion; discovery with a goal.

Play with a purpose activities are opportunities for students to discover and explore something that you hope will inspire inquiry.  It is a way to guide inquiry while still doing open-ended inquiry.  It is also a good way to assess inquiry skills.

The idea of play with a purpose is that you give students something – an object, a set of chemicals, an organism, a system – and ask them to see what they can find out about it.  I usually ask them to record their findings in a t-chart of observations vs. questions.  Of course, you must clearly identify any safety hazards prior to this activity.

After play with a purpose, students should have a lot of questions and thoughts generated that they can use to create a scientific question that they want to answer.

Some examples of play with a purpose activities I’ve done with students:

  • combine cornstarch with water and see what happens [fluid dynamics, macromolecules, polymers, non-Newtonian fluids]
  • observe stoneflies (they do pushups when the dissolved oxygen level in their water gets low) [homeostasis, gas exchange, physiology, respiration, etc.]
  • mix Alka-Seltzer with water in a closed film canister and observe the resulting explosion [reaction kinetics, acid/ base chemistry]
  • make whirligigs [gravity, aerodynamics]
  • vinegar and baking soda [acid/ base chemistry, gas production, reaction kinetics, etc.]
  • dilute HCl and various materials [metals, wood, plastics, etc.]
  • bromothymol blue, calcium chloride, and baking soda [endothermic/ exothermic reactions, reaction kinetics, etc.]

Let’s pick one and see where it goes, shall we?

Prior to an inquiry investigation into the effects of different parameters on reaction rates, I have students play with alka seltzer and film canisters.  I demonstrate one and require all to wear safety goggles.  I then give them the materials and step back and observe.  I answer no questions, except those related to safety.  They play with the stuff, manipulating variables haphazardly to see what happens.  They jot down observations and questions.  After a period of this, they are ready to generate a scientific question and design experiments.

The learning target that is posted on the board during these activities: “I can play with a purpose”

Photo credit: Keven Law used under cc license