Euglena inquiry reflection

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” ~ Paulo Freire

In my previous post, I described my effort to take a “cookie cutter” lab and make it more inquiry-based.

My students decided to test 7 variables about the Euglena setup that we were working with:

  • distance from the light
  • type of paper covering the Euglena container
  • size of holes in the paper
  • type of material covering the Euglena container (foil)
  • type of light (black light)
  • amount of liquid in the container
  • size of container

Each group planned and carried out their experiment with minimal input from me. Today they gathered their data and put together whiteboards to summarize their results. I asked them to divide their whiteboard up with the following sections:

  • hypothesis
  • claim
  • evidence
  • reasoning

Here is an example of one whiteboard:

We ran out of time to have our culminating discussion, so that will have to wait for tomorrow. From my conversations with the students while they were making their whiteboards today, this inquiry will help set them up well for learning more about the process of photosynthesis.

A few random reflections:

  • I believe the students were more engaged in gathering data than when they just “do a lab”
  • I felt that there was more curiosity and more interesting questions posed today than usual
  • My students are still struggling with reasoning, so I need to keep working on that skill
  • I need to introduce a small group whiteboarding protocol to keep all students involved actively in the creation of the whiteboard

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!

Getting back to the basics

The phrase, “getting back to the basics,” conjures up images of teachers lecturing students endlessly; pouring mind-numbing minutiae into their mental receptacles.

I’m getting back to the basics right now with my chemistry class.

This has nothing to do with textbooks or lectures; no connection to facts; no memorization.

We are getting back to the basics of science.

The students generated questions about a phenomena. Their questions led to hypotheses. They are testing those hypotheses with experiments that they designed. When they have their data, they will use it to make a conclusion about their hypothesis.

Sure, they are learning about the Ideal Gas Law through this experience; they just don’t know that yet.

However, if I were to ask one of my students right now about the relationship between temperature, pressure, volume and the number of molecules of gas; they could reason it out.

Back to the basics!

Make time for… FRUSTRATION!

My students were frustrated yesterday and today. I let them wallow in it.

This is a good thing.

Yesterday, I started the group on a whole class inquiry challenge with minimal direction from me. Students had to lead their planning discussion while I observed and took notes. This discussion didn’t go very well – especially from the perspective of the two class leaders.

In fact, they left my room a bit angry.

This is a good thing.


I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

Because they were frustrated with their classmates. They were frustrated with those who were not engaging in the process – those who were not participating. They were frustrated with the complexity of the process and the lack of easy answers from the teacher.

Today, the students came in with a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to collaborate. The discussion was much more productive (even though there was one emotional outburst).

I love to cultivate an healthy level of frustration in my classes. I love to see my students struggle, fail, regroup, and try again. My students need this. So do yours.

Some of the most powerful learning I have seen has occurred when students were frustrated – angry even! – and were able to achieve a breakthrough on their own.

Do I need to step in sometimes? Of course. One of the best lessons that experience is teaching me is exactly when to intervene. Jump in to soon and the student never learns independence and the joy of the epiphany. Wait too long and many students will quit. Usually, though, a teacher’s instinct is to give the kids a boost way too soon.

We all need to learn how to deal with frustration, in school, in work, in life.

image used under cc license from the flickr photostream of MarkKelley

Whole Class Inquiry – Whirligigs

I like to kick the year off in physics with a light inquiry lab in which the students make and test paper whirligigs.  This serves two purposes – for me, a formative assessment of students’ inquiry skills; for students, a review of the inquiry process.  It’s fun and pretty light and serves it’s purpose but this year I want more.

how to make a whirligig

how to make a whirligig - thanks

I  show the students a model whirligig and ask them to figure out how to make the whirligig with the longest flight time.  We discuss variables to manipulate, and ones to serve as controlled variables.  I facilitate a student discussion and record their ideas on chart paper/ whiteboard.  They split up the variables by group and test them independently of each other.

It soon becomes clear that the data gathering is mostly haphazard and not likely to be meaningful. Sure, this lab is more about process than content but the primacy of data is critical to hammer home early and often. How to intervene and bring home the importance of data with something more engaging than a discussion or report?

Hmmm…. how about some Whole Class Inquiry (Dennis W. Smithenry, Joan Gallager-Bolos)? Money.

“Alright guys, here’s the deal; tomorrow, I’m going to hit you with a class challenge. You’re going to need good data to have any chance of success.”

The transition is better and faster than I could possibly imagine.  They immediately begin taking better notes and doing more trials. Data suddenly matters.

Ladies and gentlemen, engagement and urgency have entered the building.


The following day, I introduce the idea of Whole Class Inquiry.  I tell them that I’m going to challenge them to make a whirligig as a class with a very precise flight time (drop to landing) of 2.7 +/- 0.1 seconds (I know 2.7 sec is reasonable based on the times they were getting before; I have no idea if +/- 0.1 sec is reasonable).

I lay out the ground rules:

  1. Once we start, you will only be able to ask me 3 questions as a class
  2. You will have 30 minutes to come up the dimensions for a whirligig for me to make and drop
  3. You may do as many trials as you want as a class but the final whirligig will only get one shot (really an average of 3 trials)

Set the timer of the big screen for 30 minutes and say go. Take a step back.  Record observations and student comments.

I’ve rarely seen a class collaborate as a group with this level of engagement and sense of common purpose. They immediately blow one of their 3 questions on, “so we only get 3 questions?”  I say, “yes, and that’s one.”  After that they talk amongst themselves before asking any questions.  They lean on each other – not me.  They work together like crazy for half an hour; there is genuine laughter – but it’s on topic.  My principal wanders in on an unplanned drop-in and nobody notices but me.  They’re in the zone.

Yes, they mostly stray into trial and error, rather than planned and organized experiments but that is just a valuable point that I jot down to drive home after the activity.

At 29:30 (ish) one of the students hands me a diagram for a whirligig.  I measure it, cut it out and fold and staple as per their instructions.  We drop it 3 times.  The average is 2.81 seconds but I give it to them.  They literally cheer out loud.

To culminate, I read the observations and student quotes that I recorded.  They laugh out loud again – several times.  I give a few pointers about data gathering, sharing the labor and avoiding simple trial and error when possible.


One quote that I can’t get out of my head was the very first thing said after I said, “go.”  One of the senior boys said, “alright guys, let’s circle the wagons!”  So they did.  They all pulled their chairs together into a circle in the middle of the room and started discussing a plan of attack.

Maybe the community building by working together to achieve a common goal that they found challenging was the most valuable part.  I’m certainly going to do more whole class inquiry.  And soon.