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Engaging Middle School Students in Inquiry Science

Laura Westermeier, Curriculum Specialist for Secondary Science/LASER, Santa Ana Unified School District, CA
September 14, 2009 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: Students get involved in the Swingers investigation from the FOSS Variables Module.

Eighth-grade students in the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) are experiencing hands-on inquiry science through the use of FOSS kits, which supplement the approved text-based science curriculum. Last year the Samueli Foundation wanted to help Santa Ana students improve their performance on the science California Standards Test (CST) and increase their desire to learn more science. In February 2008, the foundation paid for a team of teachers, administrators, and a business representative to attend the National Science Resource Center (NSRC) Science Education Strategic Planning Institute in Houston, Texas. Their goal was to develop a three-year strategic plan for initiating and implementing an effective research-based science education program based on best practices for all SAUSD grades 6–8 science classrooms. Part of the plan included selecting researched-based, high interest, hands-on, inquiry science kits that teachers would use in their classrooms to supplement the existing curriculum. They would also modify existing science labs and assessments so they were more inquiry-based, as well as have students document their experiences in science notebooks.

Students working on Lifeboats investigation

Teachers from the Santa Ana Unified School District participate in professional development before implementing the FOSS materials in their classrooms.

In 2008–2009, through another generous donation from the Samueli Foundation and with the assistance of Sue Neuen of the California Science Center, eighth-grade teachers were selected to form our Leadership & Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER) cadre to implement the program in their classrooms. The implementation would affect over 1,440 students, including special-needs and honors students. For the first year, teachers decided to use the FOSS Variables Module and the Force and Motion Course because they aligned with California eighth-grade science standards and covered topics that were often difficult for the students to grasp.

Our LASER cadre teachers began the year with Variables, focusing on the first two investigations in the module. In the Swingers investigation, students made pendulums and experimented with different variables (e.g., mass, length, and starting position) to determine which one affected the number of swings for a specified time period. They had hands-on experiences with independent and dependent variables. Students graphed the results using the actual pendulums before making two-coordinate graphs in their science notebooks to analyze the data.

Students working on Lifeboats investigation

Students record their results and reflections in the Lifeboats Investigation.

Students then did the Lifeboats investigation, which reinforced their measuring skills as well as what they had learned about dependent and independent variables in the Swingers investigation. The Lifeboats investigation was also used to introduce density, an abstract concept that students better understood after sinking their lifeboats of different capacities.

Teacher Johann Appell commented, "The Variables Module seemed to work well for me because I didn't have labs [already] to cover that material." Stephanie Collins noted that, "Using these hands-on activities really allowed our students with special needs to shine! They were able to participate equally with the other students who did not have a learning disability." The LASER cadre teachers agreed, "The Variables Module has engaged our students who otherwise were hyperactive and off-task. Doing the inquiry activities, measuring, and identifying variables and then writing summaries to document the experience really helped student learning."

Lifeboats investigation Lifeboats investigation

The Lifeboats investigation demonstrates the variable of capacity.

The FOSS Variables Module investigations set the stage for the use of science notebooks in the classroom. Students used their notebooks for experiments, vocabulary, and note-taking. Evaluating notebooks and comparing strategies for using them were a hot topic at the monthly cadre meetings. Teacher James O'Roark commented that, "Notebooking was very useful for integrating writing into the curriculum and reinforcing data analysis and graphing." Mark Brinks noted, "The notebooks are an excellent tool to use to evaluate students and it could also be used as a progress monitoring tool, especially as RTI [response to intervention] is staring us straight in the face!"

Lab stools on table

Teacher Johann Appell, whose classroom had limited space, had students place their lab stools on the table for the air trolleys in Investigation 1, which covers reference point and distance.

In previous years, students had difficulty understanding the concepts of speed, velocity, acceleration, and force. Teachers selected the FOSS Force and Motion Course to give students hands-on lab experiences to introduce and reinforce these concepts. Larry Malone and Linda De Lucchi of the Lawrence Hall of Science conducted a two-day training in January 2009, during which teachers experienced all of the investigations in the course to prepare them to use the investigations with their students during the second semester.

Most of the classes were able to complete seven of the eight activities in the kit. At the end of eight weeks the Force and Motion kits were returned to the SAUSD Science Resource Center where they will be refurbished for next year when all SAUSD eighth-grade teachers will be involved in the program.

LASER cadre teachers reflected on their first year at the end of the second semester.

Melissa Donovan found, "The labs really engaged the students. They were able to use the hands-on activities to learn the required science content. The students look forward to doing labs."

Students outside

Students in Melissa Donovan's class went outside for Investigation 4 where they collected and analyzed speed data to determine head starts for photo-finish races.

Johann Appell added, "I feel these kits help teachers find more ways to convert [seemingly] intangible concepts of science to a more concrete and palpable format."

Matt Holte stated, "The most valuable part of LASER for me was the collaboration with other eighth-grade teachers. I supplemented many of my own ideas with those of others. It was nice to have the lab materials provided in the FOSS kits. My overall experience with LASER has been positive, and I'm looking forward to improving on the work that we've done this year."

Janet Kleinschmidt noted, "All the equipment needed in the Force and Motion kit is there, and it was surprisingly durable!"

Amy Holte said, "I'm looking forward to the CST results. I'm sure they should look much better this year."

Stephanie Collins is "looking forward to the Chemical Interactions kit, which we will be adding to our program next year."

Students working Students working

Janet Kleinschmidt's students measure the height of the ramp before releasing the Dotcar to roll down the ramp. Time and distance data are recorded in order to determine average speed.