Process skills

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The guest editorial Inquiry, Process Skills, and Thinking in Science is relevant to any grade level. The author notes that inquiry is an intellectual endeavor. I’ve seen classes where students complete hands-on activities without thinking about what they’re doing. For example, an elementary class was told that they were making “oobleck” as part of a chemistry unit. The teacher had pre-measured the ingredients and read the directions to the students. One student did wonder “what would happen if…” but there was no follow-up to this question. Even though the teacher called this an “experiment” and the students enjoyed the activity, I don’t think that students learned much about chemical reactions or the inquiry process.
According to the author, rather than learning piecemeal processes (e.g., “units” on measurement or experimental design), in inquiry learning the student engages with a scientific question, participates in design of procedures, gives priority to evidence, formulates explanations, connects explanations to scientific knowledge, and communicates and justifies explanations.
Regardless of the grade level, teachers can’t assume that their students will automatically have and know when to use process skills. Although I knew that my middle school students had experiences with graphing, many of them still needed guidance in the process of collecting and organizing data. Even my high school classes occasionally needed some modeling and gentle reminders in formulating questions and designing investigations.
Other articles in this issue address how the process skills used in inquiry can be taught.

Inference or Observation? is difficult even for some adults.  This article has an activity related to trees with several “tips” to help students use their observations to make inferences. Developing Observation Skills is designed for younger students, using something as simple as bubbles to stimulate questions and discussions. The author of The “Magic” String uses a discrepant event to help students differentiate between inference and observation. NSTA’s SciLinks has additional resources for Observations.
In our electronics-focused society, it seems as though we are involved with faraway people and events rather than those around us. Do we encourage children to observe clouds in the sky, an insect crawling on the pavement, or wildflowers growing along a road? The authors of A Walk in the Woods (in this case, a city arboretum) and Nature’s Palette show how to students’ observations beyond the traditional checklist/scavenger hunt to incorporate inquiry learning in their own neighborhoods.
Not all observations involve our sense of sight. Do You Hear What Horton Hears? and How Does Loud Noise Affect Hearing? Describe learning activities related to hearing, sound, pitch, and vibration (Click on the word for these topics in SciLinks.)
Students may not accept what they observe if it challenges a misconception. Beyond Predictions and “More A-More B” Rule have suggestions for investigating floating and sinking.  (Also see the buoyancy topic in SciLinks.)

Measurement Informs Understanding shows how quantifying observations can and should be an integral part of inquiry lessons, not a separate unit of instruction. (SciLinks has more on systems of measurement). Students of all ages may enjoy the alternative ways of communicating results of inquiry lessons described in Dramatic Science.
And check out the Connections for this issue. Even if the article does not quite fit with your lesson agenda, there are ideas for handouts, background information sheets, data sheets, rubrics, and other resources.

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