Creating Your Own Inquiry Activity Using Real Data

by William A. Prothero, PhD.

*Before you begin, note that the "Learning With Data" software (contained in the "LearningWithData" CDROM) contains a number of inquiry activities already. Also, notice that there are multiple pages to this article. The navigation is at the bottom of this page.

What's in this essay? This short essay discusses the thought processes that I go through when creating an inquiry activity. The material is based on my experience teaching a large undergraduate general education oceanography course for about 25 years. It covers some of the important issues that need to be addressed and some suggestions for assessment. 

As a research scientist, I have a deep appreciation for the inquiry process. When "inquiry activities" are made for students, I notice that some are very good, but some miss the essence of inquiry and it's no wonder that students do not engage. In this discussion, I will try to point out what, in my opinion, makes a good inquiry activity and what factors should be considered by the curriculum developer. My experience comes from many years teaching an inquiry-oriented oceanography course to general education students at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Practicing scientists are trained extensively in the tools (math, physics, computer programming, etc) needed to conduct a wide variety of investigations. We are also trained in the state of knowledge of a particular field of study. We have learned, through workshops, meetings, interactions with colleagues, and scientific publications, what is accepted, what is controversial or not well established, and what is unknown. We choose our problem based on this background. For the student, however, this background is largely absent or limited. So we need to frame the problem at the appropriate level, so he/she is engaged in exploration, but not overwhelmed with choices and unfamiliar information.

What are the learning goals or desired outcomes? Our goal is to teach the students useful knowledge, habits, and skills, but I am always surprised how often we think more in terms of "what do we need to cover," rather than "what content and skills do we want our students to learn?" My favorite example of a mis-guided lab activity is one where students spend an hour making an elevation profile from a contour map, across the island of Hawaii. If the reading of contour maps is the desired outcome, fine, but in a general education oceanography class, wouldn't it make more sense to focus on the overall topography of a range of features on the seafloor? Numerous tools are available that eliminate the tedium of making profiles using contour maps. A clear idea of the learning goals provide a measure against which we can choose our activities.

Framing the inquiry problem deserves careful consideration. There is a range between "plug and chug" problems that lead the student through each step, and completely unstructured exploration. A medium path appropriate for students at a particular grade level is needed. At one end of the spectrum, you might ask the student: "make an elevation profile across a mid-ocean ridge at xx latitude and longitude and describe what you see." A broader question might be: "study the elevation profiles of several divergent plate boundaries and discuss differences and possible reasons for the differences." A critical question for the curriculum developer is whether the student is searching the data for a single pre-determined answer, or whether there are a variety of observations that might be made. A very directive problem might be appropriate early on to get the student familiar with the general tools, but more open-ended explorations that require her/him to understand the theory should follow.

Constraining the data choices, yet providing a rich dataset is an important consideration as well. A component of the science process is choosing the data to use to solve a problem or answer a question. Students should have a reasonable variety of data available for their investigation, but not too much. This can take different forms. For example, if a global dataset is available for a particular parameter (e.g. elevation), the data richness is high for the study of plate boundaries, because the entire Earth is available and there is reasonable variation between the topography at different boundaries of the same type. The addition of earthquake and volcano data further increases the choice of data and its richness. However, if there are too many choices of data location or dataset, the student might feel overwhelmed. Ideally, there will be multiple datasets and most will be relevant to the inquiry question. When I first began to assign a science paper about plate tectonics, I asked students to pose a plate tectonic problem and study it. It was too broad. I had better success when I asked students to first write a very short paper about the plate tectonic boundaries at a specific location, then write a paper about a region of their choice. Later, I specified two regions (a convergent and divergent boundary) and asked students to determine the boundary types at each region, and contrast the two.

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