Preparing the student for the inquiry activity: What must the student know prior to engaging in the inquiry activity? To answer this, you need to decide whether you are going to use the "sink or swim" method of just giving the problem to the student and having them start exploring, or "carefully prepare them" with reading, preliminary activities, etc. There are advantages to each approach. The "sink or swim" approach can be either motivating or discouraging, especially to students who are accustomed to highly directive "teach to the test" learning environments. There will probably be a range of reactions among students. The "carefully prepare them" approach will also work differently among students. Some are very cautions, avoiding making mistakes, while others just want to jump in and get going. One can expect a range of reactions with either approach. However, no matter which method you use, you should carefully consider what knowledge students will need to know to be successful, and make sure it is available to them when they need it.
Checklist of preparatory activities: The order in which these are given may depend on whether you take the "sink or swim" or the "carefully prepare them" approach. If the "carefully prepare them" approach is used, the initial activities should be more explicitly outlined, but the final activity (ideally) should require students to choose data and figure out how to assemble it to produce the end product.
- Background reading. This would be about important processes, theories, and math that is needed to adequately address the question. For plate tectonics investigations, I tell students that the diagrams in the textbook illustrate the theory, but they will be using real data to support that theory.
- What is the meaning of the data? Elevation data, for example, is self-explanatory and is part of students' real world experience, but ultraviolet reflectivity is most likely not. So, the question is: "what can be learned from ultraviolet reflectivity?" Also, the limitations and accuracy of the data should be available in an understandable format.
- The data browser. It is very frustrating to try to use a complex data browser that provides full choice for the researcher, but is mysterious for students. A data browser that is appropriate for the investigation should be available. A preliminary activity where students work in groups to learn a particular data browser and the meaning of the data is very helpful.
- Assessment of the preparatory activities. Students come to lab unprepared, don't read the text, etc. I find it very helpful to give an online, auto-graded homework assignment prior to laboratory sessions.
- Computer literacy. Will this be an issue with your students? In my oceanography class, I used the first lab session to familiarize students with the online courseware. They registered and entered their first homework assignment, then explored its grade computation and other features. I also use the data browser application in the class lecture, to increase student comfort level.
For my oceanography class I prepared students for the first paper, on plate tectonics, in the following way:
- Lectures and reading assignments about the theory of plate tectonics
- Online, auto-graded homework with questions about the theory of plate tectonics
- A lab session where students used earthquake data to outline the plate boundaries and determine their type (convergent, divergent, transform). A presentation was given by each student group at the end of the 2 hr. lab session.
- At this point, students are ready to begin the writing assignment. They have access to the CDRom containing the data viewers, and online writing software.
Accountability: Students are much more attentive if they know someone will look at the results of their work. In a lab setting, reports or worksheets can be effective, but a short presentation by their small workgroup (1 hand-sketched overhead/member) can reduce grading, provide instant feedback from the lab instructor, and inform others in the class.