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STEM Pedagogy: O’Dowd Activates Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios rather than simply presenting established facts.


AP Chemistry students Jack Mintz ’16 and Grace Piette ’16 perused a vast array of materials spread on a lab bench in the science laboratory. Rubber tubing, balloons, paper cups, Vaseline, rubber bands, plastic baggies, tape, beakers, temperature probes and more. The pair carefully chose items they believed would help them figure out the molar mass of liquid in a pocket lighter.

Though their teacher Dr. Dave Hodul defined the problem, it was up to the students to come up with a method – taking into consideration Avogadro’s hypothesis that the volume of gas is proportional to the number of particles at constant temperature and pressure. This lab exercise is a classic example of the kind of inquiry-based learning being activated in many of O’Dowd science courses.

Inquiry-based learning starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios rather than simply presenting established facts. It actively involves learners in proposing answers to the questions, solving the problems, creating solutions to scenarios and construct meaning. The goal of the pedagogy is to ensure students gain a deeper understanding of the material being studied and are able to construct their own knowledge.

O’Dowd science faculty employ varying levels of inquiry-based learning in a range of STEM courses, such as Honors and AP Chemistry, AP Environmental Science, Marine Biology, Electronics, Robotics, Honors Physics and Engineering Physics.

AP Chemistry student Tommy Vaughan ’16 prefers reasoning out problems to having a worksheet that dictates exactly how to do a lab. “You have to apply what you’ve learned, which really makes the labs more interesting. Question-based labs also create a more collaborative experience because you get to bounce ideas off your partner and find the best way to approach the problem together,” he said.

The chemistry teachers use the curriculum and textbook written by one of O’Dowd’s own science teachers, Jan Coonrod. She developed and co-wrote the book – Living by Chemistry – over the course of a decade while she was working as an academic researcher in chemistry education at UC Berkeley with Professor of Chemistry Angelica Stacy, Hodul’s wife.

The inquiry-based curriculum is intended to support students as they learn Chemistry by offering them engaging lessons that relate to the world around them.

Topics such as alchemy, smells, weather, toxins, fire and chemical equilibrium are used as contexts for delivering traditional chemistry concepts. Inquiry based learning doesn’t necessarily mean hands on or using lots of equipment. Inquiry can consist of students examining evidence, looking for patterns, coming up with explanations and sharing their reasoning.

“We want the students to struggle a bit and get in that zone of being puzzled and applying a little mental perspiration to the problem. That way we know their brains are growing. I like to remind them that if they are not making mistakes sometimes, then they are not learning anything new but only repeating what they already know. We want them to begin to take more responsibility for their own learning - we are moving the spotlight away from the ‘teacher as expert’ and towards the ‘student as capable thinker,’” Coonrod said.

“Often teachers don’t have the freedom to apply it because administrators are too worried about teaching to the test or insist on using a particular curriculum. The traditional stand and deliver pedagogy, where the teacher acts as the expert in the room and delivers information that students write down and memorize doesn’t help students develop conceptual understanding and critical thinking. True understanding doesn’t come from rote memorization, especially in the sciences,” she said. “It’s great to have the freedom to apply inquiry-based learning at O’Dowd.”

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