Research Summary

Creating personal meaning through technology-supported science inquiry learning across formal and informal settings

Technology-Supported Program Encounters Unexpected Hurdles

International Journal of Science Education

It has become well accepted in the science education community (and the EE community, too) that inquiry-based approaches are good educational practice. But the approach is not without its challenges. Finding effective ways to train teachers, making connections to educational standards, providing sufficient guidance to students, and many other topics related to inquiry learning are routinely explored by education researchers.

The authors of this paper, who presented an inquiry-based learning program to ninth grade students in the United Kingdom, uncovered some additional challenges that they hadn’t expected. The researchers supplied the class with laptop computers loaded with nQuire software, designed to guide students through a research project. Although the software can be customized to address a variety of research questions, in this case, the authors selected a topic that they thought would interest the students: personal nutrition.

In the article, the authors explained that most science instruction is highly impersonal and suggested that “students will both engage with and take a committed stance towards the scientific process by forming questions for which they genuinely want to know the answer, by carrying out investigations that relate to their own needs and concerns, and by discussing emerging findings with peers and experts.” Because of various constraints, the researchers were not able to let the students select their own question to investigate, but they selected a topic that they thought would relate directly to the students’ everyday lives in a personal way. The software guided the students through an investigation designed to answer the following research questions: “What nutrients do I eat?” and “Do I eat enough nutrients to be healthy?”

To answer the questions, the students were asked to photograph each of their meals, and then the software helped them analyze the content of their meals and their nutritional value. The researchers provided the students with digital cameras and laptops to take home with them every day so they could collect their data. The students photographed their meals, analyzed their nutritional content, and shared their results in groups.

The students who participated in the study attend an inner-city school where more than half of the students have special educational needs. The researchers also selected another ninth grade class at the school to serve as a control group. Ideally, this class would also have received instruction on proper nutrition, without the inquiry approach, so they could compare the effect of the software. Unfortunately, this was not possible, and the other class received its normal instruction, unrelated to nutrition.

Nevertheless, the researchers administered pre- and post-tests of nutrition content knowledge and attitudes toward science to both groups. Because the researchers could only use the scores of students who completed the both the pre-test and the post-test for their analysis, student absences made their sample size considerably smaller than the full class size. Only 14 of 28 students in the inquiry class took both tests, while 13 of 29 students in the control class took both tests. Not surprisingly, the control class, which received no instruction related to nutrition, showed no improvement in their content knowledge related to nutrition. But the class who participated in the program showed a 20 percent increase in their average score.

The students in the inquiry group did not show any change in their attitudes toward science, nor did the control group, except in the “Enjoyment of Science Lessons” subscale, where they showed a decrease. So, while the students in the inquiry group did not show an increase in their enjoyment of science lessons, they also did not experience a decline in interest as the control group did.

Interviews with the students and teacher revealed an unforeseen challenge with the topic and data collection method: The students were embarrassed to photograph and discuss their meals. The authors conceded, “In retrospect, this might have been obvious.” The authors explained that “neither the researchers nor the teacher identified this as a problem in advance of the study and we are not aware of the consequences of ‘too personal’ investigations being identified in the literature on inquiry learning.”

Another challenge that surprised the researchers surrounded the use of technology. Although the students were initially enthusiastic about the use of the laptop and camera, many eventually came to regard them as burdens. They had to be carried back and forth daily, many received constant reminders from parents not to break them, and many students’ families were eager to use them for their own purposes, complicating the students’ work.

The research conducted here underscores the challenges of both leading effective inquiry-based projects and working in challenging educational settings such as this school. Upon reflecting on the failure of the program to generate an improvement in attitudes toward science, the authors conclude that “this acts as a timely reminder that students’ attitudes to science can be resistant to change and that research teams should not be over-optimistic in their predictions for the likely impact of short-term interventions.”

The Bottom Line

Leading inquiry-based science projects is not easy. And while using technology such as digital cameras and laptops may create initial excitement, technology also can burden students. This research also serves as a reminder that while science can often be impersonal, some projects can also be too personal. Involving students in developing research questions can help identify topics that will generate interest and excitement. And teachers should also stay vigilant to potential problems as projects proceed, making adjustments as needed to keep students engaged.