More on Inquiry Stations: Digging Deeper

After personally reflecting on the outcomes of my created and experienced inquiry station and discussing my observations with my colleagues, I have come to a few synthesized conclusions.

To build some background information, my teaching team and I created an inquiry station that focused on the broad topic of heat. We narrowed our focus from there to more specific and targeted concepts: heat transfer and heat conservation. When our students arrived at the inquiry station, they were given a specific mission to accomplish: keep their small jar of hot water as hot as possible for an extended period of time. Various insulation materials were set out at the station with the hopes of sparking students’ thought processes (i.e. coffee cans, torn scrap paper, rice, a wash cloth, plastic bags, modeling clay, etc). Additionally, there were two thermometers to help students accurately measure the temperature of their hot water although it was not specifically stated that they need to do this. Again, the only “directions” guiding this inquiry station was the Heat Inquiry Station Mission Sheet (pdf attached to link). 

Conclusion 1: Results may vary. As I was observing my students interact with and explore the inquiry station, I was amazed at the different paths they took to accomplish their mission. Although my colleagues and I initially anticipated that students would fill the much larger coffee cans with insulation to keep the much smaller jar hot, they did not. In fact, they barely used the coffee cans at all. Instead, the groups ended up wrapping the jar in different layers of insulation and sealed the lid shut to prevent hot air from escaping and cold air from entering.

Conclusion 2: One must go backwards before one can go forwards. Although this development was not what we anticipated, our students were still meeting the standards we used when planning the inquiry station. This development reemphasized the importance of utilizing the Backwards Design Model: starting with identifying the desired results of the lesson first, then determining acceptable evidence and finally planning the lesson layout. By starting with the “big picture” ideas and working towards the lesson layout, our inquiry station was designed to accommodate student creativity and innovation.

Conclusion 3: College-aged students don’t play nice with others. I was also intrigued to find that two separate and unassociated groups formed without our guidance or instruction. Right away, the four students that were exploring the materials separated and began working as exclusive groups. I could even sense a slight competition developing. However, I do strongly believe that part of the reason for the development of these two groups was the age of my students. These were not 10 year olds, these were college undergraduates. Based off of my personal experiences in the classroom, I believe that exclusive groups would not have manifested themselves at the elementary level as they did with the college students. Kids are not conditioned stigmas, nor exposed to stereotypes in the ways that college students have. Therefore, I took the development of two distinctive, uncooperative and competitive groups with a grain of salt. In my opinion this was an age-related development.

All 3 of these conclusions further cemented the importance of inquiry stations in the elementary setting. Without inquiry stations, students would be left with lectures or long-range investigations both of which have a place in education. However, as most in the profession know, a few things have yet to change in elementary education (YET to change): 1) There will never be enough time in the day and 2) The curriculum will focus more on reading and math as opposed to science. These two pressures can be relieved with powerful and appropriately constructed inquiry stations.

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