Inquiry-based approach to science a hit with students

John Scali's honors chemistry class has students solve problems like real scientists.

John Scali’s class at Concord High School in Wilmington, Del., doesn’t look like your typical honors chemistry class.

Sure, the periodic table is prominently displayed in the room and lab tables dominate the space, but there’s something different going on here. You know it because there are students all over the room and they’re feverishly working together in small groups to complete their work.

They aren’t just learning science, they’re engaging in it. And they’re doing so in innovative ways.

Science education in the U.S. is on the brink of change in an effort to make Americans more competitive in science, technology, engineering, and math (known as STEM) and to meet the demands of these growing fields.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce and Georgetown University reported that jobs in STEM fields have lower rates of unemployment and higher pay and are growing faster than overall job growth. STEM jobs include engineers, college biology professors, and even skilled workers and technicians in fields like mining and transportation.

The change is centered around the development of new K-12 science standards. The National Research Council of the National Academies released a framework for these standards in July and invited all states to help in their development. Delaware is one of 26 states that have stepped up to the challenge so far.

For more news about STEM education, see:

Climate change skepticism seeps into classrooms

Meet six of the country’s best STEM schools

New framework aims to shape K-12 science

Scali, who recently received his doctorate in education from the University of Delaware, is at the forefront of developing and implementing these standards, which include integrating engineering and other real-life principles.

For example, one unit centers on balancing chemical equations. Students are asked to figure out how much chemical starting material they need to produce a specific quantity of final product, much like a researcher in industry must do when creating a pharmaceutical drug or household cleaning item. By the end of the unit, they will have to produce that final product during an in-class experiment.

The lesson “makes things more relevant for the students,” Scali said. “It’s what goes on in the real world. I place a lot more priority on the process of science itself—the process is a lot more important.”

Scali’s honors chemistry class is broken up into units built upon a central theme. Students are given essential questions they must answer to achieve understanding of each unit’s principles, by asking questions and solving problems like scientists do. They have the duration of the unit to answer the questions, and the tools they use to do so—worksheets, labs, experiments—are up to them. Time management is a skill they cultivate quickly, the value of which many students appreciate as they look ahead to college.

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