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.

“I like the way he teaches—you have to teach yourself, decide how you learn it,” 11th-grader Tyler Grimes said. “You can answer the questions in three different ways, see it three different times and get used to it.”

“Not everyone learns the same way,” said Anne Rollins, who is Grimes’ lab partner and also an 11th-grader. “And you learn by teaching someone else, explaining it to each other.”

Rollins said they don’t have to be perfect or focus on just getting the answers right for a test. The emphasis is on understanding concepts, many of which are repeated in units throughout the year. If they don’t understand something the first time around but pick it up later, they can get a grade in an earlier unit changed since they demonstrated an understanding.

Scali’s approach teaches the skills valued in STEM fields—critical and analytical thinking, time management—but they are skills that can benefit anyone. Students also gain confidence as problem-solvers.

“I had never been in a class where you were given what you were expected to know but not told how,” said Travis Piser, a former student of Scali’s and now a freshman at the University of Delaware studying to become a biology teacher. “Every teacher talks at you, but Scali never gives answers, he gives questions. It’s more fun to learn that way. It’s like solving a puzzle.”

Scali actively researches best practices and cutting-edge approaches, and he hops from group to group in class, providing guidance and direction. Of course, he challenges the students to arrive at answers on their own.

“I want students to see they can do this,” he said. “If they think about processes and apply it to the real world, I think I’ve done my job.”

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del.,

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

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