Inquiring into Three Approaches to Hands-On Learning
in Elementary and Secondary Science Methods Courses

Marianne B. Barnes, Ph.D.
University of North Florida

Kathleen R. Foley, M. Ed.
University of North Florida


Recently the NARST listserve has been the forum for much discussion about issues surrounding inquiry teaching and learning, especially with respect to operational definitions of inquiry and perceptions of students, teachers, practicing scientists, and science education researcher’s perceptions of inquiry processes (available at, Sept/Oct 1999). These discussions prompted us to think more fully about inquiry and how to implement it into our individual teacher preparation classes at a Northeast Florida University. Inquiry is a term that is used often but with multiple meanings. The National Science Education Standards (1996) state the following about inquiry:

• it is central to science learning

• it includes interrelated processes of science such as observation and inference

• it involves questioning and constructing explanations

• it involves testing explanations against existing science knowledge via experimentation

• it incorporates communication of findings

• it involves critical thinking by looking at alternative possibilities

• it comprises behaviors such as meeting challenges and acknowledging limitations

A review of the literature stresses the need for reform in science teaching using an inquiry approach so that our students learn science in a more authentic manner and obtain efficient strategies for acquiring, transforming, organizing, storing, and using information useful in problem solving (Bruner, 1961; Gilmer & Alli, 1998; Nersessian,1995; Roth, 1996; Roth, McGinn & Bowen, 1998; Schank, Fano, Bell & Jona, 1994; Spiegel, 1997). A question for science teacher educators is how to prepare teachers who can facilitate inquiry in their classrooms. Several sources of information about the nature and practice of inquiry-based teaching are available (American Association for the Advancement of Science,1989; 1993; National Research Council, 1996; Spiegel, 1997; Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry website: ( However, Loucks-Horsely (1997) holds that teachers will find it difficult to use inquiry based methodologies if they themselves have never experienced them. We responded to the literature and implemented an inquiry approach to existing methods courses. Our findings are reported in this paper.


Critical post modern research in science education can make no guarantees about what particular questions will be important in varying contexts, and one methodology cannot be privileged over another; at the same time no methodology can be eliminated without due examination (Kincheloe, 1998). A significant merit of qualitative research is that it is intended to be dense in descriptions about the study and explicit about contextual factors (Lee & Yager, 1986). A strength of this style is that the data come from more than one source, the results are considered to be complex and can be redefined by the stakeholders’ experiencing the phenomena (Guba & Lincoln, 1996). We selected qualitative methodology for this study because we wanted the study to be descriptive and the interpretation to be open both to us and to our readers.

Data were collected using field notes, journals, photographs, videotapes, and written responses. to questionnaires. Data were organized into categories reflecting the name and a brief description of each activity, whether the responses were from the secondary or elementary classes, and if the responses were interpreted as positive or negative by the authors. The results and implications section will address the impact on future science teacher preparation courses and the significance of the study.

Two Contexts for Inquiry

During the fall semester of 1998, we were involved in teaching sections of elementary and secondary science methods. The elementary science majors consisted of undergraduates and post baccalaureate students seeking to add elementary education certification. Typically, they did not have a particular science disciplinary background. The secondary science education majors were either undergraduates or post baccalaureate students with a disciplinary concentration in one or more of the following areas: biology, chemistry, physics, earth/space science. A goal for both courses was the infusion of the spirit and substance of inquiry into course activities and assessments in order to provide the students with direct experiences with inquiry. One of us had explored activities on the Exploratorium museum Institute for Inquiry web page. We chose to use an activity on the topic of foam, available at ( As an introduction to inquiry, students in both courses were immersed in the activity on foam . The purpose of the activity was to compare and contrast three approaches to hands-on science learning and to analyze these approaches using the lens of inquiry. Not all hands-on activities support inquiry learning.

Students in each class were rotated through three stations, each with a different task. The first station was a guided activity at which students followed a worksheet, which told them how to make the foam using detergent and eggbeaters; then they were to answer specific questions comparing two foam preparations. At the second station, students received a challenge to build a tower of foam that was at least twelve inches high contained on an 11-inch plastic plate. At the third station, students were asked to share examples of foam through discussion. Then they were directed to make and observe foam, note its properties, and devise questions and experiments with the foam. They had access to more materials at this station, but did not receive guidelines on how to make foam.

A discussion of the students’ experiences followed in each class. They critiqued the entire lesson and shared insights about the three approaches to hands-on learning, including their feelings at each station, their personal preferences for their own learning, and their ideas about implications for these approaches in their own classrooms. They reacted further by means of questionnaires and journals. The following is a discussion of the similarities and differences in the two classes with implications for teacher education and the impact of the authors.

Findings by Station and Group

The following findings emanated from the follow-up group discussions, student journal entries, facilitator observations during the activities themselves, and viewing pictures and videotapes. Station sequence varied and depended upon initial group assignment as seen Table 1 below.

 Table 1 Findings by Station and Group

Guided Activity

Use prescriptive work sheet; described steps to make / explore physical properties of foam


Make a tower 12 inches high in a specified time, contained on an 11 inch plastic plate, freestanding

Open Inquiry

Generate examples of foam, explore making foam from assorted materials, ask questions, generate hypothesis, no specific directions













1. Could be used in classroom

2. liked the structure in the directions

3. found directions easy to follow

1. once goals were satisfied, stopped being actively engaged

2. thought activity was less motivating

1. viewed as problem solving with goal; had to make good guesses, and check their guesses

2. enjoyed competition

3. felt they were on their own to be creative and inventive

3. most were fully engaged

4. saw activity as educational

1.bothered by facilitator’s prompts of time and height

2. uncomfort-able with competition

3. perceived winners, and by inference, losers

1.enjoyed touching and molding foam

2.played around and made a mess

3. had fun

4. wondered why foam did what it did, doing preliminary hypothesis work

5. opportunity to experiment with different items-good way to learn about properties

6.use prior knowledge

7.saw this activity as the most free -- chance to explore , natural curiosity

8. debated appropriateness of activity for various grade levels



1.felt lost

2.did not feel activity worth their time

3.played with materials and became distracted,

4. did not know where they were going (no guidelines), or how outcomes were going to happen

5.began to clean up before time



Negative Secondary



Negative Secondary



Negative Secondary

1.appreciated structure, saw this as useful for classroom

2.used mathematical calculations to adjust directions from hand mixer to electric mixer

1.bored by prescriptive directions

2. felt their creativity was crushed

Same as elementary

Same as elementary

1.were quickly engaged with enthusiasm

2.quantified observations

3.were aware of properties: mass, volume, density, tried to describe these attributes of foam

4.built on prior knowledge

5.liked choice of ways to achieve goal

6. generated sophisticated hypotheses concerning strength of materials

1.concerned about instructor’s expectations a loss about how to examine properties- repeated prior station’s directions

3.did not believe approach possible in high school classroom

Discussion of Findings

Students in both groups appeared to have been influenced by the sequencing of the stations. For instance, secondary students who experienced the open inquiry station first showed more enthusiasm and initiative than did the group that started with the challenge and directed activities. Both elementary and secondary students who experienced the open inquiry setting after having experienced the other two stations moved into exploring the new foam-making materials rather than actually observing foam made with dish soap and water. They had already used these latter materials and concluded that they had observed them adequately, even if actual observations had not been recorded and discussed. Students acquired knowledge and skills at the stations, which either helped or inhibited them as they progressed through the sequence. All students participated fully in the activity and were thoroughly engaged. The fatigue factor was apparent in all groups at the end of the sessions and, no doubt, had an impact on enthusiasm level in general.

An interesting insight was explained in the journal of a secondary education student. She said that initially she preferred the guided activity because she thought it would be more feasible in an actual classroom. However, upon reflection a few weeks later, she found that she could recall very little about the structured activity, whereas she could remember the open inquiry. She indicated that she needed to rethink her initial assessment of the worth of the activities because memory certainly influences learning over time. She seemed surprised at her own finding, as it was so counter to her strong belief in the need to use structured activities with her students. Her comments about the class follow:

Although I thought that I would HATE the last exercise (written instructions), it provided more focus and made us consider specific questions. Strangely enough, although I can remember the questions my group generated from the first (free inquiry) exercise, I cannot remember the questions that we had to answer in the more directed exercise. (Gee, maybe these inquiry proponents have something here!).
[A. Benton, Journal entry #3, 9-13-98.]

This sequence of activities engaged students in hands-on science and elicited many and varied reactions and comfort levels. Upon analyzing the results, many questions about when and how to use various approaches to activities to bolster content knowledge and student learning emerged. The catalyst for these occurrences was a well-described sequence of activities on the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry web page, which also describes other activities to stimulate reflection on characteristics of inquiry. Of particular interest to the authors was the idea that many of the teachers seemed to be concerned about the sequence and when they would be able to use this activity in their classrooms. The idea that this inquiry activity would only be used as a reward after theory was learned was troublesome. Many students said that the sequence they would choose for their classes would be from the more structured activities to the less structured activities over the course of the year. We felt that the underlying reasons seemed to be concerns about classroom management.

We found this activity to be a very powerful tool to incorporate inquiry into teacher preparation classes. We discovered that the three stations contrasted various approaches to hands-on learning in a manner that lends itself to discussion and journal reflection. The mental models of teaching and learning possessed by future teachers become evident. These notions become points of further discussion about approaches to teacher preparation and are vital for planning of follow-up research .

Implications for Science Teacher Preparation

The authors found the foam activity lends itself to a discussion of the ways that inquiry and hands-on science instruction may differ. For example:

1.Hands-on instruction does not always have a critical thinking component; true inquiry demands the incorporation of processes that underlie critical thinking, such as observing, inferring, comparing, communicating, hypothesizing collecting and analyzing data, and planning investigations

2. Hands-on instruction may not use the students’ ideas for shaping explorations; inquiry builds on student’s own prior knowledge.

3. Hands-on instruction does not guarantee inquiry.

4. Hands-on activities provide the students with opportunities for exploration and manipulating equipment so further questions may be generated. In situations in which questions are generated, students are more likely to be active inquirers.

5. Memory of concepts embedded in hands-on activities may be strengthened in true inquiry contexts.

Inquiry settings may stimulate more authentic questions, which would lead the student to conduct meaningful investigations. The use of hands-on, inquiry instruction in science teacher preparation classes models the intent of the National Science Education Standards (1996).

Kyle, Abell, and Shymansky (1992) point out that "If we wish to improve students’ conceptions about science we must acknowledge that: (a) students come to science class with ideas, (b) students’ ideas are often different from scientists’, (c) students’ preconceptions are strongly held, (d) traditional instruction will not lead to substantial conceptual change, and (e) effective instructional strategies enable teachers to be able to teach for conceptual change and understanding" (p.33). We must remember that our preservice teachers also exhibit characteristics "a-d", and that they need exposure to and immersion in "e". Exemplary science education programs develop habits of inquiry and foster the continued exploration of both scientific and pedagogical knowledge.

Lieberman (1995) points out rather poignantly that, "What everyone appears to want for students - a wide array of learning opportunities that engage students in experiencing, creating, and solving real problems, using their own experiences, and working with others - is for some reason denied to teachers as learners" (p.592).

When developing models for teaching science methods courses we, as methods instructors, need to share power with our prospective teachers. We need to provide opportunities for them to both experience and evaluate methodologies, in groups and as individuals. In this study, students experienced three approaches to hands-on learning, only one of which was true inquiry. Students discussed their reactions to the three approaches immediately after engaging in them by sharing their experiences, their emotional reactions, and their perceptions of success or failure. Later, they analyzed their personal experiences in their own journals, thus reflecting on their sense of the relative worth of the three hands-on learning contexts. Duckworth (1997) describes a teaching and learning course where the learners are made to feel confident to try out their ideas, to express and explore their confusion, without fear of scoffing from a teacher or from others who may feel that they know better. She thinks that if one’s knowledge is to be useful one must feel free to examine it, to acknowledge one’s confusions, and to appreciate one’s own ways of seeing, of exploring, and of working through to a more satisfactory level .

We feel by implementing activities such as the foam activity that students are given time to reflect, react, and explore their mental models of successful teaching and learning. Teachers using methodologies that are more traditional have rather predictable classrooms: everyone is working on the same task at the same time, following the same plan, and working toward the same right answer. Another constraint of many traditional teachers is the notion that they have to finish the textbook by the end of the year. Their classrooms lack the rich opportunities for discussions about what is known, accessing their students’ prior knowledge, discovering misconceptions, and testing the unknowns. In the traditional classroom, the opportunities for self-expression are stifled, and the spirit of discovery, which is precious to working scientists, is lost. Many times when students experience science in such settings, they view science as a substantial body of knowledge, ready-made and complete; the spirit of engaging the students in the process of answering interesting and challenging questions is lost (Shapiro, 1996).

While our own students, the future teachers, engage in inquiry opportunities, we need to become their facilitators and coaches, cognizant of their learning needs. Our role is to design our methods courses as inquiries into the teaching and learning of science. We can do so by using appropriate resources, designing learning experiences which immerse students in inquiry contexts, and facilitating reflective discussions. Future teachers need opportunities to focus on their learning needs as they inquire into various approaches to meeting the learning needs of their future students. Together, we can create collaborative learning environments with potential to sustain ongoing inquiry in classrooms at all educational levels.


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About the authors...

Marianne Barnes, Ph.D., has taught at University of North Florida since 1976. She holds a Ph.D. in Science Education from the University of Texas, Austin; graduate degrees from the University of Florida; and a B.S. in chemistry from University of Dayton. She served as Co-Principal Investigator of the NSF/Florida State Systemic Initiative and Chair of the Statewide Steering Committee of the Florida Higher Education Consortium for Mathematics and Science. Currently, she coordinates several projects focused on reform in science education and is a member of the policy consortium of the Jacksonville NSF/Urban Systemic Initiative.

Kathleen Foley graduated with a M.Ed. in Science Education, from Florida State University in 1995. She entered the doctoral program at that time and is scheduled to complete the program in Spring 2000. She is an adjunct faculty member at University of North Florida, and has been a middle school science teacher for ten years. She has interests in marine and environmental science.

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