Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup

Case Studies in Science Education

Pat — Grade 8

Teacher Profile

Name Pat
Experience 21 Years
Grade & Subject(s) Grade 8; Life Science and Social Studies
Classroom 48 students; 20 % special needs
Demographics Middle school in a suburban town
Science Teaching Two classes, 40-minute periods, 5 times per week
Curriculum School is moving toward an integrated science ("spiraled") curriculum; district specified;
8th-grade team leader
Other Shares classrooms with other teachers; does not have his own classroom


Module 1 - Introducing the Case

The issue that Pat shares with us involves his desire for students to undertake authentic scientific investigations. That is, as students explore "mystery labs," Pat wishes for them to grapple with ideas as scientists do, asking questions and independently leading themselves to the next steps in a study. Pat feels frustrated by the fact that his students still rely on him to prompt them to the next scientific "discovery" and feels as though these prompts detract from his goal of students' questions and explorations driving his lessons. Pat challenges himself to find other ways to encourage inquiry-based learning in his middle grades science classes.

Apple Study

Apples serve as the context of students' exploration of biological structure and function. Pat gives students apples to dissect as a way to promote scientific investigation. Students record their observations and then answer questions on a lab sheet.

Discussion Questions

Which aspects of Pat's "mystery labs" are most supportive of an inquiry-based approach? Which aspects are least supportive?

What role do you think inquiry-based labs should play in a science course? Why?

How would you design labs to be more inquiry-based?

Module 2 - Trying New Ideas

Pat meets with Rick Duschl, a science educator from Vanderbilt University. Together, they consider ways that Pat can promote student-driven inquiry while still providing a focus to his "mystery labs." Specifically, they discuss how to design labs around encompassing scientific ideas. For example, students may dissect an apple to consider how its structures relate to the function of reproduction.

Pat adapts this strategy to an investigation of chicken wings in a comparative anatomy unit. The overarching question becomes how the parts of a wing lend themselves to the function of flight. As students dissect the wing and record their observations, they keep the function of flying in the forefront of their minds. This central question of flight helps keep the mystery alive and encourages students to raise questions that occur as they dissect the wing. Using prompts and cues, Pat tries to achieve his goal of having his students leave his science classes with the sense that the students themselves have discovered something - that they are science experts.

Chicken Wing Study

Working together, pairs of students dissect a chicken wing and make observations about its parts to learn more about how structure plays a role in the function of flight. Questions that arise during the course of the study are recorded and discussed in a whole-class setting.

Discussion Questions

How would you describe the differences between the "apple study" and the "chicken wing study?"

In your opinion, what are the strengths of providing an overarching question as a way of structuring student inquiry? What are the weaknesses?

How might students represent their results from a lab in a manner consistent with an inquiry-based approach?

Module 3 - Reflecting and Building on Change

To align with his goals for students as experts, Pat introduces his students to another way of representing what they have learned and understood - pamphlets similar to those printed by public and private organizations. The pamphlets that students create answer some of the "big questions" and explain other understandings that students have developed while dissecting.

Pat's students continue to investigate the relationship between biological structure and function by focusing on human body systems. During their study of the respiratory system, Pat precedes an investigation of healthy vs. diseased lung tissue by asking his students to write one question that comes to mind. Students work individually, using microscopes to view commercial slides of three types of lung tissue: healthy, showing evidence of emphysema, and showing evidence of cancer. Pat revisits the students' questions after the lab and prompts discussion about them as a way of showing students how scientists answer questions based on scientific investigation. By using questions generated by the students to give focus to the lab, Pat continues to work toward his goal of student-driven inquiry. As Pat continues to refine his future "mystery labs," he hopes to increase the extent to which students' questions drive scientific inquiry.

Lung Tissue Study

As part of their continuing study of biological structure and functions, students use microscopes to compare healthy and diseased human lung tissue.

Discussion Questions

How would you describe the differences between the "chicken wing study" and the "lung tissue study?"

What role should students' questions and answers play in an inquiry-based activity? What role should the teacher's questions and answers play?

Which aspects of Pat's evolving mystery lab approach would you incorporate into your own teaching? Which aspects would you modify? Why?


© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy