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Blog: Course Improvement Through Evaluation: Improving Undergraduate STEM Majors’ Capacity for Delivering Inquiry-Based Mathematics and Science Lessons

Posted on November 16, 2016 by  in Blog

Associate Professor, Graduate School of Education, University of Massachusetts Lowell

One of the goals of the University of Massachusetts (UMass) UTeach program is to produce mathematics and science teachers who not only are highly knowledgeable in their disciplines, but also can engage students through inquiry-based instruction. The Research Methods course is one of the core program courses designed to accomplish this goal. The Research Methods course is centered around a series of inquiry-based projects.

What We Did

Specifically, the first inquiry was a simple experiment. Students were asked to look around in their kitchens, come up with a research question, and carry out an experiment to investigate the question. The second inquiry required them to conduct a research project in their own disciplinary field. The third inquiry asked students to pretend to be teachers of a middle or high school math/science course who were about to teach their students topics that involve the concept of slope and its applications. This inquiry required students to develop and administer an assessment tool. In addition, they analyzed and interpreted assessment data in order to find out their pretend-students’ prior knowledge and understanding of the concept of slope and its applications in different STEM disciplines (i.e., using assessment information for lesson planning purposes).

Our Goal

We investigated whether our course achieved the goal of enhancing course enrollees’ development of pedagogical skills delivering inquiry-based instruction teaching mathematical or scientific concepts embedded in the inquiry projects.

What We Learned

Examinations of the quality of students’ written inquiry reports showed that students were able to do increasingly difficult work with a higher degree of competency as the course progressed.

Comparisons of students’ responses to pre-and-post course surveys that consisted of questions about a hypothetical experiment indicated that students gained skills at identifying and classifying experimental variables and sources of measurement errors. However, they struggled with articulating research questions and justifying whether a question was researchable. These results were consistent with what we observed in their written reports. As the course progressed, students were more explicit at identifying variables and their relationships and were better at explaining how their research designs addressed possible measurement errors. For most students, however, articulating a researchable question was the most difficult aspect of an inquiry project.

Students’ self-reflections and focus group discussions suggested that our course modeled inquiry-based learning quite well, which was a sharp departure from the step-by-step laboratory activities they were used to as K-12 students. Students also noted that the opportunity to independently conceptualize and carry out an experiment before getting peer and instructor feedback, revising, and producing a final product created a reflective process that they had not experienced in other university course work. Finally, students appreciated the opportunity to articulate the connection between practicing inquiry skills as part of their professional requirements (i.e., as STEM majors) and using inquiry as a pedagogical tool to teach the math and science concepts to middle or high school students. They also noted that knowing how to evaluate their own students’ prior knowledge was an important skill for lesson planning down the road.