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Teachers learn how to teach science through inquiry

Teachers step into their students' shoes in STEM Studio.

Jessica Kesler leads a workshop for science teachers.
Jessica Kesler leads a workshop for science teachers. (Photo: Makoto Manheim)

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

“Bryan, do you want to share with us how you solved this?”

Bryan stood up and came to the front of the classroom, pointing at an image of three blocks on a screen.

What the participants saw was a picture of boxes flattened into two dimensions, each with symbols on three of their sides. One side of each box showed a window.

The goal was to figure out which box was not like the others.

Based on the positioning of the symbols, Bryan could tell right away.

“No matter how you rotate this block, it will never match the other two.”

Instructor Jason Porter prodded the class further.

“Is there another way that you could prove that?”

Montell raised his hand. “I am more of a visual person, so we made the boxes, drew the symbols and we oriented the windows,” he said.

Bryan and Montell were two of six teachers who attended a professional development session on Tuesday, part of a weeklong workshop in math and science instruction called STEM Studio, run by the TGR Foundation.

The teachers were from a variety of schools, grades, and experience. One taught science at Sheridan Elementary School, another taught high school students, and another will just start teaching in the fall.

The teachers were looking for new ways to engage their students and encourage them to learn how to answer questions for themselves. A goal of this lesson was to demonstrate that there is more than one way for students to arrive at the correct answer.

“At its core, inquiry-based learning is about teaching students to learn through discovery,” said Porter. “Through inquiry, there is always more room to build.”

Facilitator Jessica Kesler agreed, noting that the session is not designed to be a lecture hall.

“Bring all your stuff with you and your background knowledge, and let’s figure out how to work together and apply that to the classroom,” she said. “This is an environment where everyone can get something from it, from the main idea to the specific details.”

Kesler started the school year in September as a 4th-grade science teacher at Munoz-Marin Elementary School in Fairhill, but she decided that she would have more impact by helping train other teachers, so she accepted the position at TGR, formerly the Tiger Woods Foundation.

Jason Porter

The studios “have teachers acting as students,” she said, learning “what it feels like to be a student and what it feels like to do inquiry.” The goal is to give them “strategies and tools, and how to use these models to enhance their own classrooms.”

Porter spoke about the importance of showing teachers inquiry-based learning instead of directly teaching students or showing teachers specific ways they could enhance the classroom, two approaches STEM Studio has been involved in.

“We found that there would be a better effect if we engaged the teachers instead of the students,” Porter said. “However, without the strong student-focused inquiry-based classroom, teachers had a hard time applying what we were trying to show them.”

Therefore, Porter said, before introducing other topics, such as how to incorporate digital technology into the classroom, STEM Studio needed to first show teachers how to design their classrooms to support inquiry-based learning.

The idea of using both two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes also set up the essential question: How can we use shapes to design structures?

The teachers opened up Google Maps and studied the various viewing options. With more understanding of two and three dimensions, the eventual goal was to be able to calculate surface area, create a scale blueprint, and use that to create a model for a building.

They learned a technique called the Question Formulation Technique, where one prompt, or QFocus – in this case, Designing Architecture – leads to students formulating as many questions as they can think of.

These teachers came up with their questions.

“How many exits are there?”

“How tall is the building?”

“What type of foundation does the building have?”

“What is the best way to reduce our carbon footprint?”

After considering the theoretical, the teachers moved on to something real – designing a building to theoretically replace the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street. They were given parameters on size, shape, dimensions, and restrictions, and then were asked to determine a purpose.

Many of the teachers opted to build a community center.

They were then taught how to design their own QFocus for use in their classrooms – defining its purpose, weighing the pros and cons of each idea, and imagining potential student questions. Finally, they were given scenarios – to create a QFocus around watersheds for 4th graders, as an example, getting them to understand how runoff from land affects bodies of water.

As the day wound down, the facilitators led the teachers in a reflection session. Several in the group said they liked this approach because it would help them understand what their students know and don’t know. And it would also give students ownership over what they were learning. The teachers also spoke about using the Question Formulation Technique as a means of creating an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions when they do not understand the content.

“Teachers get to see what it is like to learn about inquiry-based mindset while talking to other teachers about their experiences,” Porter said. During the summer, he said, “they are already in a reflective mood, so they can think about how to incorporate these new things into the classroom.”

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