Inquiring Into the Teaching and Learning
of Science: An Initiative from a Research University
by Connie Blasie, Cath Milne and Hai-Lung
If you read the newspaper or listen to radio news, then you've read
or heard about secondary education content standards, about the poor performance
of U.S. secondary students on international math and science tests and about
the declining number of US students pursuing scientific careers. Within
the Department of Chemistry, concern over these issues has culminated in
the development and implementation, beginning June 2000, of a collaborative
initiative of the Department of Chemistry and the Graduate School of Education:
The Master of Chemistry Education (MCE) Program. This ten-course degree
program was designed specifically for secondary school science teachers
and combines rigorous chemistry content and science pedagogy with the goal
of advancing participants' chemistry understanding, laboratory skills, and
use of information technology as a teaching and learning tool. The response
to the program by the first cohort class of twenty participants has been
very positive. In this article, we reflect on the development of the inquiry
model used by the chemistry faculty involved in this program, on the inquiry
model itself, and on the value of collaboration among university departments
When a small group in the Penn Chemistry Department, a highly successful
research department, began thinking about teaching secondary school teachers
our initial answer was just to "Teach Them More Chemistry!" We
thought that if teachers just knew more chemistry, they could teach more
effectively. But, as a research department, we also did extensive research
to verify this. What we learned was that the answer was not this simple
and that teaching and learning need to be thought of as inseparable.
Two of the most important things we learned were the generally accepted
adage that "People teach in the same way that they were taught"
and from both the National Science Education Standards 1 and Benchmarks for Science
that inquiry learning was the method of teaching science which
results in the most positive learning outcomes. To us this meant that we
would need to model 'inquiry learning' in the chemistry content courses
we taught. But we couldn't model it until we knew what it meant to us.
And thus began our adventure into a new way of thinking about teaching
As part of a research oriented science department, immersed in the culture
of research, we tackled the question, "What does inquiry learning mean
to us" as we tackle all questions which arise in research:
- We researched it--reading chemistry education literature, science education
literature, visiting high schools, conducting focus groups of teachers
- We reflected on all of this individually; we discussed all of this
as a group.
- Then we read, reflected, wrote, visited and talked even more.
Until, finally, we realized that doing scientific research IS doing
inquiry learning! This, then, was how we wanted to teach the chemistry content
courses in the MCE Program. This was how, in a context familiar to us,
we could interpret 'inquiry learning' and therefore how we could model 'inquiry
Because this is the model of inquiry teaching and learning that we decided
to adopt for the chemistry courses, the chemistry faculty among us quickly
realized that they would not solely be giving lectures. It meant that for
our participant teachers to be learning, they would be actively searching
out answers, discussing them among themselves and with us, presenting their
understandings to the class, doing additional research Not exactly your
normal university chemistry lecture classroom!
Now that the MCE Program has begun and the Penn Instructional Model
is being used in the teaching and learning in the chemistry courses, the
faculty teaching the chemistry and the chemistry education courses are continuously
collaborating to ensure a co-mingling of chemistry and chemistry education.
It is only with this on-going high level of collaboration that the program
curriculum continues to be developed to achieve the goals of teaching and
learning both the content and the pedagogy that teachers need in order to
teach chemistry in the science curricula in high schools--and that their
students need in order to learn that science.
This rather unique combination of employing an explicit inquiry model
in the teaching and learning of the content courses along with a high level
of collaboration between the Department of Chemistry and the Graduate School
of Education helps to develop a rich learning environment for both the university
educators and the teachers in the program. Chemistry Professor Dr. Bryan
Roberts, who is currently teaching in the MCE program has said, "This
has been a transformative process for me. I'm now even considering how
I can use an inquiry-type of approach in my undergraduate Organic Chemistry
We think that an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning, and
collaboration across disciplines hold great promise for the development
of other curricula within the university.
What is our initial question? A question posed by an instructor, a student,
a text, a group
What personal information do we already have about this question? What
knowledge do we need from other sources (e.g., library, on-line, experiments,
experts) to help answer this question?
Reflect and Organize
Reflect on the knowledge that we have gathered. Ask ourselves how we
can integrate this knowledge and organize it so that it makes sense to us.
This will probably lead us to ask additional questions that require more
information--even doing experiments that create new knowledge--and will
probably start the cycle over again. Include others in our questioning,
reflecting and organizing--outside input is invaluable! It helps us to
determine what we do and do not understand.
Results and Peer Review
When we think we have results, i.e., understanding, present our knowledge
claims to our colleagues. Let them question us. We will need to justify
our knowledge claims and in the process of this justification, our peers
might lead us to change or reject some of our arguments, or they might accept
Completed Body of Work
In the process of defending our claims within a community of learners
we build up our knowledge and at the same time the community builds its
knowledge. Only then will we have learned. We will probably always have
some new questions as a result, so just be ready to keep repeating the entire
1 National Science Education Standards, National Academy Press,
2 Benchmarks for Science Literacy, Project 2061, American
Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993
Constance Blasie is Associate Director of the MCE
Program and a member of the Chemistry Department's Undergraduate Education
Dr. Catherine Milne is a post-doctoral fellow in the
Graduate School of Education and a course instructor in the MCE Program.
Dr. Hai-Lung Dai is a Professor of Chemistry and Chairman
of the Department of Chemistry.
This essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series,
now in its seventh year as the joint creation of the College of Arts and
Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 19, January 23, 2001
PAGE | CONTENTS
| TALK ABOUT TEACHING: Inquiring Into the Teaching & Learning of Science | TALK
ABOUT TEACHING ARCHIVE | BETWEEN
ISSUES | JANUARY at PENN