Skip to main content

Science Magazine Honors Method that Teaches Essence of Experimentation

Priscilla Laws’ love of learning almost came to an abrupt end very early on—when she left kindergarten, where learning was by doing, and entered first grade, where learning was rote. “They promoted me to first grade, and it was dreadful,” said Laws, a research professor of physics at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. “I was sitting in a seat and copying letters from a board.”

Luckily, after heading to Reed College in Oregon to study math, she discovered physics, which reawakened her creativity and love of learning by doing. She also discovered that she shared similar experiences with creativity and science learning with two colleagues: David Jackson, an associate professor of physics at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and Scott Franklin, a professor of physics at Rochester Institute of Technology. Their inquiry-focused curriculum for students who are not majors in science, called Explorations in Physics (EiP), is the winner of the first Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

The Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory college science courses. The materials must be effective at encouraging students’ natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than at delivering facts and principles about what scientists have discovered. Organized as one free-standing “module,” the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science will publish an essay by a recipient of the award which explains the winning project. The essay about EiP was published on 27 January.

David Jackson discusses the curriculum of Explorations in Physics. | Video courtesy of Sarah Sheriff, Dickinson College

“We want to recognize innovators in science education, as well as the institutions that support them,” says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “At the same time, this competition will promote those inquiry-based laboratory modules with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an essay in Science on each winning module will encourage more college teachers to use these outstanding resources, thereby promoting science literacy.”


Priscilla Laws and David Jackson | Image courtesy of Carl Socolow, Dickinson College

Previous to working on EiP, Laws had been focused on an activity-based curriculum for physics majors, but an interest in the development of future teachers took her toward the idea of science curriculum materials for students who were not majoring in science. David Jackson, meanwhile, was finding as a graduate student at Princeton University that teaching science to students who weren’t majoring in the sciences gave him great flexibility to explore different approaches.


“You didn’t have to teach them X, Y, and Z,” said Jackson. “I just kind of fell in love with that.”

The three collaborators were all working on teaching physics through inquiry—“to get students to think about concepts, rather than equations,” Franklin said—by the time they began working as a team. They also were committed to “systematic research toward whether the approach was successful or not,” he said.

The national dialogue around science education at the time EiP was being developed fit well with the questions the three collaborators were exploring. U.S. science education seemed to need revamping, judging by students’ test scores, the tendency for many students to drop out of science early in their academic careers, and the acceptance by the public of information with no evidence to back it up. The EiP developers asked themselves what people thought it meant to learn science and whether students recognized the importance of experiments in science.

Because of their realization that students needed above all to understand how science works in order to be able to make informed decisions about issues that affect all citizens, the creators of EiP focused on guiding students directly to performing their own experiments. Rather than filling the students with facts and figures to memorize, as in a standard introductory science lecture class, a “guided inquiry” introduction gave students only the very basic background needed to “scaffold” them in coming up with an experiment within a certain unit. For example, an EiP unit called “Light, Sight, and Rainbows” explores the nature of light and its interaction with matter; how the eye organizes visual information from light; the properties of light that enable us to see colors; and natural phenomena such as rainbows, blue skies, and red sunsets.

“The whole approach was to save about one-third to one-half of the semester for the students to do their own experiment,” Jackson said.

Scott Franklin | Image courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology

“Explorations in Physics serves as an alternative to ‘science class as usual,’” said Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science. “EiP enjoys the luxury of time, as it does not cover a complete physics curriculum, and 100% of in-class time can be spent working on inquiry-based student-directed projects.”

The best projects, the team said, are those that the students come up with on their own, based on their own curiosity. “They have a strong interest in seeing the project through,” said Franklin. “Because they have ownership, they’re the experts. They can’t say, ‘Is this right?’ because the professor doesn’t know if it’s right. Only they do.”

The hardest and most important step for students is figuring out what they’re going to study and how they’re going to do it.

“That is the hardest part of science,” Franklin said. “This is the essence of science that we’re trying to get across.”

In their Science essay, the developers of EiP say that they hope the opportunity for self-directed exploration will be available “to students everywhere, helping them to use investigative skills in their future endeavors and to serve as scientifically literate citizens who contribute to the creation of a better world.”

Michaela Jarvis

27 January 2012