Research and computer-based science inquiry

Research-fueled decision-making & teaching

Science Saturday, with Tarrant Institute research fellow Mark OlofsonAs a research fellow here at the Tarrant Institute, peer-reviewed research articles mediate my perception of reality. But as a science educator, I have been unsure as to how research really could affect my practice.

“Research” may seem rather esoteric, but recently an article came across my desk that demonstrated just how practical research can be. Quality research happens in the field of education — research that is peer-reviewed and upon which we can make decisions.

What’s computer-based science inquiry?

The most recent edition of Review of Educational Research contained an article that caught my eye. The piece is titled “Impacts and characteristics of computer-based science inquiry learning environments for precollege students.” Whoo!

Although the title may be a bit of a slog, the content is fantastic.

The researchers, who hailed from UC Berkeley and Oslo, looked at articles about inquiry-based learning environments. This approach lets them summarize what many folks have been finding in smaller scale studies about individual inquiry science apps.

Now, I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit-hole with you before providing the punchline. Just know that these researchers set up limits around what research projects they would consider before they proceeded.

Once they did, they found that software programs tended to contain four inquiry features:

  • Meaningful scientific contexts
  • High quality visualizations
  • Support for student collaboration
  • Metacognitive practices

These components correlate with what we often talk about: authentic learning situations, using technology to support many learners, and thinking about thinking.

The results from this article are best viewed here. The authors evaluated the different learning environments on 16 different criteria.

In general, the use of these interactive science environments tended to increase learning outcomes.

That’s good news! It means that technology tightly tied to curriculum with a value of student-directedness has a positive influence on student outcomes. Although that conclusion may not seem revolutionary, it is a good message to keep in mind.

There were many software packages and apps that showed high-level outcomes.

There were many options, and of course your context will help to direct your decision-making about any of these packages. Just to get you started, here are four open source learning environments that were highly regarded by these researchers: SCY, Co-Lab, nQuire, and WISE.

research and computer-based science inquiry

SCY and nQuire remind me of the clearinghouse for citizen science projects we looked at previously. WISE is more of a learning management system. Co-Lab is an open digital space where learners can conduct experiments. All are products of previous research projects, and in their early stages. However, I think that not only are they promising tools, but they also already house a number of resources.

How to use computer-based science inquiry?

As a teacher, you know best what will fit into your classroom. But I hope you keep in mind that research can help to provide you with an informed list of options. The truth is, it isn’t that far “out there.”

In fact, I would argue that teachers conduct ongoing research projects every day: try something, see what works, and modify accordingly. The works in research journals come from trying those ideas out with a wider audience. Additionally, they’re a way to spread those findings further.

Of course, the Tarrant Institute network is a great way to spread ideas as well. Let me know about innovative practices in your science classroom; I’d love to talk about them on the blog. Additionally, you can participate in our Google+ community or our Facebook group. The more content we share, the more value we all are able to find in these communities.

Here’s hoping everyone has a nice transition into the break. Happy holidays – and I do hope you find an opportunity to conduct a fun demonstration before the end of the year!

Mark W. Olofson

Mark is a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in the Education Leadership and Policy Studies program at the University of Vermont. He previously taught Middle and High School science and math. Mark has been with TIIE since Fall 2013.

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