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"Extreme" Inquiry-Based Learning: Engaging Non-Science Students with the WOW Factor and Science Portfolios

Mercury Autumn 2010 Table of Contents

by David Baker, Physics Department, Austin College, Sherman, TX

eclipse with words

Image courtesy of Luc Viatour

One of the greatest challenges we face today as science educators is to engage non-science majors in the scientific process. Unfortunately for many students, science can be dry and boring.

Austin College offers a freshman seminar course in which the instructor serves as the students’ academic mentor for the next four years. Each 20-student section has a different academic topic from the humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences -- our section explores “The Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System.” We present two unique, inquiry-based approaches that stimulate non-science undergraduate students to overcome their fear of science:

1) an engaging, nontraditional course topic with a WOW factor, and
2) Science Portfolios that encourage students to do their own science.

Extreme WOW Factor
Surprisingly, the majority of students in this science class are non-science majors -- the WOW factor draws them in. Rather than a standard tour of the solar system, this course explores the most extreme places, including cool stuff like “The Incredible Shrinking Planet,” “Best Vacuum Cleaners,” “Stinkiest Place,” “Shocking Superbolts,” and “Life in the Dark.” We use a recent popular science book appropriately titled The 50 Most Extreme Places on Our Solar System as the “textbook.”

Each student investigates a specific phenomenon (e.g., climate) and writes a research paper on extreme examples (for instance, the runaway greenhouse of Venus, the climate extremes of Mercury, and the bizarre seasons of Uranus)….

Extreme Science Portfolios
The extreme learning doesn’t stop there. Science Portfolios utilize a true inquiry-based learning approach. Students document their own observations, ask their own scientific questions, develop their own hypotheses, design their own experiments, and evaluate their scientific growth. It is an open-ended exercise with few constraints….

Each student portfolio must contain examples in each of the
following four categories:

The effectiveness of Science Portfolios has been assessed with pre-/post-surveys, focus groups, and the portfolios themselves. The results are impressive. At first, students are hesitant to take scientific risks -- their confidence is low. But as the semester progresses, they develop as scientists and obtain ownership of their learning….

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