So, you think you can’t do Inquiry-based Learning: Better ask the gnome

“Scientific inquiry starts with observation. The more one can see, the more one can investigate.”
Martin Chalfie

In 1995 the National Research Council published the National Science Education Standards in which they recommended as one of its central point’s learning science through inquiry. As defined in the National Science Education Standards inquiry has two meanings:

Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. (p23)

Five years later a companion book Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning was released. The purpose of this companion book was to help teachers understand and implement inquiry in their classrooms. In 2018 almost, a quarter of a century later implementation is still let’s be kind and say incomplete.

If we teach science as a method of looking at the world and asking questions Which is what science is instead of a collection of facts, principles, and ideas that many people view it as then the inquiry-based teaching method is critically important. So why isn’t inquiry-based STEM education universal?

The most common answer I hear is “I can’t do inquiry my class is too big.”  In my mind, this means you can collect bigger data sets. Followed closely by “My students aren’t ready for inquiry,” well instead of full inquiry try guided inquiry.  Lastly, “I have too much material to cover there is no time for inquiry.”  There might be something to say for that last statement, but that is a soapbox for another time, but I would say design your learning goals into the inquiry tasks.

Another way to address these questions, is to ask the question, does inquiry require complicated questions with lots of complicated equipment? Let’s ask a Gnome.

The Gnome Experiment

KERN the gnome in a case with his digital scale
Kern the gnome packed with his scale. Image: Gnome Experiment

The humble garden gnome is practically a cultural icon. To some garden gnomes are a passionate collectible, to others a novelty, and to still others the butt of the joke. However, there is one gnome that taught us about gravity while researching the physical makeup of our planet.

I think I first heard of the Gnome Experiment from a TED talk. The question proposed was could you measure the difference in gravity around the earth on a basic scale. To test their scales the Kern company got one of their scales a garden gnome and started shipping them around the world where the gnome’s recording weight and a picture at each stop. Here are some of the places the gnome has been

KERN the Gnome photographed in four different locations around the world.
Kern the gnome packed with his scale. Image: Gnome Experiment

The result of the experiment is a resounding yes. Kern the gnome weighed different amounts in different places.  Using a similar process what could you teach your students. While the phenomenon of gravity is simple to describe, it’s a difficult concept to grasp in real life.  Weight is dependent on gravity, and the amount of gravitational attraction on the surface of the Earth is dependent on the distance to the center of the planet and mass (density) of the material underneath you.  Apply this information correctly, and it can teach you about gravity and the earth.

For instance, suppose we were to conduct this experiment again.  Only this time in addition to the gnome and scale we also included a GPS/altimeter. I live in Colorado a quick search gives us a list of 20 roads that have an elevation over 12,000ft.  Suppose we took our gnome on a road trip and used our altimeter to measure the weight at 12,000ft on each of these roads. Since we have now controlled for elevation, what would it mean if we got different results?

As a teaching aid, the gnome experiment can be quite fun and useful. The idea that a garden gnome can be used to conduct science is a great icebreaker. More importantly, the Gnome Experiment shows how you can ask a genuine inquiry with a simple experiment and only a little bit of equipment. Stop and think about experiments you can ask you’re not asking your students to win the Nobel prize.  Think up some simple experiments and have your class address them.  I suspect what we need is a database of inquiry-based experiments for education, like the database of test and exam questions that are out there.


Thanks for listening to my musings

The Teaching Cyborg

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