Inviting Inquiry

The beauty of Crowd The Tap is its flexibility in the classroom. It can be embedded in curricula in any number of ways – lightly as a unit launch to deeply as a fully-developed project-based learning (PBL) sequence. In this post I describe how I am using it to engage students in an alternative pathways program in a rural high school.

My intent in working with this class is to invite the students into sustained, meaningful inquiry through Crowd the Tap. Student feedback will inform my design of specific lessons and activities to fit their learning needs and graduation requirements.

Organized chaos?

It is the time of Covid, and teaching looks so much different from our pre-pandemic past-life. And if teaching is different, then so is learning. As you can see in the photo at the top of this post, I am fortunate that the Pathways students are meeting in-person, albeit in a big tent in the school’s parking lot. That said, always hanging over us is the uncertainty of if – or when – we’ll be required to go completely virtual. So for now, I maximize our in-person time, keeping activities and learning focused and relevant to the students and the project.

My goals for the project are few: 1) Make the learning engaging, relevant, and accessible to these students; 2) Hit some key learning targets needed for graduation – primarily the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Science and Engineering Practices and some targeted Disciplinary Core Ideas. The learning paths – the pedagogy – could go many ways. Because I’m a deep believer in exploration and discovery, particularly for students who don’t thrive in a traditional classroom structure, I opted to introduce Crowd the Tap (CTT) through open inquiry activities.

Enough organization to guide the general sequence. Enough student-driven exploration to invite questions; trial and error; peer encouragement and support; and a bit of good-natured bantering. Organized chaos. I offered light-touch nudges and hints, but rarely answered questions directly. I wanted them to explore, wonder, figure it out. Even if they didn’t quite get it. Yet. Organized chaos.

Here is a link to my lesson plan – including what I modified on-the-spot within the lesson and reflected on for future lessons. Unlike traditional bell-schedules, I had about 2 hours to spend with the students. This has two sides: 1) we have uninterrupted time to dive deeply into inquiry and learning; and 2) I need to manage the time with a keen eye towards keeping students positively focused and on task within the bounds of organized chaos.

Engage and Explore: Thinking About Drinking Water

I started by presenting 5 jars of water, labeled A-E, that I had brought from home – all looked clear (well, except for one that had a yellowish tinge). My question: Which of these would you most want to drink?

Students were invited to come closer (masks in place) to examine the different jars. We discussed which they would choose – and why. Always why. Working in (mostly) pairs, I handed out supplies: small paper cups; Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) meters; water chemistry test strips; water chemistry data table and legend. And said, “Ok, figure out which one you would most want to drink.”

This was the open-ended inquiry starting point. Students asked how to use the test strips and water meters, and I simply suggested they try it. Working together, they generally figured out how to use them, but not consistently from team to team. This sets us up for another lesson to look at the actual protocols and data sheets for how to collect data consistently and accurately.

This format also sparked curiosity. What did the numbers mean that they were getting on the test strips? What are “ppm?” What happens if a particular chemistry test strip square doesn’t match any of its legend colors? Why did we get different readings for the ppm when we were testing the same water samples? And why did one sample make the TDS meter go blank? (We figured out the ppm was greater than what the meter could read). All good curiosity questions – I didn’t answer them; I wanted them to discover that they will become the experts on tap-water; not me. Plus just the practice of asking questions is an important skill.

Somewhere along the way, someone looked up “ppm.” Now they knew a definition. Now they wondered “Is high ppm good or bad?” A definition doesn’t necessarily mean understanding. So we chatted about that. What if it’s sugar? (yum – I’ll take high ppm). What if it’s arsenic? (no, thank you). But their attention was now drawn to ppm – how much of something is in the water, with very little focus on the water chemistry results – what’s actually IN the water. In part, again, because the impurities they were testing for (alkalinity, mercury, bromine, sulfate…) had little meaning or familiarity to them. Understanding is building, but context is still sketchy. This is all important information for me as I plan future lessons.

Explore and Explain: Crowd the Tap and Initial Water Samples

Next is putting to use what they just learned – even acknowledging there are still gaps in their understanding. That’s OK. I introduced Crowd the Tap – the national project; how we’re piloting CTTM in schools here in Maine; what the students are specifically going to do here at Sumner with the project. For a variety of reasons, we decided to have students test all of the water sources at the school rather than their homes. I immediately hear about how gross the water is in the school – its color, its smell, its taste – the enthusiasm is palpable. The power of inquiry.

Relevance is also important here – this isn’t just a classroom assignment. The district is building a new Middle and High School Learning Center. The students’ charge is to prepare a water quality report for the administration and facilities managers – if the water is gross now, let’s not repeat that in the new building. A real outcome; a real audience – the students are now becoming scientists, consultants. Learning has meaning. The students are invested.

Question Storm: What questions do you have about the water or water systems at the school? Organizing the questions into categories.

Asking questions is a skill students rarely get to practice these days in school. I tell them that science begins with curiosity – so it’s time for a question storm. Using pads of sticky notes, I give them a few minutes to write down as many questions as they have about the water at the high school (one question per sticky note). Many complain that they don’t have any questions. I ask them to keep at it, until time is up. I give enough time so they can’t get away with only writing none or one question – they have a little time to ponder (not surprisingly they are able to generate more questions) – but not so much that the “storm” loses its effect – about 3 minutes. As a class, they group the questions into categories of their own choosing. This is a great time to see where their curiosities are leading as well as what some of the group dynamics are. I keep filing away information for later.

It’s been over an hour since we started, and students are still well-engaged in the work – an unlikely outcome in most traditional classroom structures. The last activity is to sample the water sources at the school. I know they don’t yet have the structure for the data sampling protocols, and that’s fine. It’s about practicing – and respecting the work and learning they’ve done so far by giving the opportunity for them to apply it. The students had previously sought the expertise of the facilities manager at the school and discovered there were approximately 24 water sources at the school, both inside and out. Using a diagram of the school labeled with the water sources, and in teams determined by their teacher, the students set out to collect (and label) samples from all the water sources. When each team returned, they got to work with the TDS meters, water chemistry strips, and water chemistry charts – collecting and recording their data for the water at Sumner. I spent the time listening in on their chatter – where they got particular sources; what their observations were of the water; what their data results were. I noticed a continued focus on ppm, less-so on the water chemistry results. Good to know (and not insight that would necessarily come through a lecture format).

It’s been said many times that “hands-on” doesn’t necessarily mean “minds-on.” It’s been a busy afternoon with active doing and learning. Now is the time for the students themselves to reflect on their learning outcomes – that’s where “doing” organizes into “understanding.” What are their take-aways? How does it inform where I want to go from here with the project? Listening and observing, I’ve picked up several clues along the way. A final reflection (through Google Forms) solidifies an important insight that I might not have noticed (or coalesced) without seeing the common thread through the students’ own written perspectives: Many students – with their focus on ppm – decided that even if the school’s water looks and smells bad, maybe it’s really not that bad to drink because the total ppm was low for most of the samples. Ah, it’s that context thing again. This provides a good framework for investigating WHAT are the chemicals or hazards in the water, not just “how much.”

I tend to “over-plan” when I’m teaching a lesson. So I go in expecting that I likely won’t get through everything I envisioned (noticeable in the strikeouts and notes in my Lesson 1 plan). I also know with inquiry, flexibility is important – pivoting on the spot, or accumulating insights for future lessons. I have a general trajectory in mind as to where I want to go with this project, what outcomes we intend for it, what specific learning targets for students. The path – the learning process – to those outcomes and targets, though, is an attentive practice guided in real and reflective time by students’ interactions with the process – emerging curiosity, misconceptions, stretching comfort zones, risk-taking, and mistakes. An invitation to inquiry.

~Sarah Hooper, Education Specialist, Schoodic Institute

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