Inquiry Based Approaches to Science Education:
Theory and Practice

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It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of enquiry.
- Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

Web Site Objectives: To bring together in one place summaries and links of key concepts, practices and materials relating to Inquiry or Problem Based science education.

Definition: Inquiry based approaches to science education focus on student constructed learning as opposed to teacher-transmitted information.


Recent discoveries in psychology and brain neurophysiology have led to many new and renewed theories of learning. Inquiry based curriculum and teaching techniques have emerged as a combination of several theories such as, "contructivism", "Blooms taxonomy of learning", "multiple intelligences", "whole-language" and "accelerated learning". In simple terms it is a learning process or strategy rather than any specific set of lessons. This process aims to enhance learning based on (1) increased student involvement, (2) multiple ways of knowing and (3) sequential phases of cognition. By using student derived investigations knowledge is more relevant and meaningful. This investment in the curriculum and learning process leads to active construction of meaningful knowledge, rather than passive acquisition of facts transmitted from a lecturer. Next, by engaging students' multiple intelligences more types of students are successful contributors and students are engaged on more than one level. In addition, this process mirrors the stages of Blooms learning phases, which leads to more complete cognition by building on previously learned knowledge. Lastly, the student to student collaboration reinforces assimilation of knowledge, while the teacher to student collaboration builds trust for future discovery. Also known as project based curriculum, it typically adheres to the following guidelines:

Why Put Theory into Practice?

Inquiry based curriculum has been shown to develop independent and critical thinking skills, positive attitudes and curiosity toward science and increased achievement in biological content (Hall & McCudy, 1990), (Kyle et al, 1988), (Kyle et al, 1982), and (Shymansky, 1984). Leonard (1983) showed that university students who completed a semester long introductory biology laboratory designed on inquiry based approaches achieved 6% higher grades on biology content exams as opposed to the control group which completed a more traditional information-transmission modeled laboratory. Given its initial signs of success, inquiry based education still has few practitioners. As with any new pedagogy, it faces a myriad of opposing forces. Little to no training in pre-service teacher education and lack of administrative support given that it can be more labor and material demanding are among the biggest obstacles. But as Thiers (2001) argues in his book, Developing Inquiry-Based Science Materials: A Guide for Educators, there are important economic, environmental and social realities that demand new science skills and literacy from our students today. He sites from a 1992, US Department of Education report, Measurements of Workforce Readiness Competencies, "…the need for higher-order thinking skills…is expected of even entry level members of the American workforce" (p. 2). Likewise, Polman (2000) sites the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS,1991), which argues that the information-oriented and service-oriented sectors of the economy requires more active problem-solvers, rather than passive direction-followers. This contrast between molding problem-solvers versus direction-followers is exactly what Inquiry based curriculum addresses.

How to Put Theory into Practice:


Hubbard (2001) identifies three essential factors - risk, trust, and power - that helped her develop and change curriculum and methods in her classroom. To begin the process of change demands the teacher to take a risk with expected outcomes, but in order to engage students and make topics more relevant, the teacher must trust the students to choose significant and meaningful topics. This requires the teacher to relinquish some power as all-knowing director and subsume a co-learner position. These factors are important guiding principles for initiating immediate change in the classroom. However, in order for the change to be significant and lasting other factors have to be considered.


Collaboration from other teachers, other departments and top administrators is the most important agent for change. In actual curriculum and material development, collaboration from a diversity of experts ranging from graphic designers, marketers and professional in the particular field of interest, is also a key ingredient to lasting change. This type of collaboration demands a concerted effort in time, money and staffing. Most teachers are not in the position to embark on such an endeavor, but still wish to change curriculum. In that case, the set of web links listed below represent some useful sites where curriculum, materials and supplies can be obtained and more can be learned about inquiry based education theory and methodology.





Curriculum & Lessons
Arabidopsis Mutant Analysis
Association for Biology Laboratory Education (ABLE)
Cell Biology Laboratory Manual
CIBL: Math & Science Lessons
ENC: Eisenhower National Clearinghouse (
resources and support for math and science educators)
Genetics Education Network

Hands-on Activities for Teaching Biology
    to High School or Middle School Students

Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (A primer on methods by the NRC)
LHS & SEPUP Lawrence Hall of Science and Science Education for Public Understanding Program
NWFSC Molecular Biology Protocols
Research Link 2000 - Developing Labs
The Gateway to Educational Materials
The Lesson Plans Page

Lesson Planet  Find teacher-reviewed lessons and worksheets quickly and easily with Lesson Planet




Important Educational Hubs
Ed Helper Net
Hot Biology Web Sites
Univerisity of Delaware's Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education
CIBL: Center for Inquiry Based Learning at Duke University

Scientific Organizations for Educators
The National Academies
Coalition for Education in the Life Sciences
National Association of Biology Teachers

Suppliers of Materials, Equipment and Software
3D Molecule Application for Web Viewing
Carolina Biological Supply Company
Qubit Systems Home Page
Science Stuff
SciQuest Discover Efficiency.

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