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Use Real-World Problems to Teach Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving in the Science Classroom

Say goodbye to the "sage on a stage" in the front of the science classroom and welcome educators who encourage students to ask questions and discover the answers independently.

The inquiry-based educational model challenges learners to think like scientists: identify problems and what they know about them, consider potential solutions and test them, analyze the results and compare with their current understanding and ultimately draw conclusions and defend them.

What Does an Inquiry-Based Science Curriculum Include?

Science educators with an advanced degree in curriculum and instruction use science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning activities to inspire students to think about real-world problems like scientists do. Examples include the following:

Solving a water-shortage problem

Dougherty Valley High School in Arizona came up with a creative, automated solution to manage a problem brought about by the state's ongoing and worsening drought.

Through observation and analysis of drought conditions and their impact on the local ecology, the students used engineering design principles to build an inexpensive sensor that collects data on fluctuations in the water level of a catch basin where wildlife drinks. The sensor decreases the time and cost of an existing state program that is critical to minimizing the drought's ecological damage. The STEM project earned honors in Solve for Tomorrow Contest, which challenges students to think critically about environmental issues that affect them.

Developing critical insights into ocean conservation

Oceans cover 70% of the earth's surface and are the largest component of the carbon cycle — the process in which carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed into the surface of the earth. Scientists believe the amount of human-generated greenhouse gas is creating a condition known as ocean acidification.

Swimming in Acid, a classroom science project in which students build a model of the ocean, challenges them to measure the impact of acidification on marine life. By designing, running and measuring data collected in experiments, students gain a critical understanding of atmospheric and ocean chemistry and how they impact the carbon cycle and environment.  

Thinking critically about climate change

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed Generate: The Game of Energy Choices as a teaching tool to encourage students to think critically about the environmental impact of electricity production. The game introduces students to trade-offs in cost and impact and challenges them to think critically and creatively about existing and emerging energy technologies. Through this process, students evaluate the problems and promises of those technologies, analyze the relative complexities, financial costs and impact on the climate before defending and discussing their conclusions.

Using STEM to understand health and wellness

Diabetes Research: Beta Cells and Box Plots, a Texas Instruments STEM Behind Health learning activity, engages students in the science and statistical analysis researchers use to find a cure for type 1 diabetes. Students use TI-Nspire teaching and learning technology to run simulations of hypothetical processes that can lead to a cure for the disease that affects nearly 30 million Americans. The activity challenges students to collect, organize and analyze and interpret the simulated data through graphic models.

Studying concepts in biodiversity

Home Sweet Biome: How do Plants Grow in Different Environments enables students to design, run, measure and interpret the results of an environmental experiment. The Classroom Buddies project encourages students to think critically about life science by building models of a freshwater marine biome, observing biological changes and organizing and evaluating their observations. Students gain insights into environmental, plant and agricultural science.

What Does an Inquiry-Based Science Curriculum Include?

Inquiry-based learning using real-world phenomena to encourage students to think like scientists and develop their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

Moreover, the National Science Teachers Association says, "hopefully, kids can feel in science that they can not only be knowers but be the doers."

Learn more about The University of Texas at Arlington's online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction – Science Education program.


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