Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Tales from the Field: Letting the Messy In

By Claire Maguire

(Note from BEETLES: We’re incredibly grateful for the feedback provided to us by SCCOSS Naturalists  and others as we were developing this activity. The story below illustrates some of the potential pitfalls of engaging students in investigations, but also the magic when one can “let the messy in”. It also illustrates the importance of a good write-up that can help stem the “game of telephone” that can occur when activities get passed on. Fortunately, Exploratory Investigation is now published, with lots of guidance on staying messy. Finally, the toolbox mentioned by Claire can be seen in Science Investigation-Focus section of “What’s in our Backpack”.)

It seemed easy enough. In September 2015, Santa Cruz County Outdoor Science School (SCCOSS) was implementing an exciting new curriculum initiative. Henceforth, all curriculum would be BEETLES-inspired, and staff training would include five BEETLES professional development sessions. The flagship activity at SCCOSS would truly exemplify student-centered learning: Exploratory Investigation.

By 2015, SCCOSS had been implementing some BEETLES activities for a couple of years. In fact, our Outdoor School had been a key testing ground for a number of the project’s activities. In winter 2014, two SCCOSS naturalists attended the BEETLES Project’s California Leadership Institute in Nevada City and came back especially excited about Exploratory Investigation, a brand new activity. It was so new, in fact, that there was no write-up for it yet. They introduced it to the rest of our staff based on how it was modeled by BEETLES staff, and we started implementing it that spring. We were excited about this activity because it tied together so many things we were trying to accomplish at Outdoor Science School: it allowed students to follow their curiosity and introduced them to the nature and practices of science and it gave them an authentic field science experience that could make them feel empowered to pursue science.

However, as we started leading the Investigation with students, we ran into some hurdles. Students were often frustrated in their efforts to carry out a fruitful investigation. It’s hard enough for fifth-graders to come up with testable questions at all, let alone questions that can be tested in fifteen minutes with no tools. Students wanted to know, “How tall are the trees?”, “How fast does a banana slug go?”, “Is fast moving water colder than still water?” Their questions were impossible to answer through observation, but would be easily testable with simple measuring devices. Our solution was to introduce a toolbox. Over the summer, the school purchased a set of measuring tools for each naturalist. Each set contained a compass, measuring tape, a ruler, a protractor, a scale, pH paper, paintbrushes, microscopes, jewelers loupes, a UV flashlight, stopwatch, calipers, a hygrometer and soil, air and water thermometers. We thought with this change, the investigation would be smooth sailing.

I was one of only three returning naturalists in fall 2015 and I taught Exploratory Investigation to the new staff on the second day of training. Things did not start off well. The new naturalists had a lot of questions. “Do kids really understand what a testable question is?” “Won’t this takes a long time?” “What if they can’t come up with a question?” “This doesn’t seem like it would work with students who don’t have a strong science background.” Their skepticism rattled me. It wasn’t an easy activity, but it had been somewhat successful the previous year, and the toolbox was supposed to fix the difficulties we had encountered before. I couldn’t seem to answer the other naturalists’ questions adequately though. “It just takes practice”, I offered weakly.

The mandate from our director was clear. Naturalists were required to teach the Investigation every week. It quickly took over our lives. It dominated the talk in carpool, in the staff lounge, while out on the town on Friday night. It wasn’t working, people said. The kids weren’t coming up with meaningful data. The kids’ questions didn’t even make sense most of the time. The activity took forever. Forever? It’s a 2-hour activity, right? Apparently not. Some naturalists were spending the entire 4 days of the program on this activity. Introduce investigations on Tuesday. Discuss testable questions on Wednesday. Investigate (finally!) on Thursday. Reflect on Friday. What was going on?

Eventually, our director heard echoes of the discontent and a staff meeting was called to discuss the activity. Tensions ran high. One naturalist broke down in tears. Another read an impassioned essay he had written about his experience at this very Outdoor Science School as a child. Outdoor Science School had taught him to love nature and made him feel free. This investigation was shoving science down kids’ throats. It was making them hate exploring. He wanted children to be free to explore their curiosity, not be constrained by the testable. He wrote about a student who wanted to search for animal tracks as his investigation. The naturalist had to tell the student, it wasn’t a statistically significant area, there was no independent variable, and the data would be worthless. The student measured leaves instead and told the naturalist science was boring.

Hold on. Where did naturalists get the idea students’ investigations had to be so limited and rigid? Maybe moving away from observation and towards measurement with tools led naturalists to focus too much on data. Maybe I had miscommunicated the intent of the activity during staff training. Maybe, for educators not used to BEETLES’ non-traditional approach, the activity just seemed too messy.
Looking for tracks is a perfectly valid exploratory investigation for a fifth-grader at Outdoor Science School. Of course, the students aren’t going to necessarily come up with consistent or conclusive data. That’s not the point. The point is for students to follow their own curiosity, grapple with questions they maybe can’t answer, look at nature closely, and realize science is more than Question-Hypothesis-Experiment-Data-Conclusion. Science is challenging and surprising and messy.

After discussing all this in the meeting, the staff came to a new understanding of the goals and value of the Exploratory Investigation activity. Freed of the need to get the students to generate statistically significant data, the naturalists no longer struggled in the same way. They let the messy into their investigations and they got the results they had been looking for all along. The tools were relegated to their proper place in the activity, as just that, tools, to be used when they could be useful, not as an end in themselves. The kids got close to the ground, they explored deeply and led their investigations wholeheartedly, and they made amazing discoveries (have you ever observed fluorescent lichen with a UV flashlight?). The naturalist who had read the essay changed his view on the activity. He quoted French painter Yves Klein one day, “my works are but the ashes of my art.” The data points the students came up with were but the ashes of their deep reflection on the nature of the ecosystem and their newfound boldness towards scientific discovery.

2 Responses to “Tales from the Field: Letting the Messy In”

BonnieApril 24th, 2017 at 7:03 pm

have had great success in this but you are really needing to get to the nitty gritty of the matter – what is the question – kids should spend more time on the making of a great question as even Einstein said give him an hour to solve a problem and he would spend 55 minutes coming up with a great question and 5 min to solve it –

have done many workshops on this with both adults and children down to Kindergarten level – send email where I can send a few things to and we can help each other out – this is in my practice – the easy part – he hard is getting kids to be eager to be in forest – city kids

Jedda ForemanApril 27th, 2017 at 8:05 pm

Hi, Bonnie,
Yes to the importance of identifying the question! We spend a lot of time in the activity having kids discuss their questions. Would love to hear more of your thoughts and see what you do with kids.

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