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It’s a Phenomenon! Inquiry-based learning in science classes

Students experiment with crickets, roller coasters, and circuits

Science class at Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School begins with a question: Why do some things stop while others keep going? 

All around the room are objects of every shape and size - mouse traps, slinkies, stress balls and hair barrettes. Focused eighth graders consider the question, write down their initial ideas and get to work: experimenting with the objects to gauge how they move and what kind of energy they might have. As they observe characteristics, they refine their ideas and consider other possibilities with their classmates. 

“I challenge my students to find answers through experimentation,” explained Kim Chrystal, 7th-grade science teacher at Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle. “ItStudents in a lab reiterates that they are in charge of their learning, and we’re seeing a lot of aha moments as a result. It’s a fun, fulfilling way to learn.” 

The hands-on approach is part of City Schools’ phenomena-based science curriculum. Instead of beginning lessons with information from a textbook, students start by making observations and asking questions, followed by working their way to finding answers through experimentation. In Ms. Chrystal’s class, the recent unit explored elastic energy, kinetic energy, and inertia - all through hands-on experiences. 

Up next in the unit is gravitational energy, where students will be building a marble roller coaster! “They can’t wait to begin, and learn about energy and friction,” said Ms. Chrystal. “And they always bring in questions from things they see in the real world, such as the World Cup, science fiction, and real roller coasters they’ve ridden. It’s a lot of fun.” 

Curricula aligned to the Next GenerationStudents pose with marble roller coaster Science Standards was released in 2017. Revisions to the City Schools’ science curriculum began in 2019 to, as Science Director Joshua Gabrielse puts it, “start with students asking questions about phenomena so that figuring out answers drives their learning like professional scientists and engineers.”

“We want to challenge our students to figure out real, observable events. And in the process, students are building skills including evidence-based reasoning and writing, perseverance and collaboration,” said Gabrielse.

The approach aligns with the district’s Triple R - Reconnect, Restore, Reimagine plan. As another example, Thomas Jefferson Elementary students are building mini circuits to understand electricity. Check it out here. And in high schools across the district, students are figuring out the answer to a seemingly-silly but content-rich question: should crickets be served for lunch in school cafeterias? They’re experimenting in the science lab by examining (and for the daring, tasting!) crickets to discover how we get energy from food, the biology of digestion, and the impact of enzymes and proteins.

Kia Boose, City Schools Secondary Science Specialist, perfectly summed up the impact: “This kind of experiential learning reminds students that we don’t learn in a silo - we’re in this together and are responsible for our knowledge.” 

To learn more about the City Schools’ phenomena-driven science curriculum, click here

Check out these recent Progress Report stories for more on the great science-based learning happening in classrooms: