Scaffolding the Development of an Inquiry-Based (Science) Classroom

Jennifer Holbrook & Janet L. Kolodner

College of Computing

Georgia Institute of Technology

Atlanta, GA 30332

{holbrook, jlk}

Learning By Design is an NSF-funded project to promote the development of inquiry-based science classrooms in contemporary school settings. Science learning is achieved through addressing a major design challenge (such as building a self-powered car that can go a certain distance over a certain terrain) (Kolodner et al, 1998). To address a challenge, class members develop designs, build prototypes, gather performance data and use other resources to provide justification for refining their designs, and iteratively investigate, redesign, test, and analyze the results of their ideas. They articulate their understanding of science concepts, first in terms of the concrete artifact which they have designed, then in transfer to similar artifacts or situations, and finally to abstract principles of science. The design project provides them a reason to ask questions, provides reason and focus for their investigations, and provides a context for applying what they are learning and analyzing how well they’ve learned it. To make all this work, the project has developed curriculum materials and a system of classroom rituals. As well, it provides professional development for participating teachers. LBD units are written for middle-school science classes, to be used for a substantial part of the school and include lessons in physical science (Newton’s laws of motion, simple machines, and work & energy) and earth science (rock formation & properties, erosion).

Our formative evaluations show that in the best LBD classes, students indeed learn the designated science as well as or better than their peers in traditional. Of more interest is that they also learn science process skills, collaboration, communication, and planning skills far exceeding those of their peers. We have also discovered several interesting problems: (i) Teachers find it difficult to help students learn science concepts at the same time they are being introduced to the processes involved in designing, doing science, communicating, collaborating, and so forth. Teachers prefer that students have some minimal expertise with these complex processes before using them to learn science content. (ii) Students are not used to the kinds of collaboration, communication, and learner-centered skills that we want them to use in the classroom; they need time to get comfortable with being active learners. (iii) Teachers who are used to the traditional way of teaching need time to ease into facilitating LBD activities.

Based on advice from several of our pioneering teachers, we’ve developed a "launcher" unit called Apollo 13 to achieve solutions to all three of these problems. The three-week unit is designed to create a culture of collaboration and inquiry and to introduce science process and LBD rituals, providing a way of easing into this new way of doing things and providing, as well, a shared set of anchoring experiences that can be referred back to repeatedly during the year as students actively engage in science activities. We present an overview of the LBD classroom, the rationale for our "launcher" unit, and the unit we’ve designed. We suspect that this approach will prove useful not only for LBD but for introducing the wide range of problem-based and project-based curricula that are currently under development.

Elements of the Learning By Design Classroom

Teacher and Student Roles: In LBD classrooms, students work on a design challenge in small groups, which share their knowledge with the rest of the class collaboratively. Groups rather than teachers develop expertise and disseminate their knowledge to classmates. For example, the class actively develops guidelines for experimentation, including class-universal procedures, measurements, and so on. The teacher’s role is less about setting and enforcing specific tasks and more about moderating discussions in which all class members set up the tasks. A teacher sets up time and resource guidelines, which may be modified with justification. The teacher’s expertise in science methodology and science content is used as one of many resources, as is the textbook. While students must learn terminology, formulae, and methods, they do so in service of and during practice with their design goals, not simply as fodder for exams.

Classroom Culture: LBD assumes a different class culture from that assumed by traditional science curricula. A culture is a body of customary beliefs, mutual goals, rituals, social forms, language and artifacts that unify and provide distinction for a group. LBD works best when (i) the culture values collaboration in learning and sharing knowledge; (ii) projects go through multiple iterations, supporting and valuing the articulation of lack of knowledge, misconceptions, and failures; (iii) a teacher’s leadership involves scaffolding inquiry rather than automatically providing information, (iv) the culture values members’ diverse talents, perspectives, and knowledge as assets to collaboration and learning, (v) students are encouraged to make, specify, and justify their decisions, and (vi) the teacher is confident about allowing the students to set out on their own paths. The classroom culture is so important to this mode of teaching that a main goal of the LBD project is to educate teachers in how to engender this culture in the classroom.

Rituals that support inquiry-based learning: LBD’s system of activities is designed to support a cycle of designing and testing solutions to the challenge presented in the curriculum. These rituals include messing about with challenge materials and/or artifacts. Messing about helps students recognize and articulate what they already know about the challenge and helps them generate relevant questions and initial solutions. Whiteboarding (Barrows, 1986) is used with the whole class to develop issues for investigation and to keep track of what is learned throughout the challenge. Groups get feedback on their initial ideas from the teacher and other class members at pinup sessions. The groups iteratively build and test their designs, gathering data on the performance of each prototype and using the data to revise their designs. Gallery walks with in-progress designs and finished products allow groups to offer one another constructive feedback, to share expertise, and to garner inspiration. The class also develops better understanding of the underlying science through reasoning from cases (the current class designs and existing designs in the world) and through developing rules of thumb as a class.

Specific Classroom Needs

Observations during our early implementations and teachers’ comment, helped us identify a set of related problems that seemed to impede smooth progress:

  1. Groups too often did not work well together.
  2. An artifact might be successfully completed by a group without the individuals all understanding the rationale for its design, the method of its construction, or how it embodied the science.
  3. Students needed a great deal of help with the scientific method and with understanding the advantages and disadvantages of models. Yet teachers were not experienced at developing these skills "on-line".
  4. Students ignored or didn’t understand what it meant to meet a challenge.
  5. Competition between groups kept the students from acknowledging design flaws and from discussing and discovering the design constraints provided by the real world (not incidentally, these constraints are typically the scientific laws that they are to be discovering through the task!).
  6. Teachers had difficulty changing their view of projects as capstones to projects as motivators for learning. Teachers would thus spend days of "preparation" before each part of a unit "helping students learn enough" before getting to the challenge. As a result, there was seldom enough time for iteration and to work through a complete design. The design challenge wasn’t being used as a generator of questions, and the focus on science as inquiry was being lost as well. Furthermore, there was no rationale for class discussions, because the answers to the big issues had already been handed out with earlier readings or in lecture notes.
  7. In some classes, design activities turned into arts and crafts.

In fact, our formative assessment showed us that it takes the typical teacher two to three years to gain expertise in managing an inquiry classroom well. What could we do to help teachers manage an LBD classroom better right from the beginning? How could we make sure that teachers had adequate support and scaffolding as they learned to become effective LBD facilitators? In sum, we needed to find ways to help teachers help students (i) build a collaborative learning community (ii) value each others’ ideas (iii) develop habits of thinking and communicating about science that relied on using data to justify their decisions and conclusions and (iv) focus on uncovering the science that underlies the constraints of their design challenge.

Although these issues did not at first glance seem like a cohesive set, many of these are the issues that are talked about in the first chapter of most textbooks. It is in the first chapter that such questions as "what is science?" and section headings such as "the practice of science" appear. Some of the teachers we were working with suggested that we develop an introductory "launcher" unit that would help create the classroom culture and introduce students and teachers to the rituals and practices of an LBD classroom. Apollo 13 came from those discussions.

Goals of the Launcher Unit

Introducing design: The unit has a series of short design challenges, each of which allows students to complete and present satisfactory solutions in a few class periods. These are followed by a single longer challenge (a week in length) that incorporates the skills introduced in the shorter challenges, helps the students and teacher learn to sustain the design cycle for a longer period, and embeds design and inquiry skills in the scientific discipline being studied.

Introducing the rituals of LBD: One of the important ways to help both students and teachers maintain their focus on the goal of a design challenge is to incorporate methods for checking progress and impelling the project forward. In LBD, the class uses whiteboards to dissect a challenge, engages in pinup sessions (creating and presenting posters of ideas of how to attack the challenge), has messing about sessions (in which students work with materials to explore aspects of the challenge), conducts gallery walks (presentations of in-progress artifacts and hypotheses about their success in meeting the challenge), and so on. These rituals are introduced within the context of short design challenges, so that students understand their purpose and the expectations associated with each. As the students become comfortable with these rituals, they form a framework for the longer design cycles of the later units.

Showing the connection between science and design: To establish the connection between science and design, students need to see how building and testing their design is related to the scientific method. Middle school science classrooms usually serve as the introduction to how to frame hypotheses, how to test them, the importance of measurement, and the concepts of variables and control. Apollo 13’s design challenges create the structure in which this vocabulary is introduced and in which these skills are first used. Design challenge statements include clear, measurable goals; additionally, they are set up so that comparisons between group solutions inevitably require the class to measure carefully. Moreover, students must agree on appropriate methods of measurement, of test control, and even of the variables to be measured. The habit of scientific method is established through the need to meet the design challenge.

As students work toward meeting a design challenge, they encounter obstacles that are part of the real world. For example, in building, the flexibility of the materials they are using may impede their ability to provide a solid platform; on the other hand, too-rigid materials may be unable to handle jarring or sheer forces. As students work to maximize the performance of their materials, they have to learn about their limitations. Through this, the teacher can introduce scientific concepts. The launcher unit provides several such experiences, so that students begin to look for the science underlying the constraints of design challenges they are trying to achieve.

Learning the Processes Before the Facts: The primary focus of each activity is in the launcher unit is on learning processes that support both design and science activities.

Creating a collaborative and scientific culture: The sum total of what students need to do in addressing the launcher unit’s design challenges requires them to engage in practices of collaborative science and engineering. Better solutions come from building on ideas of others and from comparing and contrasting different design ideas to decide which has the most potential. Deeper understanding comes through sharing ideas with others and having others help explain or share their experiences. The only way to share ideas and build on what others have done is to have standards that are measurable and procedures that can be repeated. We ask teachers to help students recognize these principles as they are enacted. Additionally, we use movies and documentaries to model the attitudes we seek to engender.

Providing time for teachers to develop: Teachers learn about LBD in a three-week summer workshop where they get experience with LBD both as students and as teachers (teaching students in a science summer program). However, in many ways the summer workshop is not an authentic teaching experience, and teachers find it more difficult to develop the inquiry-based culture in the world of daily classes and school district expectations. The launcher unit helps teachers focus on facilitating a small set of skills and rituals at a time.

The Apollo 13 Unit

The unit begins with viewing of the movie, Apollo 13. Students see scientists and engineers engaged in informed decision making, collaboration, inquiry, computation, clear communication, design, simulation, and so on. They hear scientific terms being used, and they see the complexities of devices and organizations and the need for clear terminology and collaboration skills. The movie engages students and provides memorable examples of design processes and collaborative culture for the class to refer back to throughout their LBD work.

Students then begin to engage in a series of design activities. The first, the Book Support Challenge, introduces them to collaboration, building on each other’s ideas, design within constraints, design iteration, and the discovery of design criteria. Students are divided into groups and given 10-15 minutes to build a bookstand out of 3" X 5" index cards, paper clips, and rubber bands, which will support an open textbook well enough that pages can be turned. Whether or not all groups have been successful at the end of this time period (usually they have), the teacher leads the students through a simple gallery walk, in which each group quickly describes their bookstand design, shows how it works, answers questions about their design, and solicits suggestions for its improvement. The groups work a second time on the same challenge and show the differences in their revised design to the class. The groups are then given an additional challenge: they are to build the best quality bookstand for the least amount of money (prices are fixed for each index card, paperclip, and rubber band). As groups observe one another’s work, teachers introduce them to the types of collaboration that occur in science and design environments and encourage them to cite each other’s work or comments as sources of inspiration. As well, the class engages in the activities and language of iterative design.

Next, they design a procedure for determining how many drops of icing to put on a new kind of sandwich cookie. Here they encounter the importance of anticipating what variables need to be controlled, running pilot experiments, controlling variables, doing procedures consistently, and what it takes to be able to trust some other scientist’s results. They continue with activities that focus on comparing and contrasting different designs ideas, choosing which ideas best address a challenge, using real-world cases to help understand a design challenge better, developing rules of thumb that help them to characterize better designs and procedures, and carefully gathering data and keeping good records to facilitate justification of design changes. Along the way, each activity incorporates some of the LBD rituals and builds on the lessons learned from earlier activities, in particular promoting group cooperation and class collaboration.

They finish with a more complex design activity that lasts a week. One such challenge is to design parachutes out of coffee filters and string. The class first generates a set of variables that may contribute to parachute performance. Each group then tests one of these variables while holding others constant. The groups report their results to the class, and the information that has been derived is then used by each group to develop their best parachute (the one that can fall most slowly). A series of gallery walks are held as groups iterate toward their best designs, and a performance-based comparison is held at the end. This activity is full of opportunities to introduce physical science concepts, such as mass vs. weight, gravity, and forces. However, the focus of the activity is on developing experiments that test one variable at a time, controlling variables, testing a variable at several different levels, incorporating the results of several simple experiments into a design plan, and justifying design decisions based on many data sources.

Throughout, doing is interspersed with reflection on the activities and what can be learned from them. Students have the opportunity to begin to learn skills in one challenge and then to apply them again in another challenge. Following the unit’s activities, students summarize what they’ve experienced and learned, anticipate when it might be useful, and then close with viewing of a Nightline sequence that shows designers at work within a context very similar to that developed already in the classroom.


In most of our classes, by the end of the launcher unit, students are quite skilled at design talk (iteration, constraints, criteria), have learned to respect each other’s ideas, and look forward to learning from each other. As well, they can talk about experimental procedure and recognize when variables have not been controlled or procedures not followed well. Launcher unit activities place their focus on developing the processes and culture of science and design, and introducing rituals that support these processes. They provide a shared set of anchors (CTGV, 1993) for later discussion and reference. Students will engage more expertly in each of the rituals and processes introduced in Apollo 13 over the course of the next LBD units. Following the launcher unit, students share a common language, rituals, and processes, so that the focus of subsequent challenges can be on science content and on refining and skills.

While it is also possible to introduce classroom values and science and design processes in the context of learning science content, our teachers warned us against that. They tried, and it was too difficult (Gertzman & Kolodner, 1996; Hmelo et al, 2000). They asked us to give them a way of introducing those values and processes in a way that would allow them to refer back later as students were using the processes to learn content. Research shows that learning skills without context results in limited or no transfer of skills (Bransford et al, ???), and that, indeed, one needs to learn skills in the context of authentic use. It might seem that we violate that principle. We would argue otherwise. By introducing these skills early in a nearly authentic context of use, early experiences can become anchors for further development of skills in additional and more varied contexts. It remains to be seen whether this is indeed the case.

Our next steps include investigations necessary to ascertain whether our hypothesis is indeed valid. So far, we see that the launcher unit instills a culture that we like into the classroom, that it promotes design and decision-making talk, and that it makes later units manageable. To understand the launcher unit’s effects beyond that, we are looking for evidence of student remindings of what they did in this unit, their applications of what they are reminded of, and teacher use of experiences during the launcher unit to remind students of skills they might build on. We are also moving forward to focus the unit so that it takes only 3 weeks and to provide enough different variations on its activities so that some version of the unit could be used each year to set the stage for upcoming Learning by Design activities.


This research has been supported in part by the National Science Foundation (ESI-9553583), the McDonnell Foundation, the BellSouth Foundation, and the EduTech Institute (with funding from the Woodruff Foundation). The views expressed are those of the authors.


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