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Teach High School Science

Keeping Scientific Inquiry Alive (The Roly Poly Lab Investigation)
Judy Jones

Across the country the emphasis on standardized testing has continued to grow and North Carolina is certainly no exception. We have to give end-of-course (EOC) tests in biology, chemistry, physical science, and physics, and have given these tests for the last several years. This year our district decided that students have to be proficient on these tests in order to get credit for the course. Next year the state will put the same requirement in place for five of the subject tests across the curriculum (including the biology test). As teachers, we feel compelled to prepare our students for answering these 80+ multiple choice questions and yet, we also know that good science teaching encourages students to observe, to investigate, and to explore ideas, behaviors that are not addressed on the EOC tests. It has been a dilemma to figure out how to prepare our students for these tests and still nurture scientific investigation.

One investigation, the Isopod Behavior Lab, that I use at the beginning of the year introduces my students to the processes of science while still addressing the North Carolina curriculum I use this lab to teach the characteristics of the “scientific method” and also to build interest and excitement about science. The lab also teaches students about arthropods and about stimulus/response behaviors. All of these concepts are in our state curriculum. The lab is based upon an old idea that can be found in many biology lab books. Students take some little gray roly poly isopods – the kind that can roll up into a ball when disturbed – and the students test their responses to various stimuli (water, sugar, vinegar, and salt). The little isopods are easy to find (or to raise). I can put a few slices of potato around the edge of my house and in the morning will find many of these little critters munching on the potato. You can take a very large plastic container with a lid, punch holes in the side and put screening over the holes; add some moist soil and a few of these isopods and then just keep feeding them old vegetation and you will have an ongoing colony to use every year.

After the students follow the very precise instructions of the original lab, they then get the opportunity to design their own experiment to test some other variables. We brainstorm as a class possible variables to test. Then my students actually design and carry out their own experiments. I find, however, that doing the original guided lab helps the students design much better experiments.

Finally, my students write up a formal lab report based on the part of the investigation that they have designed. I provide very precise instructions for these write-ups in order to help my students begin to understand the “language” of science. These first lab reports also help me see what some of their strengths and weaknesses are. Throughout the year, I plan various labs that encourage more open-ended investigation and require my students to do formal lab write-ups, thereby building their scientific thinking skills and their writing skills.

The basic concept behind the development of this investigation could be used for many labs that teachers incorporate into their classes. By having the students complete the original “recipe” lab first, they learn some of the procedures and techniques of scientific investigation. When the students then plan their own investigation, they can use the model of their previous experience.

To the Isopod Behavior Lab.

Please share your ideas with me via e-mail.


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