Why Parents Should Care About Inquiry-Based Learning for STEM

Inquiry-based learning is a very important approach we take at Create & Learn to help kids develop problem solving and critical thinking skills. Many parents are not familiar with the concept. So we ask Kathleen Tarlow, an experienced science teacher and a Stanford graduate to share her views.

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A recent study suggests that most parents are dissatisfied with STEM education in their children’s schools; only a quarter of American parents polled thought K-12 STEM education was above average. As an experienced science teacher and mother of three young kids, this kind of news disappoints me, because science education and the exploration of technology is a natural fit for kids’ intuitive interests.

In education, we try to use an inquiry-based learning approach as much as possible to engage kids’ curiosity. In this approach, kids follow a pattern of inquiry, experimentation, and insight/reflection. Kids are naturally curious, and they can be easily guided into this pattern. Remember when they were really little, and repeatedly dropped things from their high chair onto the floor? They were repeatedly testing gravity! Remember when they looked at you, to see how many times you would pick that object off the floor for them? Those were some of the first (of many) psychological experiments they conducted on you. Kids want to ask about the world around them, and often all they need is a bit of encouragement and guidance to follow up their natural questions.

Learning about inquiry-based approaches can help you guide your kids on explorations involving everyday science and technology without specialized materials or expertise. When you are familiar with how the cycle of inquiry works, you can find high quality summer activities and after school STEM classes, discuss it with teachers, and evaluate the many STEM kits on the market.

Inquiry

Inquiry is about questioning, which most kids are great at. Use your child’s interests, or a topic they studied at school, or a topic that interests you to get them started. My daughter recently had an assignment to research Uranus. We got books from the library, and when she looked at different sources of information, she began asking questions, and I tried to encourage her. How do we know what Uranus looks like? What kind of technology was required to take the pictures we see in the books? Why are there different distances from the sun listed? What does a gaseous planet feel like?

Treat your child’s questions as doors that open an interesting quest for you both. Asking questions means they are thinking, and it’s a good test of whether real learning is occurring. There are many “STEM” kits and activities out there that involve lots of doing but not too much real inquiry.

Investigation

The word “experiment” scares some people. When my daughter was doing her report on Uranus, we weren’t going to go do any direct measurements, (although there are probably some astronomers out there who’d be able to think one up.) What may be more helpful at the next step is “investigation”. What clues can you find or devise to help answer your question? When my daughter found different numbers for Uranus’s distance from the sun, we looked in several books; different books cited different figures, and some an average. We went to the internet to see what we could find. NASA maintains an amazing website with resources geared to adults and kids, and we were able to watch Uranus’s distance from the sun changing in real time! Every step we took uncovered new and interesting information.

Insight

This last step is where kids need the most guidance. When my daughter and I watched as Uranus’ distance from the sun changed in real time, it wasn’t immediately apparent to her why this should be so. This took some looking at diagrams of planets’ orbits, and talking about what an elliptical orbit means. Not all insights are intuitive, but you can guide your child to reflect on how her thoughts are changing based on her investigation. Prompt them to ask what new questions this insight has generated for them. Do all planets have orbits that are equally elliptical? Why are they elliptical? Does the average temperature of the planet increase when it is closer to the sun? Remember that not every question has to be answered. If your child has engaged in real inquiry-based learning, he should be able to tell you some way in which his thinking changed from before.

This is a very informal way to think about inquiry-based learning (you can read more about it here), but it’s a start to evaluating STEM activities. Science and technology require open-ended, creative thinking, so the way your kids learn about these fields should be, too.

By Kathleen Tarlow

Science teacher
Stanford B.S. Biological Sciences, MA Education
Love science and kids
Have three children

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