Open-inquiry projects, where students determine their investigable question independent of the instructor, are driven by learner curiosity which increases dedication to the project and students’ ability to make sense of their data. In the University of Calgary’s Biogeoscience Institute (BGI) inquiry programs, we note that without specific guidance, students generate questions that are too broad to be testable. Beginners struggle at developing focused, testable questions. Decades of observing students have provided two valuable insights: the investigation site needs to stimulate curiosity; and learners require specific preparation and practice in refining their questions.
A case study involving students from an Advanced Placement chemistry course, provides an unusual example for ecological field studies, which can be adapted for traditional field sciences in a multitude of settings. In the program, students attend a series of field trips sequenced over two years. The initial field trip is a broad tour of industries, dams, railway crossings, highways and natural habitats. It is designed to stimulate curiosity and expose students to the questions an environmental chemist addresses, as well as field research tools and methods. Students report that this was critical for creating links between their classroom chemistry (i.e. material cycling) and real world applications of chemistry, such as measuring air emissions, soil testing, etc. Providing students with time and practice in novel and interesting environments to pose multiple questions is a critical step in helping them refine research questions. Students then meet with field research scientists who provide exemplars of research and discuss study design, dealing with failure, and sample size. Over two years, students return to their field sites numerous times to gather more field data and work through their independent questions.
In comparing the questions of students attending shorter field trips to those in the sequenced field trip program, we see more student understanding and application of the nature of science from question and hypothesis development to study design, data interpretation and insights into further avenues of exploration. We note that students more frequently amend their questions, hypothesis and methods throughout the process, rather than attaching to one idea and ‘forcing it’. The case study also provides anecdotal evidence of the possible social and unintended benefits of multiple field experiences, such as: increased student collaboration, more student inventiveness and risk taking, an increased ability to deal with unexpected results, and experience with the practical application of the peer review process.