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EI and "Interactive Research"
EI emphasizes the interactive nature of research because a common misconception among students is that scientists are social loners who work in isolation with little connection to each other or society. Through the interactive research level of EI, students experience some of the ways in which professional scientists work together to discuss ideas, share findings, and collaborate on joint projects. In the process, they experience the following aspects of scientific inquiry and expand their understanding of the nature of science.

Scientists build on each other's work.
One of the elements of science that is difficult to replicate in high school classrooms is the idea that scientific investigation is a cumulative process, with each scientist learning from the work of both preceding and contemporary researchers. Before embarking on a new research endeavor, scientists typically begin by talking with colleagues, attending conferences, and reading related publications to learn what has already been accomplished and what questions remain unanswered.

EI aims to provide analogous opportunities for high school students to base their research questions on what has already been learned in the field. When time constraints make it impossible to carry out a series of experiments, students still can experience the cumulative and interactive aspects of research without having to carry out every step of the process themselves.

For example, if you save student research reports from one year to the next, students can design their experiments based on results and recommendations made by previous student researchers, then conclude by making their own recommendations to next year's students. Students who are planning bioassay experiments can start by reading online research reports posted by students who have gone through EI's web-based peer review process.

Rather than each class starting their research from square one, students model professional scientific practice by starting with an analysis of what has already been accomplished in the field. In carrying out these steps, students not only improve their understandings of their own research, they also gain a broader understanding of the ways in which scientists work both individually and collaboratively.

Research commonly begins with informal explorations.
Contrary to popular belief, scientists do not routinely launch into research by stating and then testing a hypothesis. In many cases, they start with a period of exploration, observation, and discovery that gradually leads to ideas about fruitful areas of investigation. If you can fit exploratory research into your class schedule, it will provide a chance for students to apply curiosity, imagination, and creativity to science rather than having to follow a predetermined set of rules. This period of trial and error also will help students to discover for themselves some of the basic principles of experimental design, such as the need for replicates and controls.

Based on considerations of curriculum, scheduling, and student ability levels, interactive research may consist of a single investigation or a series of iterations. Ideally, students carry out preliminary investigations, and then use the results of these explorations to reassess their focus and experimental design. They might decide to carry out additional exploratory level investigations or to use what they have learned to design a more rigorous experiment with clearly defined hypothesis, dependent and independent variables, and replicates for each treatment.

Peer review is integral to science.
Professional scientists rely on peer review to separate fact from falsehood and good science from bad in the continuous search for new understandings about how the world works. Peer review also plays a key role in determining which research endeavors receive funding, which conference papers get accepted, and which articles get published in the most prestigious journals. Finally, peer review helps scientists to focus their thinking and improve their writing as they respond to comments from professional colleagues.

In schools, peer review of student research reports can provide similar opportunities for students to think critically as they question their own and each other's experimental designs, assumptions, results, interpretations, and conclusions. Peer review is an integral component of interactive research. After students have planned an experiment, they will benefit from meeting in pairs or small groups to discuss their ideas and exchange written feedback. A more formal type of peer review comes after students have completed their experiments. At this point, peer review provides a forum for critical evaluation of research results and helps students to improve the quality of their reports or poster presentations.


Copyright 2009 Environmental Inquiry, Cornell University and Penn State University
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