Playing the “I wonder” game: Object oriented inquiry

by Stephanie Chasteen on January 5, 2011

I have been feeling very frustrated lately with my seeming inability to make any sort of connection between the exciting, hands-on, inquiry and exploration style of education that I learned at the Exploratorium, and reforms in college education.  I’m learning interesting things about how people learn, cognitive science, the importance of motivation and real-world examples, and how getting students to think about a concept before you present it prepares them to learn from lecture.

But none of these include the ingredients of what inspired me so deeply at the Exploratorium — using phenomena to teach science.  Giving people a chance to fiddle around with something interesting and intriguing.  Asking questions and answering them through exploration.

Part of the problem is that the opportunity to do hands-on inquiry in a college setting is relegated to the lab setting.  Of course, Frank Oppenheimer created the Exploratorium activities in the college labs at the University of Colorado, where I am now.   But from what I understand, without his persistence and vision, those lab activities have all but disappeared from our university.  I feel a bit ill that I’ve not even attempted to work to create more of a focus on such experiences while being here at the university.  Perhaps my time will come.

But I was particularly excited by one presentation at the Colorado Science Conference a few weeks ago, because it let me see how one might inject a bit of the phenomenological approach into a large lecture course.   Presented by Robert Payo (of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) and a co-leader, he presented how to use “object-oriented inquiry” in a classroom setting.  Apparently object-oriented inquiry is a buzzword in the museum world — meaning exploration using some physical object — but it’s a new one to me in the education realm.

Here’s the idea.  Here’s an object (or in this case, the picture of an object).  Look at it and ask as many “I wonder” questions as you can.

Or, here’s another type of “mysterious” object.

Some example “I wonder” questions could be:

  1. I wonder if it’s manmade?
  2. I wonder what size it really is?
  3. I wonder what it feels like?
  4. I wonder what it’s used for?

We would want to choose objects that can extend peoples’ curiosity.  If we look at a chair, there’s not really anywhere to go with that.  We see it, we know it.  So we want to choose objects that prompt people to really look and examine.  People are really tied to objects — they help us remember things, they’re cultural artifacts, and we like the tactile sensations.

We want to help students to become critical observers.  To look at an object, with purpose, rather than flitting attention from thing to thing.

If we use a digital object, we can direct students’ attention to one aspect of the thing, and maintain more mystery.  With a physical object, however, students can explore more fully.  Thus, the choice of digital versus physical can be done thoughtfully, depending on what you want to accomplish.

These “I wonder” statements can be the beginning of testable questions.  You can help students turn these questions into things they can answer.  “Why is there air,” for example, is not a testable question.  But if you break the question into smaller pieces (“What happens to a plant if there is no air?”) they can start to answer the bigger questions.  So, those “Why” questions are starting points to generate curiosity, but they need to be turned into “what” or “how” questions.  What questions could they answer if they had the right tools?

This would be a great bell-ringer — a way to start a lesson, and keep coming back to that touchstone observation or idea throughout the lesson.  It can be a way to turn a prescriptive lesson or lab on its’ side and have them generate the questions.  It gives a context and a reason to do the lab, to make it more meaningful and relevant.

So, this isn’t an answer to my “how do I inject the Exploratorium into college,” but it is a start.

Photos from the Exploratorium (Shannon Laskey), beautyredefined on Flickr, and alice-palace on Flickr.

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