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Flint’s Student Investigators

The Flint water crisis has generated conversations about the marginalization of low-income Americans at the hands of far-removed government officials. The flip side of this discourse is the opportunity to strengthen citizen scientists to investigate and advocate on issues of environmental degradation in their own communities.

At CPS North Grand High School, Mindy Chappell is exploring how lessons on the Flint water crisis foster student learning via autonomously generating research questions and hypotheses and collecting, analyzing and explaining data. As a Master Teaching Fellow with the UIC College of Education’s Project SEEEC (Science Education for Excellence and Equity in Chicago), she is engaged in a teacher inquiry project examining the practices that support her culturally relevant, cooperative, inquiry-based content-rich science class.

“You have all these buzzwords out there, but you need a method for how to do that in a classroom when you have to keep in mind curriculum and standards,” Chappell (below) said. “I’m pushing for higher-order thinking questions, not rote memorization. My students know that I want them to be able to think critically about a phenomenon and seek relevant explanations on their own."

Before the Flint situation unfolded, Chappell’s students completed a case study which investigated differences between tap water and bottled water as part of their ecology unit. The original lesson called for students to classify a man-made abiotic factor (water bottles, cars, houses, paper, etc.) and create a research presentation on its environmental impact. The Flint crisis represented an opportunity for a real-world inquiry-based research on an issue that was relatively close to home for Chappell’s students.

After researching and discussing the Flint problem, students formulated their own research questions involving water. Some students focused on lead, but Chappell stressed students’ autonomy in generating their research questions was a key tactic in fostering critical thinking skills. Each project needed to connect back to the Flint crisis in some manner.

Students explored whether boiling water reduced or eliminated lead content, since boil orders are issued when communities face a water pollution problem. Other groups examined how an efficient water filter could be constructed. Another explored whether chemical inputs could remove lead content.

Evaluation of the projects targeted students’ ability to use claims and supporting evidence to explain what happened in their experiment. They also needed to provide a warrant, an explanation of why their supporting evidence is valid and how it supports their claim. Students needed to determine how limitations and unaccounted factors might have affected the validity and reliability of their data and influence the explanation of their results.

“It’s critical not to stop at the surface level such as, ‘My hypothesis is valid because the data shows it is,’” Chappell said. “If my students are going to be able to compete with students from other areas in citywide science fairs, they need to be able to explicitly explain how evidence led to their conclusion, any limitations to their research or experimental setup, any possible experimental errors, and be prepared to answer questions about alternative explanations of their data.”

Chappell says inquiry-based design methods strengthen student learning of scientific practices from asking questions and determining a purpose to collecting data to constructing explanations and the meanings of observations. She says students sometimes default to the expert in the room—the teacher—to hash out the tough answers on the whys and hows, but she avoids providing these to her students.

This science classroom on Chicago’s west side includes diverse learners, English language learners and students with individualized education plans. Chappell says this inquiry-based approach requires some modifications and accommodations, but teachers need to present diverse learners with the same opportunity to explore their own questions.

In investigating the Flint crisis, for example, she prepared three modified versions of the lesson, but only one group needed a modified version. All students began the inquiry investigation design phase similarly with Chappell providing scaffolds, modifications and accommodations only as needed. She says this strategy removes limitations on student questioning and does not stifle creativity with experimental design.

“Some people say, ‘These students can’t,’ but I want them to know they can,” Chappell said. “Will it be challenging? Yes. Will you want to quit? Yes. However, that’s where I come in. We all face challenges, but when you are done the beauty in all the hard work you put in overcoming will be so amazing, it will make those challenging experiences worth it."