Science education can be improved by immersing learners in the process of using scientific knowledge to ‘do’ science at their club or school outdoor learning centre. Informal learning environments are ideal settings for learners to practice skills necessary for scientific inquiry. Traditionally, outdoor education has been equated with experiential education. Experiential learning may be defined s learning based on personal experience or direct observations. Experience and observation re key to the scientific inquiry process.
Experiential learning refers to a pedagogical philosophy and methodology concerned with learning activities outside the traditional classroom environment, with objectives which are planned and articulated prior to the experience. David A. Kolb believes ‘learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. The theory presents a cyclical model of learning consisting of four stages:
- Concrete experience (DO)
- Reflective observation (OBSERVE)
- Abstract conceptualization (THINK)
- Active experimentation (PLAN)
Kolb’s 4-stage learning cycle shows how experience is translated through reflection into concepts, which in turn are used as guides for active experimentation and the choice of new experiences. The first stage, concrete experience is where the learner actively experiences an activity such as a lab session or field work. The second stage, reflective observation is when the learner consciously reflects back on that experience. The third stage, abstract comprehension is where the learner attempts to conceptualise a theory or model of what is observed. The fourth stage, active experimentation is where the learner is trying to plan how to test a model or theory or plan for a forth coming experience. Kolb identified four learning styles which correspond to three stages. These stages are:
- Assimilation, who learn better when presented with sound logical theories to consider
- Converges, who learn better when provided with practical applications of concepts and theories
- Accommodates, who learn better when provided with ‘hands-on experience’
- Diverges, who learn better, when allowed to observe and collect a wide range of information.
Experiential learning – a 4-H Model
Experiential learning takes place when a learner is involved in an activity, looks back at it critically, determines what was useful or important to remember, and uses this information to perform another activity. 4-H uses this hand on learning approach to teach new topics and life skills. A five-step experiential learning model guides the process turning activities into fun learning experiences. 4-H combines two of the five steps into a three-step model of Do, Reflect and Apply.
Providing an experience alone does not create ‘experiential learning’. The activity comes from the thoughts and ideas created as a result of the experience. This is a ‘learning by doing’ or experiential process. Each step in the process needs to be followed to create a total learning experience.
Experience – Do
Create. This is the exploring part of the activity focusing on engaging the learner the creative process. The art of helper facilitates the exploration, guiding the learner through the activity steps. When the learner is encouraged to learn by doing before told or shown how, opportunities are presented for a wide variety of life skills to be practiced depending on the method used to engage the learner in the experience.
Share and Process – Reflect
Reflect. Using the reflection questions the youth describe what happened in each activity. It allows them to process their experiences and reflect upon what happened during the activity. This process becomes the beginning of critiquing their work. Critiquing is a skill which helps a learner to grow in developing techniques and skills. Critiquing builds a sense of appreciation and understanding for art. Learning to assess one’s work builds the life skills, which can be transferred to other learning situations.
Generalize and Apply
In this step the discussion becomes more personal. ‘So what’ is the question. What did the experience mean to me personally? The subject matter alone could remain the focus of discussion. Having learner generalize from their experience allows them to form principles or guidelines that can be used in real life situations. This is the beginning of relating the experience to life skills. Application can lead back to creating.
Types of Experiential Learning
Different types of experiential learning are:
- Co-operative learning
- Field experience
- Cross-cultural experience
Scientific Inquiry in action through Practicum
A practicum experience provides for the application of classroom theory in a real teaching context. It is intended to reinforce the use and the application of competencies learned throughout a student’s academic progression (e.g. Use of analytical skills, research processes, problem solving procedures, inter personal dynamics, etc.). Students have the opportunity for degree related work experience to promote insight about contemporary issues in their chosen field. Thus, a practicum can serve as a ‘job preview’ and assist the individual student in career development based on personal observation instead of relying solely on theoretical discussion and to develop abilities like original initiative in innovative methods, introducing new paradigms for professional activities, etc. Practicum experience is further expected to build students’ build professional competencies, practicing interview and interactive techniques and professional networks needed for professional improvement.
Practicum is to be organized as a unique individualized, supervised experience that explores comprehensive written assignments, on-the-job practice and innovative performance evaluation so as to measure how a student has applied their talents, efforts and other resources towards achieving better professional performance. In other words, it is to be conceived as a specialized essential experience designed to give students supervised practical application of the theoretical orientation to real instructional/allied situations where the supervisor will provide guidance to improve different aspects of practice and addressing varied student concerns in actual situations.
The following criteria can be kept in view in developing different components of the practicum:
- Problem oriented
- Inquiry supported
- Socially relevant
Relevance of practicum in the teacher training programme in the University of Kerala
Practicum forms a part of the B.Ed. curriculum, developed to encourage learner centered pedagogy among trainees. The topics for the study were included in the B.Ed. curriculum and the investigator thought it to convert it into a PBL strategy.
It was presented in an ill-structured way so that students are made ‘responsible to learn’. Students tackled the problem for solution in different ways. The teacher provided ‘guided facilitation’ for learning. Students themselves chose the problem and worked in very small groups or individually. Practicum implemented in our University helps to put scientific inquiry in action. This is made possible by us through the following steps:
- Determines what learners know or have observed
- What do learners want to know
- Learners form hypothesis which can be explored through scientific investigation
- Designs a simple scientific investigation
- Selects equipment to collect data
- Collects data
- Reports on their analysis of the findings and responds
- Through group discussion apply findings to everyday experience or real world examples
- Team re-designs question or ask a new question which can be explored through scientific investigation.
Learning to lead learner-centered, inquiry-based activities is as challenging for leaders as it is for learners. The first requirement is for leaders are to develop tolerance for a certain level of chaos. Initially, the inquiry model is also a challenge for learners who are more familiar with prescribed science activities that follow “cookbook experiments” to a known outcome.
With repeated application of the inquiry model–learning by doing–leaders and learners become familiar with the steps applied in science inquiry. Learners will soon take initiative and become engaged in designing their own learning experiences. Using the 4-H Inquiry in Action model, leaders can make any pre-scripted activity more engaging for youth learners.
National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.