Cultivating Inquiry in 7th and 8th Grade

“My aim for middle school students is to keep their spirits up so they still love science, even while we’re doing this remotely. I try my best not just to get them off the screen but to get them doing something that’s hands-on and makes science come alive for them,” said 7th and 8th grade science teacher Brenda Walter.
This fall that hands-on learning has involved everything from exploding eggs to Catoctin water samples. Like true scientists students have had to navigate their way through failed experiments, unexpected constraints, and dependence on one another to advance their inquiry. 

“I’m trying to teach my students in lots of different ways, some that work and some that don’t. All the while I tell them to just remember that they haven’t learned this way before and I haven’t either. We’re trying new things and if something doesn’t work out it's not necessarily because they made a mistake. We’re all in this together.”

7th Grade: Exploding Eggs 

Seventh graders have been learning about cells and while there are lots of exploratory videos to inform their understanding, they’ve taken a decidedly more tactile approach in a multi-step experiment involving a chicken egg. They’ve learned about cellular transport, chemical reactions, osmosis, and more by exposing the eggs to different substances and watching how they change form. Through observation, data collection, and sharing of findings the class is gaining understanding through collective experience. “We’re learning a lot of vocabulary but I am trying to make those words part of their working knowledge so that they're not just memorizing terms but actually applying them,” Brenda explains. 

Though she provided each of her students with a supply kit including all the materials they’d need for this experiment, there were still variables she couldn’t control outside of a classroom. Some eggs needed more vinegar. In one supply kit the corn syrup spilled. “I have to be okay with not being able to know exactly what is going to happen. I have to create layered plans so if an experiment doesn’t work in one student’s house we’re still going to share as a class and they can use other students’ data.”   

That flexible thinking helped her support students when their eggs popped before the experiment was over. “I told them that might happen, and they might pop and they will stink.” But working together as a class everyone is still able to see the experiment through. 

Seventh graders will apply all this learning next in the creation of cell models. Rope twizzlers will likely be a favored material among the many Brenda put in kits for this project. She likes to integrate art into scientific exploration. Partnering with middle school art teacher Brighid Willson during this study, students learned how to make scientific illustrations of cells they saw under the microscope. 

8th Grade: Water Samples 

Eighth-graders have also incorporated art into their scientific learning. Brighid joined Brenda’s class to give a presentation on nature journaling. Students started with drawing from pictures and then moved into drawing things they saw out the window or outside the home. 

These skills of observation came in handy for a multi-week unit on water. The idea for this unit was born of a professional development opportunity Brenda had this summer focused on project-based learning through PBLWorks. She and Director of Technology Sheldon Henry came up with a four-week study focused on water that would get students outside and thinking about the world around them. 

As part of the study, Brenda wanted students to be able to test water samples for alkalinity, pH, hardness, and some compounds, but she realized that not every student has access to a body of water near where they live. In troubleshooting this problem with colleagues she remembered that Catoctin isn’t that far from FCS and so she drove up there to gather water from the lake, providing a sample for each 8th grade student in their supply box. 

Students’ final product for this project was a photo essay composed of research they did into various bodies of water. Through virtual and some individual in-person field trips, students explored local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay learning about what pollutants are, what invasive species are found in our area, and much more. 

There was a lot of trial and error involved in the project but Brenda was inspired by the fact her students felt comfortable reaching out to her and saying, “I don’t get where this is going” when they were confused. “I’m really proud of our students because they are strong self advocates.” 

Right now she’s asking them to collect cardboard for the next unit. They’ll be exploring Newton’s laws through design challenges and the creation of paper and cardboard roller coasters. 

While teaching science online has its challenges, much like teaching in person Brenda finds that FCS 7th and 8th graders come to her with great curiosity and readiness to explore new ideas. She attributes that to the strong foundations her students build with Gerry at the elementary level and Bryan in grades 5-6. “They have to lay a lot of groundwork for me to be able to start 7th and 8th grade like this.” 

Over the next two weeks we’ll share stories from Bryan and Gerry’s classrooms, offering us all a glimpse into the inquiry underway at FCS.
Located in College Park, MD, Friends Community School is a progressive Quaker K-8 day school, founded on the belief that every child is a valued member of our community. We offer a challenging curriculum imbued with strong values of equality, integrity, community, environmental stewardship, simplicity and peaceful conflict resolution, rooted in our Quaker heritage.
Friends Community School
5901 Westchester Park Drive
College Park, Maryland 20740