New & Now: Critical Inquiry

by Charles E. Reineke

Some of the nation's most important institutions for the advancement of science, the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences among them, have long argued that U.S. schools and colleges are doing a poor job of helping Americans understand the complexities of contemporary science and technology.

Back in 1999, for example, a report by the National Research Council heaped blame on undergraduate instruction for our country's alarming lack of scientific acuity. "Although the United States continues to lead the world in many scientific and technological advances," the report's lead author concluded, "a majority of [college-educated] Americans are not prepared for the ever-expanding role that science and technology are playing in our daily lives."

Fortunately, things have since improved. Early intervention programs such as MU Professor Sheryl Tucker's Magic of Chemistry have helped hundreds of science-challenged school kids develop an interest in laboratory investigations.

Here at the University, meanwhile, an ever-larger number of undergraduates are signing on to work in the labs and field studies of MU's scientists and scholars. According to the University's Office of Undergraduate Research, more than 2,500 young researchers took advantage of research internships and similar opportunities last year.

Now there is good news, too, for those students not directly participating in faculty investigations. Early this fall the National Science Foundation announced that a group of researchers led by Frank Schmidt, a professor of biochemistry at MU, would receive $450,000 to plan and implement a curriculum overhaul meant "to increase student inquiry and participation" in lab sections of science classes. The researchers, representing several Missouri colleges and universities, hope to accomplish this by transforming "cookbook" type assignments into a curriculum of "inquiry-oriented" activities.

"The idea is to get students to understand and benefit from science by putting together a hypothesis, generating ideas and carrying out experiments that pique their curiosity," says Schmidt. "Science is inquiry. It's not fact; it's a process. We want students to understand how experiments are put together, how something works, whether something is true or if the information is something we already know. We want them to get out of the cookbook mentality and into the critical thinking part of science."

Researchers participating in the curriculum overhaul include MU's Sandra Abell, a professor of science education and director of the MU's Science Education Center; John Adams, a professor of chemistry; and Jan Weaver, research assistant professor of biological science. They will begin by meeting this summer to develop a catalog of 50 revised activities for student labs. These will later be published as a CD for participating faculty to use in lab classes at their respective institutions.

"This is about taking students one step further," says Schmidt, who, along with Weaver and Adams, has spent more than a decade developing inquiry-based lab activities. "This is about getting students involved in the intellectual process of doing science. Science is part of critical thinking. Thinking critically is valuable regardless of what career a student chooses."