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Using the Activity Model of Inquiry To Enhance General Chemistry

Students’ Understanding of Nature of Science
Sara C. Marchlewicz*,† and Donald J. Wink‡
Departments of †Learning Sciences and ‡Chemistry, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60607, United States

ABSTRACT: Nature of science refers to the processes of scientific activity and the social and cultural premises involved in the
creation of scientific knowledge. Having an informed view of nature of science is important in the development of scientifically
literate citizens. However, students often come to the classroom with misconceptions about nature of science. The activity model of
inquiry is a theoretically grounded and empirically derived model of scientific inquiry and could be used as a thinking frame to help
students develop more informed views of nature of science. This paper reports work on how to implement this model in the general
chemistry classroom, and on how undergraduate students’ views of scientific inquiry shift. Implementation includes having students
reflect on how current topics in science and their own lab work compare to the activity model of inquiry. Students are asked to
respond to essay prompts and a pre- and postquestionnaire designed to assess naïve and informed views of nature of science.
Findings show student responses to essay prompts and questionnaires and how they shifted in their views of nature of science.
KEYWORDS: First-Year Undergraduate/General, Public Understanding/Outreach, Communication/Writing, Inquiry-Based/
Discovery Learning, Misconceptions/Discrepant Events, Applications of Chemistry, Learning Theories

I f chemistry taught in the classroom is to add to the public’s

understanding of science, school science must “develop stu-
dents’ understanding of the scientific enterprise itself, the aims
Today, including aspects of NOS is a central component
within many science education research reform efforts.911
Leading researchers and educators in the NOS field are Norman
and purposes of scientific work, and the nature of the knowledge Lederman and his co-workers, who refer to NOS as “the
it produces”.1 Many students come into the classroom with a epistemology of science, science as a way of knowing, or the
particular image of science and how scientists conduct scientific values and beliefs inherent to the development of scientific
work. The processes of sciences and the creation of scientific knowledge”.12 Lederman further states:13
knowledge compose nature of science (NOS). Understanding
[S]cientific knowledge is tentative (subject to change),
NOS is important, for it has been noted, “an appropriate under-
empirically based (based on and/or derived from observa-
standing of NOS will allow students to make more informed
tions of the natural world), subjective (theory-laden),
decisions on science-based issues in their daily lives”.2 Specifically
necessarily involves human inference, imagination, and
in chemistry, students must understand how chemists develop and
apply theories, laws, and other ideas. For example, they should creativity, and is socially and culturally embedded.
understand that solubility rules are not just a collection of facts that
NOS also includes that there is no universal recipe-like
someone wrote down but rather are empirical and question driven.
However, what many students know about NOS comes from the method for doing science, that theories and laws are separate
types of scientific knowledge, and that there is a difference
media, everyday experiences, traditional presentations of “the”
between inferences and observations.13 This paper will particu-
scientific method, and technology.3 These experiences provide a
larly focus on the idea of the myth of a universal scientific method
misleading foundation for becoming scientifically literate.
as it develops when an explicit NOS strategy, based on Har-
A scientifically literate public would be able to understand
wood’s activity model of inquiry, is used in a college chemistry
what types of evidence validate claims within science and how
these claims can be developed into an understanding of nature.4
How to accomplish this, especially when students have miscon-
ceptions, is therefore an important challenge for instruction. In ’ THINKING FRAMES FOR SUPPORTING NATURE OF
chemistry instruction, this link between claims and understand- SCIENCE INSTRUCTION
ing is already apparent, for example, in the work of Greenbowe Much research has shown that an explicit approach is more
and others of the implementation regarding the science writing effective than implicit approaches in changing students’ and
heuristic.57 There are three components of scientific literacy: teachers’ views toward a more informed view of NOS.1417
the basic content, the processes that constitute scientific acti- Implicit approaches assume that NOS aspects will be learned as a
vity, and the social and cultural premises that create scientific by-product of doing science activities, whereas explicit ap-
knowledge.8 Content refers to the vocabulary of science and the proaches include structured opportunities or prompts to help
basic concepts that make up scientific knowledge. This is the learners reflect on their science-based activities.18 One way to
primary feature taught in the traditional learning settings. The
processes of scientific activity and the social and cultural premises
(contexts) that create scientific knowledge compose NOS. Published: May 23, 2011

Copyright r 2011 American Chemical Society and

Division of Chemical Education, Inc. 1041 | J. Chem. Educ. 2011, 88, 1041–1047
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Figure 2. William Harwood’s activity model of inquiry, a new thinking

frame to teach the process of science. Image adapted and reprinted with
permission from ref 25. Copyright 2004 National Science Teachers
Figure 1. Example of a traditional thinking frame that teachers use Association.
to teach the process of science. Image adapted and reproduced courtesy
of Science Buddies, (accessed Apr tool for teachers to use. However, this is not an accurate model of
2011). how science is actually done both because of the nonlinear aspect
of many scientific inquiries and the fact that all knowledge should
make NOS explicit is to use a thinking frame. Thinking frames are be thought of as a means for meeting human needs. Omitting the
“intended to guide the process of thought; supporting, organiz- latter aspect, it has been argued, is both false and less likely to
ing, and catalyzing that process”.19 Placing the features of engage learners.24
scientific inquiry at the center of a thinking frame may help William Harwood’s activity model of inquiry25 (see Figure 2)
students to better understand the process of science. is a recent, data-based model that may have potential as a
Commonly, teachers use the traditional scientific method as a thinking frame for teaching nature of science aspects. It was
thinking frame to teach the process of science, such as the one developed from interviews with 52 faculty members across nine
shown in Figure 1, which was adapted from a Web site for disciplines at a research university.26 Some responses from faculty
students involved in science fair projects.20 According to members about scientific inquiry were that it is the bridge that
Rudolph,21 the traditional scientific method stems from an early connects the known to the unknown, it is fueled by questions,
20th-century attempt by the Central Association of Science and which drive the investigation, and it is an approach used in
Mathematics Teachers to determine what should constitute problem solving. The faculty members also described an inves-
science education. Rudolph21 further discusses how this group of tigator as someone who is connected to other disciplines,
teachers used works from Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum22 observant, willing to be wrong, both a collaborator and a
first published in 1620, John Dewey’s How We Think,23 published communicator, and creative. While Lederman discusses the
in 1910, and other sources to develop the traditional scientific nature of scientific knowledge, Harwood’s model25 can be used
method. Although this group of teachers saw Dewey’s work as a for the discussion of nature of scientific activity.
simplistic means of teaching scientific practices, this was a Within Harwood’s activity model of inquiry,25 10 activities
misinterpretation that actually led Dewey to rewrite sections of relate in a web-like structure. No unique pathway exists; indivi-
his book, as well as commenting about the phases as not fixed duals chose what to do next based on what they need. Activities
steps but rather “traits of reflective thinking” (quoted in ref 21). can be repeated as necessary. Questions are in the middle,
Even with this attempt to set matters straight, the traditional suggesting them as the central feature of inquiry. The other nine
scientific method stuck and is taught in many science class- activities include: defining the problem, forming the question,
rooms today. investigating the known, articulating the expectation, carrying
However, dissatisfaction with the traditional scientific method out the study, examining the results, reflecting on the findings,
model abounds. It includes an overall linear view of the scientific communicating with others, and observing. Even the activities
process that occurs step-by-step in a sequential order. It excludes that could be interpreted as conclusions bounce back to ques-
any theoretical, cultural, or social aspect to the creation of tions and other activities.
scientific knowledge. In addition, traditional presentations of The activity model of inquiry25 has significant potential as a
scientific method omit any hint of the human imagination, precise framework for discussing and teaching the aspects of
creativity, or subjectivity that is found in the actual inquiry. NOS. The communicating with others activity is a way to teach
Because of this procedural setup, it has been an easy instructional the social component of NOS. Both defining the problem and
1042 |J. Chem. Educ. 2011, 88, 1041–1047
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formulating the question activities can be used to teach the (VNOS-C) developed by Lederman et al.12 The purpose of this
cultural component. Observing, and carrying out the study, can questionnaire is to assess students’ understanding of scientific
be used to illustrate how science is empirically based as well as a practice and aspects of NOS rather than content knowledge. On
way to show that scientists can carry out a study in more ways the first day of class, students were told that there are no correct
than just through experiments. Examining the results, and answers to the questions and as long as they attempt to answer
reflecting on the findings, are places to teach the differences the questions, they would receive full credit on the problems.
between observations and inferences. The aspect of subjectivity Additionally, if they did not know how to answer a question, to
can be taught using almost every single activity. Creativity is receive full credit, they needed to explain why they did not know.
inherent in the model because a person needs to choose his or her They were told not to leave it blank or just say, “I don’t know”.
own path. The tentative NOS can be taught by showing that The instructor provided students with feedback that included
there is no end to the model. prompts to further their thinking.
Although all aspects of NOS are important, students will have To assess the changes, if any, in students’ views of NOS, this
trouble recognizing the cultural, empirical, creative, subjective, questionnaire was given again on the last day of the semester. In
theory-laden and tentative nature of science if they hold a an attempt to prevent studying for the questionnaire, students
traditional linear model view of the scientific method. This were never told they would take this assessment again. Once
particular intervention aims at examining how the activity model again, students were told that there were no incorrect answers
of inquiry impacts students’ initial concepts of scientific method. and that they would receive full credit by simply answering the
questions. This time, however, students were told that they could
’ USING THE ACTIVITY MODEL OF INQUIRY IN not simply say that they did not know the answer; they needed to
INSTRUCTION ABOUT NOS actually attempt to answer the question.
The first writing assignment was given on the second day of
The flexibility and data-based nature of Harwood’s activity
class and was due one week later. The assignment had students
model of inquiry25 suggests it is a good thinking frame to use to
respond to the prompt: “Describe how scientific knowledge is
develop students’ understanding of the actual NOS as described
created. Do all scientists follow the same approach?” The intent
in the work of Lederman.13 In particular, the lack of a linear
of this writing assignment was to further assess students’ view of a
structure, the focus on inquiry processes, and the inclusion of
single, universal scientific method. The other intent was to
societal and cultural factors mean that scientific methods are
determine how students understood the creation of scientific
presented by the activity model of inquiry as variable, open-
knowledge and how the different aspects of NOS contributed to
ended activities. Thus, inclusion of the activity model of inquiry
the creation of a particular piece of scientific knowledge.
within a college general chemistry program was undertaken and
The second and third writing assignments required the
has been done multiple times. This particular paper focuses on
students to interact with the activity model of inquiry and real-
one implementation that also included adaptation of laboratory
life scenarios. The second writing assignment asked students to
work to provide students with their own experience of inquiry in
look for components of the model in an actual example of science
science as part of their learning.
by analyzing a news or journal article (in chemistry, biology, or
Classroom Context physics). For the article that students chose individually, they
This project took place within a first-semester general chem- were to find at least 10 examples of how the science in the article
istry course at an urban community college in the summer fits with the components of the model. Students were not to use
session where the first author was the instructor. The course any component more than twice, so they should have used at
had 18 students enrolled, and was structured around lecture, least five different components. In addition, they were to explain
group activities, laboratory experiments, and quizzes and exams. how the specific example of their article fits the component
Many of the labs were verification labs, yet two labs were created within the model and show how that example then linked to the
to include an inquiry component. In addition, writing-to-learn next component that they cited. Lastly, they needed to compare
strategies were used. Writing has been shown to be an effective and contrast their news article findings using the activity model of
means in promoting conceptual change6,27,28 and metacogni- inquiry with the scientific method discussed in their textbook.31
tion.29 Writing is a useful tool for the writer to clarify his or her This writing assignment was used to introduce students to
knowledge, organize the ideas to be written, and reflect on the science outside the classroom and to provide a more authentic
learning experience.30 Assignments relevant to NOS were a setting that fits the activity model of inquiry.
standardized questionnaire given at the beginning and end of The third writing assignment was similar to the second writing
the semester and four course-related writing assignments given assignment, although this time students were asked to analyze
throughout the semester. their own chemistry laboratory work. Initially, the news article
On the second day of instruction, students were introduced to activity was assigned before the students’ lab activity so students
a definition of scientific models and asked to draw their own would see how scientists engage in science first before transfer-
model of what the process of science looked like. The students ring this knowledge to their own lab experience. The lab used for
were then asked to describe their models to the group. After a this writing assignment was a solubility rules lab and was chosen
class discussion about the similarities and differences among the because it had an inquiry component. For the writing assignment,
students’ models, the activity model of inquiry was introduced. students were to write a lab report. Within it, they needed to
The instructor described how the model was developed and include a brief introduction about what the solubility rules are, a
described each of the components. The instructor then gave an procedure paragraph, collected data and analysis, results, and
example of how development of a pharmaceutical follows the conclusion. They then needed to analyze their own lab work and
activity model of inquiry. identify where they executed particular components of the
At the beginning and end of the semester, all students were activity model of inquiry. As before, they needed to compare
given the Views of Nature of Science Questionnaire Form-C and contrast their findings using the model with the scientific
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method discussed in their textbook.31 The purpose of this

assignment was to get students to see how their own activity
relates to the model.
The fourth writing assignment was assigned the last week of
class and due before they took the questionnaire. Students were
asked to answer: “How has your understanding of science been
confirmed or changed over the semester? In particular, how does
the activity model of inquiry fit or not fit your understanding?”
They were to use their previous writing assignments to help
support their opinion and understanding. The intent of this assign-
ment was to get students to think about what they had learned over
the semester and how their understanding has changed, if it did at
all. In addition, they were to reflect on the chemistry content
learned throughout the semester and what they enjoyed, what they
struggled with, and what they would like to learn more about.
Two inquiry labs used in the course also added instruction of
NOS via the activity model of inquiry. The first lab was modified
from a demo32 and was used to teach the solubility rules. In this
lab, students were to run separate experiments with generically
labeled chemicals and note the results of each experiment,
namely, whether a precipitate was formed. The students’ goal
was to be able to classify the generically labeled anions as either
generally soluble or generally insoluble, while categorizing the
generically labeled cations as always soluble or as a cation that
follows the rule of the anion using the students’ observations
from the different reactions.32 However, it is not possible to
properly classify the cations and anions with the information
provided, so students must design and test additional reactions
Figure 3. Student 1’s drawing of the process of science completed at the
using the supplied solutions. The second lab was also modified beginning of the semester showing a linear progression of steps. Drawing
from a demo,33 and was used to teach stoichiometry and limiting reproduced with permission.
reactants. Students use different ratios of aluminum foil and a
solution of copper(II) chloride to determine which relationship scientific method. Subsequent work will be done to characterize
consumes all of both starting materials. Students then use their student outcomes more systematically.
results to find the limiting reactant and theoretical yield. Both of
these labs and the additional labs within the course used the Students 1 and 2: Typical Change in Understanding of Myth
science writing heuristic6 as a format for writing lab reports. of a Scientific Method
The first two cases show typical student responses. When
’ EXAMPLES OF STUDENT RESPONSES asked to draw a model of the scientific process, all students in the
class drew something that included a linear process (see Figure 3)
The questionnaire responses and writing assignments were or a cyclic process (which had a specific order) (see Figure 4).
analyzed using the Lederman et al.12 framework for coding. Students’ drawings showed varied starting positions, choosing
Student responses were coded as naïve or informed with regard among question, hypothesis, or observation to begin their process.
to students’ views concerning the myth of a universal scientific However, the same overall sequence was observed in all drawings.
method. Three themes emerged from analyzing student work All students followed the hypothesis with experiment and then
over the course of the semester: typical change, significant some form of data and conclusion. In a few instances students
change, and no change. Under the typical change theme, even labeled their drawings as the “scientific method”. Starting
students’ responses were mostly coded as informed views at with a naïve view of the myth of a scientific method (as in Figures 3
the end of the semester but with limitations. For example, and 6), many students believed that there is only one approach to
students exhibiting a typical change may understand the non- science. In the VNOS-C postquestionnaire, one student talked
linear nature of science but do not also explain why there is not a about experiments being a “test that is done to figure out the
specific pathway. Students classified within the significant change answer”. However, he did not talk about how that answer was
theme demonstrated initial naïve views that develop into an found. But in the fourth writing assignment, he talked about the
informed view of the myth of a universal scientific method. freedom associated with the activity model of inquiry. He stated,
Students under the no change theme do not show any change
from their initial views. Within this population, there were not With the activity model of inquiry, the thoughts about the
any students who began with informed views of the myth of a topic should be a little more free [sic] to ponder all options.
universal scientific method. Only students who held naïve views Since there is no destined path, the scientists or student is
of this aspect of NOS at the beginning and end of the semester able to go from one activity to another without worrying
were classified under this theme. Example responses are pre- about breaking a certain cycle.
sented as brief cases illustrating examples of what types of effects He understands that there are different approaches taken to
have been observed in response to the impact of the activity answer a question and he even talks about students using this as
model of inquiry on students’ beliefs regarding the myth of a well as scientists.
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Figure 4. Student 2’s drawing of the process of science completed at the

beginning of the semester. This student drew a cyclical process but
numbered the steps in a particular order. This student titled his drawing
“Scientific Method”. Drawing reproduced with permission.

Another student noted how she understood scientific knowl-

edge in her fourth writing assignment:
I always followed the standard scientific method I had
learned in high school, and thought that this was how
scientific knowledge was created. I learned that scientific
knowledge takes more than just one run through the
Figure 5. Student 30 s drawing of the process of science completed at the
scientific model or one group of scientists. beginning of the semester. This student began to draw a notebook of
This student also showed promising shifts in other parts of her different steps within the process of science but then wrote a paragraph
views of the activity model of inquiry. She further went on to describing the linear progression of these steps. Drawing reproduced
discuss how she used the communicating with others component with permission. The student’s text reads: “Visual and [sic] notebook for
of the model in the classroom: “We communicated with each the scientist to keep track of trials and results in an organized way.
other to compare data. Also, we researched as another form of (Stating his problem/purpose, finding a hypothesis, materials, proce-
dure, results and conclusion). The scientist usually begins with a
communication.” These two students’ responses are what were
problem or purpose then leads to a hypothesis. Then state the materials
typically observed within the final assignments. Many students and write out the procedures. After 3 trials of experimenting, write the
began to incorporate activity model of inquiry components, results then state the conclusion.”
particularly the communicating with others component. Some
students also developed more informed views regarding the analyzing the news article, she started to see the differences in the
different approaches taken to solve a scientific problem and that usefulness between the scientific method and the activity model.
there is freedom within this process. “The activity model gives more lead [sic] way to approach the
study. The [scientific] method, although can relate [sic], is more
Student 3: Significant Change in Understanding of Myth of simplistic and to the point for a simple study.” However, in this
a Scientific Method
assignment, she was looking for the similarities more than the
This case shows significant and, from our viewpoint, exemp- differences in the two models. She still mentioned that the results
lary change from the beginning of the semester to the end in of the study would soon become a law or theory after being tested
respect to the myth of a scientific method. In response to the many times. This thinking is still parallel to the scientific method.
VNOS-C questionnaire item that asks the student to define an After the completion of writing assignment 3 (to analyze her
experiment, her response at the beginning of the semester was own experiment), she really started to grasp the usefulness of the
“an experiment has a purpose and can be tested with materials. It activity model of inquiry.
is based off scientific methods and has about 3 trials before the
final results and conclusion.” This is very similar to her drawing of This experiment is a great example using the activity model
a model of the scientific process (see Figure 5). Within her of inquiry. There was no set order of procedure. It was in a
model, she drew a visual notebook aid that has the steps of the way that the procedure is [sic] based off of our conven-
scientific method written in a grid. In both of these responses, she ience.... The scientific method gives a specific order of
was writing out the steps within the traditional scientific method. studying and testing during an experiment.... The scientific
She even included the traditional three trials that are included method would have just stopped as is [sic] stating that not
with many cookbook lab procedures. enough information was found instead of searching for
After introduction of the activity model of inquiry, she still more answers like the activity model.
held on to her belief of a scientific method. In her first writing
assignment, she stated “they [scientists] follow the same ap- She first noted that the activity model of inquiry had no set
proach by using steps like the scientific method.” However, after order and is based on convenience. She contrasted this to the
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focused on how similar they are. She reverted back to the

scientific method thinking again in her third writing assignment.
Instead of looking at how she bounced around from activity to
activity in her work, she just listed the steps in order of how the
lab report was set up. In her fourth writing assignment, she still
listed the steps of the scientific method.
Scientists make observations and hypotheses which leads
them to carry out experiments...they usually started by
observing, forming questions, carrying out the study, col-
lecting data, analyzing the data, and drawing a conclusion.
She repeated this listing in the VNOS-C postquestionnaire and
also stated “scientific knowledge is related to scientific method
[sic].” This student kept her naïve understanding of the myth of a
scientific method throughout the entire course.
Observations from Student Cases
The fact that some students show major changes in their view
of the myth of a scientific method may stem from the students’
open-mindedness. In particular, Student 3 was very open to new
information and wanted to learn ways to be able to use these new
ideas. The more common responses entail less dramatic changes
in which slightly revised understanding of the scientific method
Figure 6. Student 4’s drawing of the process of science completed at the appear. This suggests that the activity model of inquiry can
beginning of the semester. This student titled her drawing “Scientific support shifts, yet also reminds us that major changes in deeply
Method” and listed the steps of the traditional framework in a linear held beliefs are difficult to achieve in a short one-semester
order. Drawing reproduced with permission. experience, which is an expected, although discouraging, finding.
scientific method by noting its specific order. When discussing
her own experience in the lab, she talked about how she would
have had to stop her experiment when there was missing The activity model of inquiry can be a useful instructional
information if she were following the scientific method. How- framework to use in the classroom to teach aspects of NOS,
ever, since she was following the activity model of inquiry, she particularly, the myth of a scientific method. The model implicitly
was able to bounce over to another component to find the includes some of the aspects of NOS. From the model’s many
missing information needed to solve the problem. This type of intersecting lines (Figure 2), it can be seen that there are countless
response is also found in her writing assignment 4 and the ways to approach an inquiry, and the assignments can be used as
VNOS-C postquestionnaire response. She has a more informed guides for students to see how they approach their own scientific
view of the different approaches scientists take to solve problems. problem solving. In addition, the model can also be taught as
In her response to the experiment question on the VNOS-C scientific content and used to show how different sciences or
questionnaire at the end of the course, she talked about experi- scientists approach scientific problem solving. The activities
ments being “open ended” and that there is “no set way to within the activity model of inquiry can also be taught. Within
conduct an experiment as long as it is based off a question”. these activities, other aspects of NOS can be included, such as the
theory-laden nature of science within the observations activity.
Student 4: No Change in Understanding of Myth of a Sci- These assignments provide opportunities for students to pair
entific Method content with one of the components of nature of science. Not only
This student held onto the belief of a universal scientific were students able to learn course material (i.e., solubility rules),
method throughout the entire semester. She began the semester they were also able to interact with material reported in the news
by listing the steps of the scientific method in both her scientific media. Both of these activities provide the opportunity for students
model drawing (see Figure 6) and her response to the experi- to develop more informed understandings of the different ap-
ment question in the VNOS-C questionnaire. “An experiment is proaches scientists and the students themselves take when exploring
a theory with a purpose, hypothesis, results, and a conclusion.” scientific problems. In addition, most students responded very
When responding to the question about whether scientists follow positively to the assignments and enjoyed completing them.
the same approach in the first writing assignment, she said, Although these student assignments were used in a general
chemistry course, they could also be implemented within another
[S]cientists used some steps of what now a day [sic] is science course or within a science education course. Using these
consider “scientific method”.... Scientists had to state the assignments in courses with more inquiry labs is another
problem or purpose...then, they have to state a hypothesis, opportunity for students to further understand the different
do the experiment, make observations, record data, analysis approaches taken when exploring scientific problems.
[sic] the evidence, and draw a conclusion. The conclusion
should include whether the hypothesis was correct or not. ’ AUTHOR INFORMATION
In her second writing assignment, she started to see the Corresponding Author
differences between the two models of inquiry, yet she still *E-mail:
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