Developing Curiosity in Science with Service

Crista Arangala
Elon University, USA


Inquiry learning is a well-known and effective method for teaching science and mathematics. Developing Curiosity in Science with Service gives indepth

details related to the curriculum, partnerships, and outcomes of a service learning course which focuses on inquiry and interactive science museum exhibits.


On a bright October morning, I observe a three-year-old as he explores an exhibit at the local science museum. Regular visits to the local science museum both show him that science is fun and provide him with a much-needed outlet for his endless curiosity. When I return to the classroom the following Monday and casually ask my class of college freshmen focusing on global issues how many of them had ever been to a science museum, only about one tenth of them respond positively. So why am I so surprised? These are college freshmen and it is my job to challenge them and to teach them to question their world and values. Had they regularly been exposed to structured scientific inquiry, I am convinced that they would have been better prepared to begin this process.

Inquiry learning is a form of hands-on learning where the teacher acts as the facilitator or moderator while students are guided through the learning process. “Inquiry means that students are handling science; they are  manipulating it, working it into new shapes and formats, integrating it into every corner of their world, and playing with it in unknown ways” (Just Science Now, 2012). In the inquiry learning process, students start by developing scientific questions or hypotheses. Developing good scientific questions is a learning process and students can begin by changing their statement from what is-type questions to how does-type questions. This typically will help students change their question from a more factual question to a more investigative question. After asking questions, students experiment or collect data to support a hypothesis and present their results via oral or written communication. For additional references on inquiry and scientific inquiry, see Donovan (2005) and Northern Illinois University (2012).

When we expose students to structured scientific inquiry, we prepare them to be scientists; we prepare them to be researchers; we prepare them to be curious logical thinkers. Through this process, students learn how to hypothesize, experiment, and support hypotheses. Researchers have found that inquiry learning also helps students build new knowledge and understanding on what they already know and believe (National Research Council, 2000) and gives students an avenue to begin understanding the main purpose of their learning.

I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.

Many students are now learning science through inquiry-based activities; however, neither a traditional science classroom nor one that is inquiry-based typically incorporates service learning. Integration of service learning into an inquiry-based science course benefits both the students and their community (NSLC 2012).

The course that is described in this article was developed as a service learning, writing-intensive, general studies elective course with a general audience. It has been taught both in a short three-week January term and in a full semester, with timeline adjustments. The course has attracted students from all disciplines, but could be adapted for students whose focus of study is in science, mathematics, engineering, or education.

In this course, students are exposed to inquiry learning and informal education, meet with curators from local museums to discuss inquiry learning and the exhibit building process, design original science exhibits with inquiry as a focus, and show their exhibits at several local venues as part of a traveling science center. The main goals of this course are that students will gain mathematics and science knowledge related to experiential science exhibits and will have a deeper understanding of inquiry-based learning pedagogy. After taking this course, students will be able to construct and critique science exhibits based on their knowledge of science inquiry, to articulate clear scientific questions and critique scientific questions in their field of expertise, and to clearly discuss the science and scientific questions based on exhibits that they have developed and\or moderated.

Preparing to Offer the Course

The success of this service learning course lies in the partnerships that are developed. These partners should include education curators from local science museums and enthusiastic local schools with engaged teachers. In order to develop partnerships with local museum curators, one must be open to a variety of partnerships. These may include partnerships with curators that direct largescale projects at museums and have time only to offer tours of the museum, with curators who are willing to show the intricacies of their workshop where they develop exhibits, or with curators who are willing to interact and encourage the students to bring their own exhibits to the museum to show to the public. The best way to approach these new partnerships, both in initial contact and in development, is to be creative and open. In making contacts with museums, don’t rule out weekend day trips that may take you some distance away from the university, or places that you might not have thought of as science museums, such as children’s museums, zoos, or aquariums. Many of these places offer hands-on, inquiry-based exhibits that could offer good ideas for the students. Once an initial partnership is developed and a commitment from the museum or museum curator is established, be creative in how to engage the students in this partnership and experience. Although a tour of a museum may not be what you have in mind for a museum partnership, think of the possibilities. Never underestimate the power of play; actually this is the whole point of the science museum you would be developing with your students. Let your students explore the museum and play with exhibits and even think about bringing along students from a local middle school to partner up with your university students to bring a new perspective. For more information related to building partnerships in service learning, see Jacoby (2003).

It is also suggested that a pilot project precede the course to determine the success of this project with local partners. One might consider, prior to the actual course, engaging first-year students or students from a physics club to design exhibits for such a pilot. Many of our exhibit ideas came from local museums and from the Exploratorium Cookbooks (Hipschman 1990; Hipschman1993; Bruman 2000).

At the beginning of the course, students can become quickly overwhelmed by the charge of developing their own exhibits. One way to avoid this is to have a vision of the exhibits to be built and collect many of the materials that you would find necessary for these exhibits. Note that students may not have the same vision as you have for the chosen exhibit, but an initial focus can be comforting. Also note that a variety of selections for initial exhibits allows students to choose something that inspires them.

It can be a physical challenge for both students and faculty to take on the task of building science exhibits in the classroom. These challenges can include issues related to available tools and materials, workshop space, and, eventually, storage space for built exhibits. Due to these ongoing challenges, one must have the full support of the university or institution in order to be successful. Collaborations with other departments can also be extremely helpful. For example, if the institution has an engineering laboratory, engineering students can be recruited to serve as consultants to the class during the exhibit building process.

Setting the Atmosphere

With a handful of exhibits already designed, the course can begin as a hands-on, minds-on experience of inquiry teaching inquiry. During the first class, students are divided into groups and given five essential features of inquiry learning and one of the piloted exhibits. These five essential features include asking inquiry questions, hypothesizing, evaluating the hypothesis based on experimentation, using prior knowledge and other resources to support the hypothesis, and communicating the outcome of the inquiry (National Research Council, 2000). Students begin to decipher these five features by acting them out as if they had encountered these exhibits at a science center. They use their curiosity to ask interesting “how” questions, they hypothesize, they experiment with altering characteristics of the exhibit in order to support their hypotheses, and in the end they critique the exhibit’s capability of engaging the user in scientific inquiry.

Students are then given the charge of preparing the pilot exhibit for an exhibition at a partner school. With this charge, they attempt to enhance the pilot exhibit with additional inquiry that they deem necessary and discuss the best way to communicate the message of the exhibit while engaging the user in inquiry learning. Through this process, the students take ownership of the exhibit and the service learning project. The curriculum attempts to follow the framework of the integrative processing model, including concreteness, involvement, dissonance, and reflection at each stage (Kiser 1998). The intensity of the first day sets the tone for a successful service experience. Students leave the classroom with a sense of exhilaration and apprehension. A continued submersion into the project during the next few class periods will both feed their excitement and ease their anxiety.

After an engaging first class, the students’ excitement is focused on developing their own exhibit. Following the first class, students are introduced to exhibit building with a trip to the local science museum, and continued submersion in inquiry learning, with an exhibition to the partner school with the piloted exhibits. Prior to visiting the local science museum, students discuss communication methods and are asked to reflect on several exhibits at the museum with regard to inquiry and the communication methods present. With support from the education curator, students begin to see what they are studying being put into practice. Many science museums have resource centers and exhibit workshops that can also add to the learning experience. Students spend much of the rest of the semester building their exhibits and return to the local partner school for several exhibitions, while studying the science and educational aspects related to their exhibits.

The Integrative Writing Intensive Component

Since this course is meant to be writing intensive, students have daily guided reflections related to their service and readings. In addition to these daily reflections, students have weekly in-class presentations updating the class on the progress of the exhibits. In general, these presentations are a subset of a much larger writing assignment entitled the Exhibit Proposal. Unlike most proposals, this proposal is a culmination of the work done throughout the semester.

The structure of this exhibit proposal is much like a grant proposal. Students begin by completing a cover sheet and writing sections of the proposal related to the physical description of their exhibit, the message that they are attempting to relay with their exhibit, the inquiry aspects of their exhibit, the science behind their exhibit, the materials, the budget, and a timeline necessary for building their exhibit. As we discuss issues, such as students’ misconceptions and preconceptions of scientific phenomena, assessment of inquiry learning, national standards in inquiry and science, and cultural relevance of exhibits, students add corresponding sections to their exhibit proposal. For references regarding these issues see Callanan and Braswell (2005), Donavan (2005), Duensing (2005), National Research Council (1996), and National Research Council (2000). The final product is a well-thought-out proposal that justifies the development of the exhibit. This proposal can accompany the exhibit so that future classes can also benefit from these exhibits.


Prior to this course, approximately 1/3 of the students reported feeling that they had a deep knowledge of inquiry learning and only 1/6 of these students stated that they had been exposed to inquiry learning in their previous science classes. When further questioned, these students did have some ideas about the concepts related to inquiry. About ó of these students recognized, prior to the course, that questioning was an essential part of inquiry and could articulate a high level question about science exhibits that they saw. At the end of the semester, many of the students noted that they enjoyed the class, they enjoyed being exposed to science and mathematics from a different perspective, and they were highly stimulated by the curriculum. Ninety-three percent reported that they gained a deep understanding of inquiry learning, and 84% were able to articulate high level questions about the science exhibits that they had developed.

“The partner middle school students consistently mentioned that they learned a great deal during the exhibitions and they made connections to their science class curriculum. The experience had me looking at science from a different perspective, allowing me to grow as an educator as well as a student.”
–Elon University student

“The exhibits helped me to understand stuff I learn at school better.”
–Clover Garden middle school (NC) student

“I learned that science can be fun.”
–Graham middle school (NC) student

“Our middle school students have never experienced this facet of science. They came back to class very excited and actually expressed to their teachers that they would like to do something similar within our own school. Any time that you can excite to that extent, you have made an impact.”
–Clover Garden middle school (NC) teacher

At each exhibition, the college students were also surveyed based on their interactions, as moderators, with the partner middle school students. Throughout all of the exhibitions, moderators consistently focused their energy toward playing with the exhibit alongside students, discussing the science and mathematics behind the exhibit, and discussing the middle school students’ understanding of the exhibit. It is interesting to note that, in the initial exhibition, only 10% of the moderators determined the students’ understanding of the exhibit to be one of the most valuable aspects of the discussion. However, in the final exhibition, 48% of the moderators deemed this aspect of discussion to be one of the most valuable. It is also interesting to note that during the first exhibition, 70% of the moderators reported discussing matters that were unrelated to the exhibits with the middle school students. In the final exhibitions, only 15% of moderators reported such interactions with the students. Keep in mind that the initial exhibition took place with piloted exhibits, while the final exhibition was done with the exhibits that were built in the course. Both of the above results may be explained by this setup. Students spent an entire semester devoted to learning all aspects of the exhibit that they were building and thus wanted to see them as part of a successful exhibition.

In addition to moderator feedback, a series of questions were asked of each middle school student, related to the science inquiry aspects of the exhibitions. Students reported on why they found their favorite science exhibit most enjoyable and what they learned during the exhibition. They were also asked a series of questions to determine if they were making connections between the science exhibits and their science curriculum. Of the 992 North Carolina middle school students surveyed, approximately 6.5% reported academic reasons for why they found their favorite exhibit most enjoyable and approximately 8% of these 992 students found their favorite exhibit enjoyable because it was interesting but did not imply any academic curiosity or connection. Although one might hope for the middle school students to enjoy the exhibits for the academic aspects, in fact we saw that approximately 32% of these North Carolina students reported that they related to their favorite exhibit, without an academic relation, and approximately 4% found the favorite exhibit fun and that is why they enjoyed it most. This is not a surprise, but part of the intention of the exhibition is to excite students about science so that they will explore more outside of the exhibit setting.

Alternative Approaches

With strong partnerships and a developed service project, one can begin to think about how best to meet the needs of their students. The service learning project described above contains both an intense classroom-based service component and a time intensive, on-site service component. If the curriculum in a class does not leave time for both opportunities, one of these components would still be a worthwhile endeavor. Another alternative to the partnership described above is to assign each university student to a partner school student. In this model, middle school students can work with university students throughout the semester, reading similar readings, visiting museums together, and working together on exhibits.

International service learning could also be a powerful transformation experience for university students. One could consider making similar partnerships in a country without access to developed inquiry learning science museums. Preparing students for a study abroad experience similar to the course described above is quite time consuming. Logistically, a preparatory course or several preparatory sessions that focus on scientific inquiry learning, building science exhibits, and cultural and educational issues in the country of focus is necessary. If initial readings on inquiry learning, discussions of scientific ideas, and science exhibit builds are done prior to the abroad experience, one might consider readings related to Bloom’s Taxonomy and Science Education and Development related to the country of focus during the abroad experience. To see similar ideas to those proposed in this paper implemented in a study abroad course, see This course has been implemented in both Sri Lanka and in India by the author. Both countries were chosen because both countries focus on preparation for high-stakes testing with little or no introduction of scientific inquiry learning.


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About the author:

Crista Arangala

Dr. Crista Arangala is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Elon University. She also serves as the Associate Director of Periclean Scholars and the co-founder of the Elon Traveling Science Museum. Dr. Arangala has been traveling with Elon students and the traveling science museum to Sri Lanka and Kerala, India since 2009 and has developed and taught courses on exhibit development and dissemination.

Associate Professor, Mathematics Department, Elon University, Campus Box 2320 Elon University, Elon, NC 27244.

© 2012 Journal for Civic Commitment

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