Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University

Learning Innovation Unit

Teaching and Learning Innovation Scheme 2005

Paul Van Kampen - teaching physics by inquiry

Principal applicant

Paul van Kampen

School or Unit

School of Physical Sciences

Amount requested



The proposed project will facilitate the introduction of inquiry-based physics laboratories, in the first instance aimed at Science Education (SE) students, most of whom will become physics and chemistry teachers. The laboratories will use the Physics by Inquiry (PbI) method developed by the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington (UW). I am currently spending a sabbatical year with this group, actively using this curriculum to prepare pre-service and in-service teachers as well as developing existing and new modules.

Physics by Inquiry has been and is being developed guided by the results of an extensive research program carried out at UW. I propose to build on and extend this program in two ways: to continue the development of existing and new modules for this curriculum, and to measure its potential impact on the teaching of science at secondary school level. To this end a postgraduate student would be employed, part-funded by this project.

Project URL


Will the project facilitate flexible access (in the context of lifelong learning or otherwise) or facilitation of longer-term provision for special needs


Is the project related to the development of DCU's six academic themes


Strategic Context

The proposed project is consistent with DCU's Strategic Plan on three key points:

1. The proposed project would first be implemented within the Science Education degree program. The project focuses on curriculum development at school level, and would "advocate a radical enhancement of the school curriculum in science." - Theme (ii), Education and Learning.

2. In the context of access and flexibility, and in a climate of increasing modularisation, the inquiry-based methodology would be perfectly suited to be the introductory science module of choice for non-science/engineering students.

3. The program is collaborative, and would strengthen a collaborative link between the Physics Education groups at DCU and at UW, who are world-leaders in the field of research-based physics-by-inquiry curriculum development.

Implementation Plan

In the PbI method of guided inquiry, students are led to discover physics concepts themselves. The topics covered by the curriculum are those found in Junior and Leaving Cert Science, but are investigated to a depth that far exceeds the treatment these topics are given at second or third level. During instruction, the students are constantly asked to reflect on what they have observed, inferred, and tacitly assumed. Thus they develop a rigorous framework to develop inductive reasoning and a strong set of pedagogical and metacognitive skills.

Research has shown that teaching science by inquiry, which mirrors the process of scientific research, is an effective and stimulating way of teaching science. Recently an activity-based Junior Cert Science curriculum has been adopted in Ireland, and inquiry-based science teaching is promoted throughout the US.

This pilot project would represent the first step in a long-term development of inquiry-based laboratories for SE and non-science/engineering students. In the academic year 2005-2006, for which funding is sought, two PbI modules would be taught, to semester 1.2 and 2.1 SE students. When these students have their first Teaching Practice experience, at the end of semester 2.1, to teach science at Junior Cert level, they will have experienced two tailor-made modules. (In 2005-2006 only, this will just be one module). In the year 2006-2007, a third PbI module will be added in semester 3.1, before the 14-week Teaching Practice block in semester 3.2. In future years, these modules would open up to non-science/engineering students. They would be ideally suited: no prior formal knowledge of science is required, and emphasis lies on giving students a feel for what science entails.

The project would be carried out by a postgraduate student supervised by me (see section 5). The postgraduate student would administer pre- and post-tests during the SE laboratories, and instruct the students alongside me, and develop pre- and post-test for use in schools.

Impact and Evaluation

Two distinct methods of assessment will be used. Firstly, SE student attitudes towards science as well as their conceptual understanding will be assessed before and after they experience PbI. Conceptual development will be assessed through comparison of pre- and post-instruction answers to conceptual questions. An extensive suite of such questions exists at UW; administering these will reveal if any differences exist between both pre- and post-test results of US and Irish students.

The effect of PbI on secondary school students has not yet been rigorously assessed. Most teachers will only be able to partially implement inquiry-based science, due to time curriculum constraints; very few have ever taught all of their science through inquiry. However, there is anecdotal evidence that teachers trained by PbI are more effective even if they teach in the traditional way, because of their acquired pedagogical and metacognitive skills, and this may affect students' attitudes positively. We will primarily investigate this possible effect, but with a view to promoting inquiry-based science in schools. This work requires a full-time postgraduate student, whose main task will be the development of a set of pre- and post-test questions suitable for use in schools, e.g. in the form of homework problems.

Dissemination and Sustainability

In addition to dissemination in the form of an ODTL report and seminar, the results of this work will be presented in refereed journals.

Funding the project would allows us to start implementing the program as early as in the next academic year, and would provide ideal seedbed funding. Additional funds will be sought from IRCHSS and IRCSET to sustain and extend this program to develop into two Ph.D. positions, and finance dissemination at international conference presentations; this process is already underway. Should this avenue not open up, the School of Physical Sciences will provide up to €5,000 to ensure the postgraduate student will be able to complete an M.Sc.; under normal circumstances this support will suffice.

Detailed budget

Materials: €4,000

Postgraduate salary for 1 year: €11,000*

*Includes fees at €3k, and salary at €1k per month for 8 months. The student would start in September; because any funding allocated must be spent by 31 December 2005, the student would be paid an advance for January through April by that date (or some other construct could be set up in conjunction with HR and the Finance Office).

Due to School budget constraints, pilot projects like these need to be externally funded. As it impacts students across schools, and in future across faculties, it seems appropriate to make this submission to the ODTL fund. The School makes a contribution in the form of my input and supervision, as well as the guarantee of a safe exit for the postgraduate student.

Support from Head of School/Unit

The Physics Education Group has made valuable contributions to the teaching and learning of physics and support of student learning. Earlier initiatives in other active learning programs like problem based learning and peer tutoring have been received well by the students. I strongly support this project as it further promotes active learning and copper fastens an international collaboration for the group.

Additional Information

The application process is brief, streamlined and well supported by the ODTL. The budget constraints (presumably due to external forces) limit the development of research into T&L somewhat: increasing the budget to 20k, and having a full academic year to spend it, would make many one-year research projects selfsupporting.