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In a Pathways to Inquiry workshop, Professor Pamela Blanchard, professor in the LSU College of Education, works with participating middle school Earth science teachers on a science inquiry activity.

Researchers’ Science Inquiry Tools Deliver Significant Improvement in Middle School Students’ Skills

NSF grant results in 12 percent increase in student science inquiry skills.

LSU professors Yiping Lou and Pamela Blanchard in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy and Practice have developed an innovative program that showed an average 12 percent increase in student science inquiry skills. The project, called Pathways to Inquiry, was funded by the National Science Foundation and aids teachers and students in analyzing and building science inquiry skills through evidence-based practice.

“Many teachers feel ill-prepared to teach inquiry in the science classroom due to a lack of support and available materials,” said Lou. “Inquiry skills are integral to a solid STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education. These are your basic scientific protocol, involving asking testable questions, analyzing data and interpreting results, among other things.”

Science inquiry skills are an integral component of a Louisiana student’s score on yearly achievement tests. These skills represent 24 percent of the Louisiana Educational Assessment program, or LEAP, and 22 to 42 percent of the Integrated Louisiana Assessment Program, or iLEAP, science scores.

The Pathways to Inquiry, or PTI, program was designed to meet the needs of teachers who struggle to implement inquiry skills and lack support, instructional and assessment materials to integrate science inquiry-based activities in their classrooms. Two interrelated tools were developed, an Inquiry Skill Analyzer, or iSA, and an Inquiry Activity Portal, iAP. The iSA is designed for teachers to analyze and monitor the progress of their own understanding of inquiry in different inquiry skill areas, as well as those of their students, based on the National Science Education Standards. The iAP consists of activity matrices that are keyed to both Earth science content and specific science process skills and show how specific science inquiry skills are incorporated into Earth science lessons.

Pilot and field studies conducted over a two-year period in eighth grade Earth science classrooms showed significant increase in both student achievement and teacher analysis of inquiry skills. One of the many ways that Pathways to Inquiry is unique is that it allows both students and teachers to identify and track strengths and weaknesses of inquiry skills through graphic reports. Through the iSA function, students become more aware of specific science process skills and are able to measure their progress over intervals of time while teachers are able to identify gaps in their understanding and teaching of inquiry skills.

“Ultimately, the iSA and iAP help teachers and students become more scientifically literate, which is one of the main goals of the National Science Education Standards,” said Blanchard.

In addition to improving student scores, teachers participating in the program received the following accolades:

  • 2008-09 Louisiana Earth Science Teacher of the Year
  • Science Education for Public Understanding Program, or SEPUP, Teacher of the Year
  • NASA/Michoud Fellow

The project has also gained considerable attention from the science education community for its ability to measure, develop and track progress in specific inquiry skills that are integrated with Earth science curriculum content and aligned with the National Science Education Standards. The products developed as part of the Pathways to Inquiry project are the first of their kind and provide the science education community a validated and teacher-student friendly assessment instrument of inquiry skills and multiple ways of infusing inquiry into the science classrooms.

As science as inquiry occurs in all science disciplines, the products and concepts developed in the Pathways to Inquiry project can be adapted to a wide range of other content areas. It is the hope of both Lou and Blanchard that the PTI template can be expanded to the fields of biology, physics and environmental sciences. The success of the study shows that the use of iSA and iAP has the potential to significantly impact science education on a national level.

For more information on PTI, visit


Ashley Berthelot | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations
March 2010