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Bringing Inquiry-Based Science to Middle Schools

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Caroline Kiehle (‘82, ‘92) knows that middle school students can be excited by science, especially when they get to pose questions and search for answers themselves. As program manager for the UW’s Middle School Science Systemic Change Partnership, she’s working to make that happen.

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“In inquiry-based science, students come up with their own questions and their own ways to investigate that question,” says Kiehle. “Middle school students love to do that, but they don’t often have the opportunity.”

Kiehle should know. After graduating from the UW with a B.S. in zoology and then working for five years in a research laboratory, she went on to teach science and math at Kirkland Junior High School for nine years. “I had planned to teach at the high school level,” Kiehle recalls, “but teaching jobs were scarce so I took the junior high science and math position that was available. As it turned out, I absolutely loved it from day one. The middle grade students were just so curious about their world. They were really motivated by science.”

While teaching, Kiehle was tapped to head a science outreach program for middle school teachers through the UW Department of Molecular Biotechnology. The program links middle school teachers with UW scientists; together they create teaching modules that demonstrate scientific concepts. To date, about 30 modules have been developed.

After coordinating the outreach program during the summer and in her “spare time” for several years, Kiehle left classroom teaching two years ago to focus on the program full time. “The goal now is to take the ideas from our original program and translate them in a more systemic way in the community,” says Kiehle.

In inquiry-based science, students come up with their own questions and their own ways to investigate that question. Middle school students love to do that, but they don’t often have the opportunity.

Five school districts are involved with this project—Seattle, Bellevue, Highline, Northshore, and Shoreline—with entire schools participating. “This is not the time for individual teachers to raise their hand,” explains Kiehle. “It has to be all the science teachers in the school and the principal working together.” The ambitious program is made possible through a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant with an equal match from the UW and community partners.

Through the program, Kiehle—now based in the University’s K-12 Institute for Science, Math, and Technology—is involved in the development of new UW courses for K-12 science teachers and hopes to have four in place by Autumn Quarter 2001. “It’s really exciting to see all these pieces clicking into place,” she says.

Does she miss the classroom she left two years ago? “Very much,” Kiehle admits. “That’s been a hard adjustment. But I just love working with science teachers. So many of them are really outstanding. It makes it all worthwhile.”