Bringing Inquiry Math Outdoors
Providing students with a wide variety of natural occurrences stimulates their curiosity, inspires their questions, and leads to numerous invaluable “teachable moments” across the curricula. School gardens are an exceptional place in which students can apply and prac- tice calculations as well as develop investigations into new mathematical concepts. These experiences are opportunities for making math relevant to the child’s “here and now.” When introducing a new concept or a new unit in math, it is common to link the idea to
a concrete example and prior knowledge or experience. This is usually followed by a mod- erately engaging minilesson, and then practice, usually with a universally popular algorithm that has been pre-defined for students. This system can often be adapted to become a more effective inquiry-based lesson, by bringing the lesson to an outdoor space, creating a com- mon experience, and conducting the minilesson around a meaningful natural phenomena that students are interested in. Then students use their problem-solving skills to develop a mathematical solution that makes sense to them within this experience. Their journey to the solution sets the stage for a discussion about logical techniques for the particular mathemati- cal concept, and often the basis for a number of useful algorithms.
From Structured Inquiry to Open Inquiry and Practice
During a recent visit to one of our outdoor learning environments, I was asked by a stu- dent, “Why do flowers make so much pollen?” I recognized this as both a relevant question to an unfortunate allergy sufferer, and an
opportunity to create a meaningful and cross-curricular inquiry. Students could count pollen grains or estimate the area of a sample space covered by pollen and determine a ratio to accepting pistils, or predict the probability of a certain pollen that will reach an egg cell. Our fifth-grade students are working on making predictions and determining the probability of an outcome by constructing a sample space, so I knew that this question would fit well with our current objectives. However, I keep a flip chart of student observa- tions and questions that allow me to come back to these opportunities once prerequisite objectives have been mastered, if needed. I begin with the state standard for the concept, ensuring that the inquiry question
will provide a framework for seeking the required knowledge. Then I use the student’s textbook as a guide, replacing the introductory lesson with our real-world problem. In this case, the textbook’s introductory lesson asks students to compare different colored marbles in a bag to create a ratio and then the probability that one will be drawn over the other. In keeping with this simplicity, I ask students to count the number of stamens in one plot of tulips and compare it to the number of pistils in the same sample set. For- tunately the fourth-grade curriculum in our state includes a study of plant reproductive parts. Had this not been the case, I would have constructed a coinciding science inquiry into the function of these organs. From here, students are guided in their discovery of ratio and probability as I have pro-
vided both question and procedure, but they understand the framework for their upcoming exploration of these concepts. By providing questions such as, “What is the probability that pollen from a pink tulip will be carried to another pink flower?” or, “What is the probability that tulip pollen will be carried to another tulip and not a different plant alto- gether?” students can have meaningful interactions with the concepts of probability and ratio. At this point the lesson becomes a true inquiry lesson allowing students to design their own path to a solution and build upon their developing number sense and practice the concept as necessary until mastery is achieved.
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Students use their problem-solving skills to develop a mathematical
solution that makes
sense to them within this experience.