Inquiry: Surprising Impacts on Students, Teachers, and the Greater Community

Inquiry: Surprising Impacts on Students, Teachers, and the Greater Community

Author: Helena Puche - Biography

Using inquiry to provide an action component and as guiding principle for teaching, I have created several programs to actively engage young people, including work with college students (in person and on-line), zoo visitors, and formal educators. My work has been two-fold: 1) to help students and teachers unfold their curiosity, and develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills through inquiry investigations, and 2) to start using this inquiry approach in the community, to help people become aware of their daily living, and to lead them towards a path to environmental sustainability.

The activities presented in this e-portfolio are examples of these two paths. Starting with formal education in person and on-line, I present experiences that allowed my students to grow and flourish during their discoveries. Continuing with inquiry experiences in an informal setting with zoo campers, and with formal educators, I present cases where both students and teachers learned to discover the natural world through their scientific investigations and the inquiry approach.

As a leadership challenge and to engage the greater community, I organized a Green Fair. The Green Fair offered me the chance to promote pro-environmental behavior at the local level by encouraging community participation in environmental protection, and by listening to the community's voices through a survey. The activities to reach these goals are presented in the second section of the e-portfolio.


Inquiry is a way to approach education and learning. It all starts with a comparative question (Feinsinger 2001) that leads us to find a way to answer it. Inquiry can be used as a path to analyze social injustices, to address issues of our times, and to look for solutions to solve them. This section details the path to promote inquiry in others. I worked with graduate and undergraduate students in a formal setting, with summer campers in an informal education setting, as well as indirectly with K-12 teachers promoting inquiry in the classroom. The latter was able to occur through an inquiry grant program that I launched though a foundation (see below), where teachers were invited to participate in a curriculum development inquiry workshop that gave them the tools to start using this method in the classroom. These approaches are already impacting inquiry education in the community, and challenging currently practiced ideas about science curriculum.


Evolution is important because it gives us an understanding of how life developed, how to take care of all species and prevent extinctions. That is why Dobshanky (1973) stated that “nothing in biology makes sense, except in light of evolution." A better understanding of evolution will also lead us to taking better care of our planet.

Using many insects as examples, I designed a course in evolution to give participants a chance to discuss and learn new ideas and information about current and foundational issues in evolution starting with Darwin's voyage of the Beagle and the Darwinian Natural Selection Theory (syllabus attached). The course covered the mechanisms of evolution, Mendelian genetics in populations, the genetics of homology and evo-devo, adaptations, speciation, sexual and king selection, and social behavior based on Freeman & Herron (2007). We also discussed the impact of evolution on conservation and society.

The graduate students in this course of Evolution were provided with references, and a couple of questions that I designed for each weekly theme. They used these questions to make conjectures about evolutionary theory, and had to search for an additional scientific paper to support their thoughts.

The results were extraordinary. The students showed an amazing aptitude, much more than expected. From the most recent scientific publications, they discovered through their own inquiries what was the theory of evolution, how natural selection occurred, and about evolutionary principles. For me it has been an inspiring experience (I am still teaching the course) when the students find information without me explicitly telling them, and seeing how their investigations made them flourish and learn.



During the summers of 2012-2013, I was an instructor in the CIRRUS Program, a six-week Chicago Initiative for Research and Recruiting Undergraduate Students. The goal was to encourage these undergraduate students from various careers to create an open scientific inquiry using the tools that I provided: inquiry, field ecological methods, statistical analysis and indexes, processing data in the lab, and geographic information systems (GIS).

Their choice of inquiry investigations consisted of comparing organisms between areas close and far from water drainage pipes (or near and far from dirt and paved roads) in three Dupage Forest preserves. They learned ecological methods by censusing frogs, mosquitoes, aquatic weeds or invasive plants such as buckthorn and burdock, using quadrats, traps and the transect methods (Southwood & Henderson 2000). They also collected macroinvertebrates, and water samples for bacterial analysis. I also gave them a short lecture on statistics, and they calculated the Mann Whitney test (Siegel & Castellan 1988) to compare data from their collections. They processed data using a dissecting scope, filtered, diluted, and plated bacteria on different media to identify species, tested the mosquitoes for WNV (Vector Test 2012), and calculated the Shannon-Wiener diversity index (Southwood & Henderson 2000) to compare organismal diversities near and far from water drainage pipes. The students used the index of connectivity (Saura & Rubio 2010) to compare dispersal between habitat patches, and determined where to control mosquitoes or invasive plants, or where to promote habitat connectivity of organisms that were in the verge of extinction. Using geographical information systems (GIS) with the program ARCVIEW, students made maps of the areas studied based on GPS locations that they all collected in the field.

As a result, the learning process culminated with their comprehension of "habitat connectivity." The attached are the students' final poster presentations.

Even though it was a gargantuan effort to encourage learning of all of these topics in such a short time, it was rewarding to see them learn and grow while they collecting data of their choice.


Sometimes educators can feel constrained with the methods they can use in undergraduate biology classes. What a treat has been to have the freedom to teach and use the inquiry method with my undergraduate biology students. And what a pleasure has been to see the students grow, even the ones that seemed to have been lost.

My biology students at Truman College, Chicago, are required to develop an open inquiry investigation as a final project. They learn the process of inquiry during the first few weeks of the semester, and then they have to produce a comparative question of their own choice to investigate during the rest of the class. This is a way to allow them to use their own voice and let their curiosity unfold. The presentations attached are some examples of open inquires that the students did during the spring 2012 (Seventy more Fall 2012 examples to come)

When I see my students creativity develop in front of my eyes, it feels me with satisfaction that what I was doing is having an impact. It makes me feel energized as an educator. Even though my students often procrastinated, and had many difficulties finishing what seems to be simple tasks to find the answers to their own scientific inquiry, they ended up succeeding without my help.

It has been a pleasure to see them grow intellectually, to witness their learning, and observing how they solve obstacles that emerge during their inquiry journey.


Using several subject areas to focus on a particular topic, I created a multidimensional way to teach content. In this "integrated classroom," multiple intelligences are exploited to identify which of them is a better approach for the students' learning through language, movement, sounds and philosophy (Bhattacharya et al. 2004). This is important because not everybody learns the same way: Some need to see words, others need to listen to sounds, and others need to move.

I designed an activity for 9 to 12 year old summer campers at the Brookfield Zoo, Chicago, with the goal of teaching them how to make field observations, and to learn new vocabulary in behavioral ecology. In this activity, campers had to set up seed traps with nuts attached to strings in order to find out if squirrels were moving the nuts and caching them elsewhere. By following the strings, the campers could measure the distance from the seed trap to the caching site.

The campers had to use multiple intelligences: linguistic (handled new vocabulary such as predator, prey, dispersal, fear); bodily/kinesthetic (when they played a “tag” game to understand the effect of predation on fear and the squirrel's foraging behavior); logical (when counting hazelnuts left or taken, measuring seed dispersal distances, and writing numerical results on paper), spatial (when they made a map of the sampling area using a compass); naturalistic (when they walked in the woods as a group); interpersonal (when they discussed their perspective about foraging and fear with the group); intrapersonal (when they reflected on their own conclusions and what to do next); existential (when they discussed how the results may relate to protection of endangered species).

A couple of campers came the following day to tell me that they were running the experiment in their backyards, with hazelnuts and dental floss. They were learning, testing, and enjoying doing science on their own. This was my biggest success. It was a phenomenal experience to see how the campers matured and learned how to think in new ways in a short time. Interestingly, even though I had originally been dubious about using the multiple intelligence teaching techniques at the camp program because nobody has reported using it in this setting, I found that an integrated classroom can actually be used in an informal setting.


When I started this AIP (Advanced Inquiry Program) master, I did not have students, or at least, not many. Inspired by the courses in the AIP, and wishing to promote inquiry in the classroom, I decided to create the opportunity to teach inquiry that was available to me at that time. As a board member of the District 181 Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides funds to incorporate activities that are not funded by the district, I created the inquiry grants program. This new grant program provides funds for curriculum development inquiry workshops for teachers in the district. The goal is to have participating teachers write an inquiry activity to incorporate in the classroom, and submit it to the foundation as a grant proposal after the workshop ends. The foundation provided stipends for all teachers that created an inquiry activity for the classroom and up to $500 on materials for the activity. Fifteen teachers attended a 5-day training program at the Brookfield Zoo between the summers of 2011 and 2012. Attached is a picture of the participating teachers during summer 2011 which was advertised in the annual review of District 181 magazine.

The most exciting part of the program for me has been to receive the final teacher's reports nine months after they test their inquiry activity with their students. The teachers send pictures of the children doing the activity, tell us what they would do next, and provide us with new inquiry questions to investigate. This has allowed me to extend the reach of inquiry even further into the community.



I had the privilege to participate for three consecutive months in the School of Environmental Education (SEE) at Riverside Brookfield High School in Chicago, which is one of the few environmental schools in the state of Illinois. Their school activities are not only environmental, with many weekly visits to parks, national forests and the zoo, but also the activities are mostly inquiry-based. This school, which became very close to my heart, was the inspiration to develop activities with my favorite organisms.

I created a semi-guided inquiry activity that helps students explore the macroinvertebrate fauna in water sources affected by different levels of pollution. Students develop their ability to identify macroinvertebrates, compare aquatic fauna from different sources of water samples, evaluate water quality using an index, document and analyze data, raise questions and hypotheses, and discuss other possible issues that could be investigated at a later time. These sets of activities were designed for freshman high school students but are applicable to middle school students as well.

Results from the activity were so powerful and telling about how inquiry can be used in biology classrooms, that I decided to submit it for publication. It was accepted in The American Biology Teacher, and published in September 2012 (Puche & Holt 2012).



At the zoo, inquiry becomes a process of interaction between counselors and campers where the counselor engages campers in generating questions and pursuing answers through careful observation and reflection (Llewelyn 2004). The inquiry cycle begins with a question that has to be comparative, simple, based on an observation, and exciting (Puche & Holt 2012). These simple steps are the stepping stones to involve children in doing science, promote critical thinking, empower campers to become independent and life-long learners, to generate and test ideas for themselves, and to question everyday values and their understanding of the world. While I was an intern, I developed several inquiry activities in the informal setting of the Brookfield Zoo that can be used by camp counselors to promote critical thinking among their campers. I tested a couple of them, one of which is described under "promoting inquiry in an informal setting."


An evolution plug-in is a short inquiry-based activity that links evolutionary concepts through life science curricula (Nims 2011). I designed this evolution plug-in to incorporate in my biology and evolution classes. Presently, I am teaching a graduate course in evolution at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. I have used my plug-in idea to promote critical thinking among students. They had to discover who were the perpetrators of different crimes, or had to identify the relationship between the Cheddar man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton found in 1903 in Gough's Cave, England (Lyall 1997), and the villagers of Cheddar Gorge using the Haplogroup U5 (Bramanti 2009).

Students tell me that they feel as if they were part of the crime scene investigation (CSI) team. These comments show me that science is "alive" for them, not just an activity that they are required to do in order to pass. Their enthusiasm as students is contagious to me as an educator, making me feel that I have done a good job.


During the summer of 2010, a representative of the school of environmental education (SEE), a school within the Riverside-Brookfield High School, gave a seminar to new AIP students (including me) about the SEE program. In this seminar, I found out that students in the SEE team participated in outdoor activities such as camping trips, kayaking, rock climbing, fishing, orienteering, water quality testing, zoo visits, and environmental education through inquiry. These activities had the goal to help promote personal responsibility in the SEE students, encourage respect for others, promote conservation of natural resources, develop critical thinking skills, acclimate the students to the outdoors, help students gain awareness of environmental issues, and guide them to apply environmental stewardship in the community (SEE 2007).

I was so inspired by this seminar, that I entered in conversations with the speaker who let me be a student-teacher in his class for three months in the fall. My original goal was to learn the inquiry approach in action. However, all of these conservation ideas made me realize that you could use inquiry to promote something bigger, such as love of nature and connection with wildlife.

With my strong background in statistics, I started my journey by evaluating the conservation values of the SEE students compared to students that were not in the program. Then, I evaluated the impact of the Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" (Gore 2006) on the students perceptions on how to help the environment. These were the stepping stones to organize a Green Fair, advertise it using a blog, and evaluate the change in conservation values in students from the community before and after visiting the Green Fair.

I also tested other ways to promote conservation action, such as creating a poster for the manatee conservation campaign. This section of the e-portfolio contains the rest of the story.


Environmental education (EE) has the aim to shape human behavior and promote responsible citizenship by developing awareness, sensitivity, attitudes, skills and participation toward resolution of environmental problems (Hungerford & Volk 1990). I worked in the School of Environmental Education (SEE) to evaluate if students that participated in the SEE program were 1) aware, sensitive, and understood the environment and its problems, 2) felt concern about the environment and were motivated to actively participate in environmental problems and protection, 3) had some skills in identifying and solving environmental problems, and 4) had begun to actively participate in solving environmental problems, compared to students who were in a traditional classroom setting. In addition, my aim was to determine if these attitudes and skills had been preserved over the years, and if there was a difference in environmental literacy, positive youth development, and responsible behaviors in students who were in the SEE program compared to students who were not involved in this program. Therefore, a key component of this study was the development of a set of indicators that would provide a reliable, replicable measurement of the success of environmental education using the SEE as an example.

The results of the study were remarkable. The SEE students were more sensitive to environmental problems, had more skills to evaluate them, actively participated on solving environmental problems, and their attitudes were preserved over the years, compared with students that were not in the program. This was an indication that the SEE program forges character and creates responsible citizens.

The SEE program was closed in 2011 due to economic downfall. However, I made a presentation at the Board of Education on November 8, 2011, to scientifically demonstrate that the SEE program was a success. Parents, students, and representatives from the Brookfield Zoo also made comments. As a result of these presentations and comments, the SEE program opened again in 2012. I was very satisfied that my investigation helped reinstate this program in the school.



Looking to engage the community on a path for a sustainable future, I organized a Green Fair with the District 181 Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides funds to teachers and students for activities that are not funded by the district. The goals of the Green Fair were to showcase District 181 students' activities for the environment, and to educate and inspire the community to make environmentally-conscious lifestyle changes to improve their quality of life.

For that purpose, we invited businesses, non profits and school groups to participate in the event, and encouraged them to create interactive learning opportunities for the community, e.g., the Girls Scouts organized a “Trash for Treasure” activity in which visitors created an art project with recyclable materials. Other activities included student science fair projects, and art competition pieces made from recyclable materials to be showcased at the Fair. Singing groups and bands made presentations throughout the day; speakers gave seminars on recycling, landscaping, health and environmentally friendly automobiles; recycling services (SCARCE, Waste Management) were provided to the community (crayons, rulers, computers, telephones, batteries, eye glasses, buttons), and paper shredding (Hinsdale Bank). All of these activities were in tune with community participation, and voice the importance of our actions for the environment. The intended audiences were 4,000 students from Hinsdale, Clarendon Hills, Burr Ridge, Oak Brook, and Willowbrook, all suburbs of Chicago.

It was challenging to organize 200 volunteers, and keep a high profile when a vendor or chorus did not show up the day of the Fair. However, 1,800 people came to the Fair, and with them, the conservation message was dispersed through the community.

This conservation action was advertised using a blog ( Visitors to the blog reached 4,487 people by 09/26/12.



The purpose of this investigation was to educate and inspire community members to make environmentally-conscious lifestyle changes that can improve their quality of life, and to evaluate the impact of conservation messages through the District 181 Foundation Green Fair. A pre-expo survey was distributed among nine elementary schools in District 181 to identify what type of actions the community was already taking at home to reduce their impact on the environment. The goal was to identify how many more activities the students visiting the expo would choose if the activities were advertised during the Green Fair compared to activities performed at home before the Fair.

For that reason, I set up 53 different posters (plus two copies of each) throughout the expo that were advertising actions that could be taken at home such as "turn off lights when not in use, take shorter showers, or walk instead of driving." Then, during the Green Fair, student visitors were invited to fill up the same survey which evaluated the impact of the expo on participants‘ changes in environmental perceptions on how home activities help the environment.

Initial results indicated that the community was active in "reduce, reuse, recycle." Monetary effects on reduction of water usage and turning off lights when not in use were powerful directors on environmentally conscious lifestyle changes. Advertising conservation actions in the expo and increasing knowledge about how home activities help the environment had an impact on expo participants. More diverse types of actions were chosen in the post survey compared to the pre-survey. Even though increased knowledge is no assurance that behavior change will occur (Hungerford & Volk 1990), it is a stepping stone to empower people to make different choices that can help the environment.

Advertising pro-environmental home activities through this Green Fair fostered environmental stewardship, and had implications on the local and regional understanding of conservation actions in the community.


Climate change is an ominous phenomenon that is altering the lives of animals, and plants, threatening the survival of our civilization (Gore 2007). Al Gore (2006) produced a movie titled “Inconvenient Truth” that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, creating a new international perception about the climate phenomenon worldwide. Even though the purpose of the movie was to alert people about the consequences of our actions on the planet, only at the end of the film, the movie mentions written examples of what “ordinary citizens” can do to help ameliorate climate change, making it confusing to identify between recommendations for climate change and the movie credits. I was interested in identifying freshman students' conservation values if they were exposed to this movie. I was also interested on knowing what would be the attitudes of freshman high school students compared to adult participants.

This simple survey had striking results. Girls were more impacted by the polar bears dying, while boys did not have a sense on what to do to protect the environment. Adults had more diverse ideas on how to protect the environment than teenagers. It was also perplexing to realize that teenagers only chose actions that they were accustomed to do at home to protect the environment, but did not take into consideration new ideas. Therefore, new actions to slow climate change would need to be introduced in their everyday lives if we need them to incorporate those actions to protect the environment.


To determine which poster inspired people to help the manatee conservation campaign, a group of students and I created several posters. Biospheric (B), Environmental concern (E), Family-related (F), and Knowledge-Species-specific (K) which they shared with each other. Each person sent out the four posters (via Facebook or email) to a target audience of about 10 people asking them to rank the four different posters according to which they thought best inspired conservation action (1st, 2nd, 3rd 4th). The environmental concern poster (E2) expressed concern about fishing lines tangling the manatees, propellers colliding them, plastic bags hurting them and encouraged people to protect them. This poster had more effect on the audience, making this poster their first choice. Therefore, for any other campaign, those messages that have more impact on people are the ones that need to be used to promote conservation action.



Conservation of natural resources and environmental protection are of paramount importance to preserve the earth ecosystems (Groves et al. 2002). My conservation journey started by investigating what promotes conservation values both in students and the community. By evaluating these impacts, I discovered ways to build character in youth, to create responsible citizens, and to foster environmental stewardship in the community all of which have implications on local and regional understanding of environmental issues.

Even though I have been an observer about how to promote environmental protection, this conservation path has set up the stage to find better ways to promote conservation in my community. Through the District 181 Foundation, not only I have launched inquiry grants for teachers that are becoming the “inquiry ambassadors,” but also, I have promoted other conservation projects that include a wind turbine (Crawford 2009, D181 Foundation 2010), and a water harvesting unit in two different schools. Using this alternative energy is planting the idea in the community that energy-efficiency improvements and renewable energy are conducive to cost reductions and abatement of total emissions (Bretschger & Smulders 2011). Fresh water supports at least 100,000 species out of approximately 1.8 million (Dudgeon et al 2006). Therefore, the activities provided to the students in the district on how to use renewable energy, and how to save water represent major steps to protect the environment, maintain healthy ecosystems, and preserve biological diversity, which are part of the seven pillars of ecosystem management (Lackey 1998).

My goal is also to continue forming critical thinkers and changing citizen's behavior concerning the environment. This approach will build students' character and create environmentally responsible citizens that not only will care for the environment but also will make the right decisions about social injustices and other issues of our times, and look for solutions to solve them.


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