Guided Inquiry Used for Gowanus Canal Research Project

At Allen-Stevenson, getting our boys to think for themselves by asking meaningful questions and learning how to problem solve is a key part of our vision as educators. And through a guided inquiry sixth grade science project, spearheaded by John Zufall, Science Teacher and Eighth  Grade Advisor, and Liz Storch, Librarian for Grades 6-9 and Seventh Grade Advisor, our boys did just that last spring. 
Students visited the Gowanus Canal, where half of the boys conducted hands-on science testing, while the other half walked along the pier, allowing them to see the canal and to talk about the implications pollution poses. Before the visit, boys spent several classes learning about the history of the area and how the canal became polluted, giving them a basis for their inquiry. By traveling to the Gowanus Canal, students were given the opportunity to see, first hand, what pollution was doing to the canal, rather than merely observing photographs in books. This sparked their curiosity and increased their desire to make meaningful proposals to help improve conditions in the area.
 
Using guided inquiry—meaning a framing questionproposed by Mr. Zufall and Ms. Storch, the boys developed their own questions based on their particular interests. The project was designed to allow the students to focus on scientific principles and employ an investigative approach. Here the framing question was – What do you want this neighborhood to look like in six years when you will be graduating from high school? Students then developed their own questions based on their interests and first-hand investigations and immersed themselves in the project by learning everything they could about the Gowanus Canal. They explored what tools the community was using to combat pollution: bioswales, blue houses, rainwater capture systems, etc., and as part of their research focus some of them considered whether they might find ways to improve on those methods.
 
Rather than allow the students to ask simpler questions such as, “How are we going to clean the water?” Mr. Zufall and Ms. Storch “guided” the students by asking them to go one step further to problem solve by researching the community’s views on the Gowanus Canal, by reading up on community meeting reports, to see what the residents of the area wanted to change. They also worked on their research skills by gathering historical information from the Gowanus Canal Conservancy as well as online newspaper and articles and videos about the area. In a prime example of how Allen-Stevenson blends disciplines to create a holistic educational experience, these efforts were led by Liz Storch who was on hand in the classroom throughout most phases of the project.
 
After all the research was complete, to further develop skills they will need in the future, students presented their 2024 Plan for what they want a city to look like in six years, how they would get there and what they can do to help combat pollution to a panel of teachers and administrators as well as a marine biologist. 
 
Reflecting on this project, John Zufall made an important observation about the benefits of using guided inquiry in teaching, saying, “Because our boys were focused on what they saw as important, rather than what I stated was significant, this project kept their interest far longer than others. They were solving the problems they saw, not simply doing an assignment for me. Finishing one question spurred another, and they happily investigated them on their own.” 
 
When asked if he thought the project was a success, and if he’d do it again, Mr. Zufall answered both questions without hesitation, “absolutely.”
 
 
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Allen-Stevenson’s distinctive “enlightened traditional” approach educates boys to become scholars and gentlemen.