Using Inquiry-Based Instruction to Teach STEM Concepts in Changing Learning Environments

This publication introduces an indirect method of instruction, Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI), as an example for teachers to actively engage students in the learning process while emphasizing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concepts in a variety of changing learning environments that include online, synchronous, and hybrid platforms. Effective use of IBI as an instructional method takes time, detailed planning, patience, and practice but is very rewarding for both the teacher and the student.


Instructional Teaching Methods

Preparing to teach an entire course, a single lecture, or a laboratory investigation requires the ability to first outline the content and then determine the student learning objectives related to the intended learning outcomes. Lesson planning is an important process to complete before teaching ever begins. Becoming an effective teacher requires time and practice using a variety of instructional teaching methods. Methods of instruction can be direct or indirect. Direct instruction is generally used to teach facts, rules, and action sequences that align with knowledge acquisition.1 Direct instruction tends to be teacher-centered using lecture or demonstration. Students passively learn while the teacher instructs. Conversely, indirect instruction focuses on inquiry and problem solving when the content requires teaching concepts, patterns, and relationships.1 Student-centered activities related to indirect instruction provide opportunities for students to actively engage in the learning process by using cooperative learning, questioning strategies, and individualized application. The teacher who uses indirect instruction is the facilitator of learning rather than the lecturer who uses direct instruction.

Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI)

Using inquiry-based instruction (IBI) as a method of instruction challenges students to think but also requires a mind shift of the teacher to facilitate instruction rather than simply deliver content through a lecture. Inquiry-based teaching for learners and teachers refers to the structure of “knowledge-in-action” rather than “knowledge-out-of-context.”2 Initially, both students and teachers tend to struggle with IBI. Students can become frustrated because they are not conditioned to think and answer questions while actively participating in the lesson. Teachers must learn to withhold information and challenge students to solve problems and construct responses to questions using higher-order thinking skills. While teachers may initially grapple somewhat when using IBI, and students may oppose this method of instruction due to their frustration of being asked to think, research indicates students benefit from this type of active engagement. When effectively using IBI, teachers will observe an increase in student motivation and overall advanced ability of their students to formulate questions.3

Changing Learning Environments

Entirely in-person, face-to-face instruction changed when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020. Instructional platforms and online teaching methods at Clemson University pivoted to be defined as

  1. Online: Students access course materials at their own convenience and interact with the professor or other classmates through discussion boards, email, and other flexible communication tools.
  2. Synchronous: Students log on at a scheduled time to interact directly with the professor or other classmates.
  3. Hybrid: Students complete course requirements via both face-to-face and online access to information.

Teachers and students all faced challenges to teach and learn using new technology and instructional formats during a time that required much modification and adjustment.

Description of Teaching Activity

In an Agricultural Education Instructional Teaching Methods (AGED 4010/11) course taught at Clemson University, students are required to “microteach” using inquiry-based instruction (IBI). The students prepare a lesson plan, submit it to the instructor for feedback, and then teach the lesson to their peers. The microteaching lesson occurs over a 30-minute timeframe and includes a lesson introduction and a lesson summary. The content of the IBI lesson must focus on highlighting the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concepts related to the lesson topic and student activity planned for the lesson. In the fall of 2020, an additional challenge was presented for the students to teach synchronously to two groups of students. Group one was face-to-face students in the classroom, and group two was students who connected virtually using a remote instructional platform. The challenge question was, “How will you actively engage all students in your STEM-IBI lesson using a hybrid learning environment?”

Example Lesson

Course: Manufacturing

Unit Essential Question: What are key principles of fabrication?

Lesson Topic: Determining the Structural Integrity of Different Style Weld Joints

Lesson Essential Question: How do we use principles of fabrication when designing a project?

Learning Objectives:

  1. Distinguish between three different weld joints.
  2. Describe the metal placement in different joint styles.
  3. Explain the processes behind welding through the different joint styles.
  4. Demonstrate how to weld three different joint styles.
  5. Demonstrate the use of design in fabrication.

Learning Activity: Q-tips® Cotton Swabs Trailer Build

Background: Welding is important to different types of construction processes. Although it seems like the metal is just being heated and bonded together, there is much more. There are many regulations established by different institutions that guide the specifics behind welding. There are also many different ways to go about the processes of welding.

Framework: It is important to know what is being called for to make the best decisions to succeed with your welds. Research in this area or having the knowledge of how to distinguish between types of weld joints and styles is important. The framework of this portion of the lesson allows you to choose how to properly design a project so that the integrity of the build is upheld.

Assessment Strategies: Throughout this lesson, students will be challenged to learn the design and engineering processes of a trailer through the use of inquiry-based instruction. Students will actively participate in a Q-tips® Cotton Swabs Trailer Build, allowing them to make their own design using Q-tips® cotton swabs as the metal and hot glue for the “welds.” In a hybrid learning environment, students will also demonstrate communication skills in their teams.

Implementation of the Learning Activity

  1. In a hybrid instructional environment, breakout rooms in video conferencing (e.g., Zoom Video Communications) allow in-person and online students to collaborate. Assign each in-person student to be in a group with one/two online students.
  2. Have handouts ready for student use and pass them out to in-person students and send links in the chat for online students once groups are created.
  3. Introduce the activity, Q-tips® Cotton Swabs Trailer Build, stating that each team of two to three students will have twenty minutes to work on the activity using the materials provided.
  4. Students can choose any style trailer they want with the materials provided, recalling weld joints and metal placement in different joint styles from memory as they start the design process with a partner. The trailer does not have to function, but the design needs to be presented.
  5. Allow collaboration between the students in their group only, no cross collaboration.
  6. At this point, pass out all materials for the in-person students to use, including Q-tips® cotton swabs, hot glue guns and glue sticks, and scissors. Review safety practices when using the hot glue gun.
  7. Once all groups have their materials, the build clock will start.
  8. Monitor students’ progress through the project; groups may pull ahead or fall behind. Make sure that questions from students are answered with probing questions by the teacher, so they are challenged to think and build conclusions on their own.
  9. Allow the full twenty minutes for students to utilize all materials for designing their trailer.
  10. Once the design period is over, give each group one minute to present their Q-tips® Cotton Swabs Trailer Build. Ask probing questions and encourage student-to-student interaction and assessment from other groups.
  11. After the presentations are finished, review the steps in the fabrication process through the use of questioning and introduce the extension of the lab activity for the next day.

Face-to-Face Instruction

For face-to-face instruction, this activity can be taught exactly as stated above. This allows students to physically work together and do research in their group, design their trailer, and then present to the whole class.

Online Instruction

During online instruction, students would be put into virtual Zoom breakout rooms to allow them to research and brainstorm and draw their design in a private team-of-two environment without interruption. In this learning environment, the teacher will circulate in and out of the virtual rooms to check on the students’ progress using questioning to encourage higher-order thinking.

Synchronous versus Asynchronous

For a synchronous learning environment, students in a Zoom or other remote platform can be grouped together, while the in-person students can be grouped together to allow discussion of the specific weld joints used in the trailer builds. If the learning environment is asynchronous, follow instructions for the online instruction model and add a peer review activity. If feasible, material packets could be provided for asynchronous students.

Discussion of Outcomes

Teaching IBI as a method of instruction involves demonstration through modeling effective questioning strategies and lesson activities, providing timely feedback on lesson plans, and allowing opportunities for practice. Students in the Teaching Methods in Agricultural Education (AGED 4010/11) course at Clemson University during the fall of 2020 developed detailed lesson plans, taught a “microteaching” using IBI to their peers and reflected on the experience. After teaching the Q-tips® Cotton Swabs Trailer Build activity, the reflection submitted by the student indicated that detailed planning and use of inquiry successfully engaged all students in the lesson.

“Basing my lesson plan off of a couple days of instruction, I believe that the lesson flows and builds off of each portion that was taught before. I really felt prepared in this lesson because of the amount of detail that was already in the plan I had in the description of the activity. I knew what the lesson required and what processes needed to be conducted during the project that the students were completing. The review of materials, group assignments, and all details were listed perfectly in the lesson plan and stated through the activity where all students were able to participate in the ways they needed. I believe that as the lesson got started and the trailers started to develop out, I was able to adequately question the students to provide that inquiry portion so that the students picked up on the trailer needing to be structurally sound in every aspect. The students were completely engaged during the activity, and I feel like they were able to be engaged in the review portion also.”

Reflection of Outcomes

Effective indirect instruction using IBI can and should be used in all instructional formats. With the current changes in education resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, instructional formats and teaching and learning platforms are constantly evolving and changing with the times. Teachers must be willing to adapt their teaching practices and adopt new technologies and innovative strategies to engage students in learning. Engaging students in active learning requires adequate planning and preparation that takes time and practice. The time investment teachers make now will benefit the learning of current and future students. Online/Synchronous/Hybrid instructional models will continue to evolve. As we prepare students for careers, we are challenged with teaching them how to think critically and solve problems. Preparing active learners who can proficiently utilize the technologies in today’s educational settings will help meet the demand for a scientifically literate workforce.

Discussion of the Potential Adoption in Other Courses

The National Research Council provides a guide aligned with the National Science Education Standards for teaching and learning related to IBI as an instructional method. 4 Table 1 presents five essential features aligned to the amount of direction from the teacher and learner self-direction. The five essential features include (1) engaging the learner in a question, (2) learner providing evidence in responding to the question, (3) learner formulating explanations from evidence, (4) learner connecting explanations to scientific knowledge, (5) learner communicating and justifying explanations. As the variations move to the right in each column, the level of IBI increases. Teachers who wish to utilize IBI as a method of instruction in their courses are encouraged to use the guide to redesign a current lesson by analyzing the five stages and shifting the lesson one step to the right to increase the level of inquiry. Teachers should recognize that effective use of IBI as an instructional method takes time, detailed planning, patience, and practice.

Table 1. Essential features of classroom inquiry and their variations. The amount of learner self-direction increases from column A to D. The amount of direction from the teacher of the material decreases from column A to D.

Essential Features A B C D
1. Learner engages in scientifically oriented questions Learner engages in question provided by teacher, materials, or other source Learner sharpens or clarifies question provided by teacher, materials, or other source Learner selects among questions, poses new questions Learner poses a question
2. Learner gives priority to evidence in responding to questions Learner given data and told how to analyze Learner given data and asked to analyze Learner directed to collect certain data Learner determines what constitutes evidence and collects it
3. Learner formulate explanations from evidence Learner provided with evidence Learner given possible ways to use evidence to formulate explanation Learner guided in process of formulating explanations from evidence Learner formulates explanation after summarizing evidence
4. Learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge Learner provided all connections between the question, scientific knowledge, and an explanation Learner provided some of the connections between the question, scientific knowledge, and an explanation Learner provided the resources to make connections, but connections are drawn by learner Learner independently examines other resources and forms the links to explanations
5. Learner communicates and justifies explanations Learner given steps and procedures for communication explanations Learner provided either steps or procedure for communication Learner provided general guidelines in order to communicate explanations Learner determines the format by which explanations will be communicated

Source: Adapted from National Research Council (2000).


Students enrolled in the Teaching Methods in Agricultural Education (AGED 4010/11) course at Clemson University during the fall 2020 semester are recognized for the innovative strategies they developed to teach their STEM- IBI “microteaching” lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic. They experienced a variety of instructional platforms as students and learned to teach instruction methods in various instructional environments. These students accepted the challenge to effectively teach STEM concepts using IBI across multiple teaching environments for all students. Special recognition to Philip Rhodes for granting permission to use his example of the Q-tips® Cotton Swabs Trailer Build activity.

References Cited

  1. Borich GD. Effective teaching methods: research-based practice. 9th ed. New York (NY): Pearson; 2017.
  2. Applebee AN. Curriculum as conversations: transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago (IL): The University of Chicago Press; 1996.
  3. Thoron AC, Myers BE, Abrams K. Inquiry-based instruction: how is it utilized, accepted, and assessed in schools with national agriscience teacher ambassadors? Journal of Agricultural Education. 2011;52(1):96–106. doi:10.5032/jae.2011.01096.
  4. National Research Council. Inquiry and the national science education standards: a guide for teaching and learning. Washington (DC): The National Academies Press; 2000.

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