Engaging students in inquiry is a major goal of reform-based science education. Yet we rarely offer students the opportunity to direct their own investigations. The hands-on labs that students typically complete in school are often teacher-directed or so tightly scripted that students never get the chance to engage in science the way that scientists do. They don't ask the questions, design the investigations, or engage in the type of scientific debate that leads to deep understanding. Is it hardly surprising then that students typically don't understand the nature of science or develop abilities to do inquiry.
However, creating the circumstances where students can direct their own inquiry can be overwhelming. Even with computer and internet access, it's challenging to find safe resources that span the range of needs a class might generate. And teachers find it difficult to support so many students working on a variety of different tasks simultaneously.
The virtual environments we create in the VELscience project are designed to address these challenges and engage students in student-directed inquiry. In student-directed inquiry, students generate questions, design investigations, collect and analyze data, and use that data in a meaningful way, such as developing a solution to a problem, making a prediction, explaining a phenomenon, evaluating an artifact, or designing a product. Each VEL we create presents students with a challenging task, but this challenge is made manageable by the fact that all the resources needed to address it are available in the program. Teachers are supported through the Module Management System, which offers lesson plans, prepared presentations, and guidance for assessing learning in the module.
Students don't need to learn everything in science through student-directed inquiry, but by offering them multiple opportunities to plan and direct their own investigation, the VELs we develop can can contribute to a robust curriculum capable to helping students develop a deep understanding of what science is and how scientists work, and perhaps best of all, just how engaging science can be.