The VELscience project addresses the need for new models of instructional materials capable of engaging students in authentic inquiry in order to enhance their abilities to do scientific inquiry, as specified by the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996).The goal of the VELscience project is to design and develop web-based modules for middle school science that engage students in student-directed inquiry. These modules immerse students in virtual environments for learning (VELs) where they take on the role of scientists engaged in a complex task. The virtual settings presented in the VELs support students in designing and carrying out their own investigations. All resources needed to complete the task posed in each module are provided within the context presented in the VEL. Like scientists, students identify questions, design and conduct scientific investigations, use virtual versions of the tools used by scientists to gather and analyze data, develop products in which they use evidence to support their reasoning, and collaborate with peers to analyze alternative arguments. The modules also provide teachers with support for professional development in facilitating student-directed inquiry.
The goal of the VELscience project is to create a replicable model of software capable of engaging students in student-directed inquiry. All the modules therefore contain the same core features. They are
Each VEL has a core task that students must address. This task may take the form of a problem to solve, a phenomenon to explain, or a prediction to make. The task is ill-structured, meaning that it requires more information than learners initially have and that there are multiple viable solutions. Numerous challenges are embedded in the task; as students encounter these challenges they will recognize a need for additional information or skills. Students must then identify the resources within the VEL that they can use to meet those needs and apply their learning back to the task. All core tasks provide opportunities for the use of both grade-appropriate science and mathematics concepts and skills. Each task results in a product (e.g. a solution, plan, prediction, or model) which students communicate to their peers.
The Opening Scenario
The task for each module is introduced in an opening scenario delivered in a multimedia format. This scenario is designed to pique studentsí interests and set up the format for the product students will create. However, the scenario does not direct studentsí processes.
Each VEL contains a variety of resources students can use to meet their learning needs for accomplishing the core task. Chief among these resources are scaled versions of the emerging information technologies (e.g. rich data sets) that are currently transforming the way that scientists work, and virtual scientific instruments which are less complex than their real-world counterparts, but which engage students in cognition similar to that of scientists.
Scaffolds for Inquiry
Tools will be embedded within the VELs that support studentsí development of the abilities to do inquiry, as identified in the NSES (NRC, 1996). Examples of scaffolds include prompts, organizational charts, expert modeling, and practice opportunities with coaching.
The Module Management System
Every module is integrated with the MMS, a web-based module management system that teachers use to register classes and students, plan lessons, monitor student progress, and assess learning.
Educative Materials for Teachers
The management system contains educative components, meaning that it supports teachersí professional development by addressing the theoretical underpinnings of the program and methods for successful implementation (Davis & Krajick, 2005).