How can Gatorade, vinegar, lemon juice, paper towels, a nickel, and a penny be used to make a battery?
Goessel agriculture teacher Zana Manche knows, but she’s not telling.
Not yet, anyway.
Manche has adopted a new technique, inquiry-based learning, which puts responsibility for learning in the hands and minds of students.
In past years, Manche would have followed a standard formula to teach about voltaic cells, which generate electric current through chemical reactions
“I was giving students all the information needed and they were completing the activity,” she said.
This year, she took a different approach, one that encourages exploration, questioning, and problem-solving.
Manche didn’t give instructions to the students. She gave them the materials described above, and more, and turned them loose to discover how to use those things to generate electricity.
“It’s a challenge at first because your instinct is to help them out and guide them in the right direction,” she said. “You have to be able to watch your students fail, because not everything they try works.”
Teacher as student
That’s the same way Manche learned about inquiry-based teaching, at a weeklong summer seminar in Maryland where she and other teachers from around the country became students.
The program, sponsored by DuPont, was taught by other high school teachers who themselves had adopted inquiry-based methods by participating in the seminar. They spent the week learning at a DuPont experimental agriculture farm.
“One of the things they pushed us on is that they weren’t teaching us a new way to teach, we’re just adapting,” Manche said. “It helps that I don’t have to change everything. I just modified things to make the students more in control.”
Teachers took old lesson plans with them to the seminar and learned how to change them to an inquiry-based approach. Manche said her interactions at the seminar were motivating.
“I was so in-awe of the teachers there,” Manche said. “I love to listen to teachers who’ve been teaching longer than I have. When you get together with ag teachers, you learn a lot. I’ll bet their kids just love their classes.”
Back to school
Manche said that after the seminar was over in mid-July she found it hard to wait for school to start so she could try out her new knowledge.
“I was so ready to go when I got back,” she said.
The voltaic cell activity was one of the first she tried, and she found the approach worked better than direct instruction.
“The level of questions they asked were much stronger,” she said. “When they had to really question the why and how, the level of questioning was so much better. It kind of killed them when they didn’t know how it worked.”
Students did the activity twice, giving those who failed the first time a chance to build on information from Manche and other students. They measured changes in electric current as they changed variables, such as using more vinegar and less Gatorade. They made posters detailing their results.
Manche also saw greater levels of enthusiasm from her students through the inquiry-based approach.
“It’s exciting to see they’re excited about something,” she said. “I love the feeling of being able to provide something for students that they might not otherwise get.”
Manche is using inquiry-based learning in all of her classes, with an overall goal of bringing greater understanding of agriscience principles to students.
She also will have a reunion of sorts with her DuPont classmates, as they are required to teach others what they learned through presentations at two national conferences.
One day, Manche said, she hopes to return to the Maryland seminar as an instructor.