Experimenting in a constructivist high school physics laboratory



Although laboratory activities have long been recognized for their potential to facilitate the learning of science concepts and skills, this potential has yet to be realized. To remediate this problem, researchers have called for constructivist learning environments in which students can pursue open inquiry and frame their own research problems. The present study was designed to describe and understand students' experimenting and problem solving in such an environment. An interpretive research methodology was adopted for the construction of meaning from the data. The data sources included videotapes, their transcripts, student laboratory reports and reflections, interviews with the students, and the teacher's course outline and reflective notes. Forty-six students from three sections of an introductory physics course taught at a private school for boys participated in the study. This article shows the students' remarkable ability and willingness to generate research questions and to design and develop apparatus for data collection. In their effort to frame research questions, students often used narrative explanations to explore and think about the phenomena to be studied. In some cases, blind alleys, students framed research questions and planned experiments that did not lead to the expected results. We observed a remarkable flexibility to deal with problems that arose during the implementation of their plans in the context of the inquiry. These problems, as well as their solutions and the necessary decision-making processes, were characterized by their situated nature. Finally, students pursued meaningful learning during the interpretation of data and graphs to arrive at reasonable answers of their research questions. We concluded that students should be provided with problem-rich learning environments in which they learn to investigate phenomena of their own interest and in which they can develop complex problem-solving skills.