Making the Case for Conversations in the Research Process

Years from now, when educational researchers evaluate how the restrictions of Covid changed classroom teaching, will experts discover that some of the most essential things about effective teaching remained constant and possibly blossomed in new ways?  Simultaneous in-class and distance-learning instruction poses a communication challenge for teachers and teacher librarians, but a recent Inventors project with 5th graders showed that making time for small conversations sparked the inquiry process and deepened understanding. Here are a few examples of how conversations led to “Eureka” moments for students as they researched inventors.

Launching Conversations with Short Videos
The Inventors research project provided wonderful opportunities for students to explore the Design Process. The below diagram was used as a touchstone as we began each class with a 10-minute exploration of how an inventor used the Design Process. The class discussion was launched by considering how the design of the spoon has changed over the years (from wood/bone to metal to plastic spoons), and students identified the plastic spoon’s merits (disposable/cheap) as well as adverse factors (non-degradable/environment hazard). Then students watched a video about an edible spoon created by Narayana Peesapathy, an inventor from India who created edible cutlery to lessen the problem of plastic waste in India landfills.

As students watched the video, they identified Empathy (problem of plastic waste), Ideas (several flavors; nutritious ingredients of millet and rice); Problems to solve (funding); and Testing (women workers provided samples of spoons to people in the streets of India). In class, students even received samples of edible spoons to taste.This initial inventor example promoted excited conversations and memorable connections to the Design Process.

Design Process

Other Inventor discussion starters included:
* Wind-powered Lego Car (video showed funding through a Twitter campaign)
*Thomas Edison’s Lab (video showed research lab is manned by experts in various fields)
*Lewis Latimer (video showed how inventors build on the ideas of others)

Modeling What Good Readers Do
Excerpt paragraphs from the Lemelson MIT website were used to model aloud what good readers do: clarify unfamiliar vocabulary and make connections to the text. The Visible Thinking Routine of Sentence, Phrase, Word was used by students to discuss important keywords to add to their notes. Using an article about Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the dishwasher, students discussed how Cochrane’s family and her education sparked her curiosity as an inventor, and they discovered how technology of the time (inadequate home water heaters and inferior soap) made Cochrane’s invention a success in hotels but not in households. It was not until 1950s when access to better water heaters and improvements in soap (as well as changing attitudes of women) made the dishwasher a success in the home. This was an important lesson that inventions and their importance can change over time. Science teacher Jan Fertitta was invaluable as she engaged students in classroom conversations to think more deeply about their inventors.

Connecting with Images and Primary Sources
Students expanded beyond text sources and located images using Britannica Image Quest and Advanced Google Searching (limiting search to Rather than just a portrait of the inventor, several students located patent designs or images that revealed more of the story of invention. One student discussed with me why she chose a particular painting image of Louis Pasteur. She explained that she chose the image because it showed one of his famous experiments to refute the theory of spontaneous generation. I thought that was an interesting comment, especially since the image caption did not provide that information. Later, while working with another student who was also researching Louis Pasteur, we located an article describing Pasteur’s experiment, and the experiment was indeed detailed accurately in the painting image: Pasteur is depicted with two flasks, one a closed-off swan neck flask that retained the sterile solution and the other an open flask with a cloudy solution, proving that bacteria in the air had contaminated the solution.

Louis Pasteur. Fine Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 8 Feb 2021.

Promoting Peer Conversations
Our current cohort classrooms have made facilitating peer conversations a challenge. To facilitate collaboration,the Language Arts teacher, Caroline Ferguson, has used Zoom breakout rooms as a helpful means for students to meet across cohorts (and with distance learners) for peer critiques and conversations during the research project. Students used CoSpaces to develop interactive digital scenes to present important aspects of the inventor/invention process. Students shared their developing CoSpace scenes with each other through Zoom breakout rooms, which promoted engaging and helpful conversations about good design, clear communication, and incorporating specific details from their research notes. One student was developing a digital scene about Jacques Cousteau and a thought bubble had simply stated: “I know, I will create the Aqualung.” After a small conversation and encouragement to use details from her notes, she edited the thought bubble to add specific details about the problem (see below). Students enjoyed the digital storytelling of CoSpace scenes.

Defining the Problem

Making Connections Among Inventors
Students used Graphic Organizers to develop 5 scenes for their Inventor CoSpace, and students made interesting connections as they added ideas to their graphic organizers. One student noted that her inventor, Milton Hershey, had his “Eureka” moment while attending the 1893 Chicago Exposition (World’s Fair), and that another student’s inventor, Josephine Cochrane, won an award for her dishwasher at this same Chicago Exposition. We both marveled that this must have been an exciting opportunity for inventors to share their new inventions and get new ideas. Students who researched Black Inventors (such as Garrett Morgan, Madam C.J. Walker, Charles Richard Drew, and Patricia Bath) discovered that in addition to their inventions, these inventors had a lasting impact by working for social change that would help the Black community.

All of these opportunities for conversations, whether in full class settings, teacher-student conferences, or peer communications via Zoom, promoted an insightful exploration of inventors. The Art of Communication to guide and deepen inquiry is a valuable tool in the research process.