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Windows on the Inquiry Classroom

A Pedagogic Field Laboratory for Exploring Teaching and Learning of Heat, Temperature, and Energy

Journal of College Science Teaching—July/August 2021 (Volume 50, Issue 6)

By Christopher F. Bauer and Julia Y. K. Chan

A complete video and documentary record of an inquiry-based nonscience majors’ course has been captured (the “Fire and Ice” Collection). Every moment of 27 class sessions may be observed from several points of view (instructor, students, and graduate interns) in synchronized 10-minute video segments, daily reflections, or periodic focus groups. The collection is like an ecological field site—a pedagogic field laboratory—for science teachers, teacher educators, and STEM education researchers to explore. The course addresses the perception, movement, creation, and application of the concepts of heat and temperature, and the historical development of these ideas. The pedagogic design features small student working groups, hands-on activities for exploration of phenomena, generation of questions, building of mental models based on the particulate nature of matter and molecular structure/property relationships, and linking these models into areas of application involving everyday materials and issues. The documentation available includes all instructor scripts, assignments, student work products, and class materials. The Fire and Ice Pedagogic Field Laboratory offers a source of materials and ideas for teaching about energy, an authentic example of inquiry teaching and learning, a resource for professional development, and a database for research.


A virtual STEM Pedagogic Field Laboratory has been created in the form of a complete video and documentary record of a college course called “Fire & Ice” about the perception, movement, creation, understanding, and use of heat. This virtual laboratory has multiple purposes: (1) to be a source of materials and ideas for teaching about heat and temperature, (2) to be a detailed example of inquiry-based STEM instruction, (3) to be a resource for professional development, and (4) to be a database for research investigations. The Fire & Ice Pedagogic Field Laboratory is an open-access resource hosted by the University of New Hampshire Scholars Repository (Bauer, 2019; 2020).

Shulman argued more than a quarter century ago that teaching “is conducted without an audience of peers” (Shulman, 1987) and that teaching, to be considered important work, needed to become “community property” by being “made visible through artifacts that capture its richness and complexity” (Shulman, 1993). In response to this challenge, the teaching portfolio has become a common (though not universally accepted) component of a faculty member’s academic record (Hutchings, 1998). Similarly, faculty-learning communities (Tinnell et al., 2019) have become a way for colleagues to share and reflect collectively on practice. Video documentation may be incorporated in these activities, but remains for the most part private. Video case study as a vehicle for professional development has become common for K–12 (e.g., NBPTS, 2019; Tch Teaching Channel, 2019; WGBH Foundation, 2000), but not so much in higher education. An internet search reveals that most video resources for teaching emphasize product (e.g., a how-to guide), but not process. As Shulman argued, materials are needed that provide affordances for exploring processes of pedagogy at a fine-grained level.

The Fire & Ice Pedagogic Field Laboratory is a contribution toward this end. Besides being a visual model of inquiry through the video record (the what), the course documentation illuminates the intellectual structure and purposeful design characteristics (the how) of the curriculum. Furthermore, the record attempts to reveal how theoretical principles of learning and social dynamics (the why) are operationalized in a real classroom. It makes it all public, showing the action in front of and behind the curtains. Like a biology field site, the Fire & Ice site provides visitors opportunities to explore a complex ecosystem, to observe patterns of behavior, and to spark questions about how and why those patterns arise. The following perspectives are included:

  • classroom action from the viewpoints of the whole room, the instructor, and groups of students in 10-minute segments
  • instructor’s daily reflective class preview and postscript
  • the course design process and decisions regarding content
  • student focus groups at midsemester and at the end of the semester
  • daily debriefings and periodic interviews with graduate student pedagogic interns
  • daily class agendas, assignments, and student work products

As with any biological field site, the Fire & Ice site is an authentic ecological system, not an ideal one. It shows real students working with real instructors in real time, rolling out a curriculum intended to build their understanding of scientific concepts and the nature of scientific inquiry.

A pedagogic resource

The course

The Fire & Ice class was an elective for about 20 first-year students through senior honors students, requiring no background other than high school science. Most students were in liberal arts or business majors, but a few had majors with more science focus (neuroscience, nursing, civil engineering). The class exemplified “inquiry-based instruction,” in which students build their understanding of concepts by engaging in the practices and habits of mind of science. The selection of readings, activities, and discussions were patterned in a learning cycle structure (Abraham, 2005; Karplus & Their, 1967; Simonson, 2019). The course used extensive group discussion and hands-on explorations to develop ideas about heat from physiology, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, and the history of science. Those ideas were organized first as a map of concepts, activities to support cognitive construction of those concepts, and applications thereof (Figure 1). The map was converted into a sequential outline that ramped up sense-making through two conceptual centerpieces: (a) the particulate nature of matter, including kinetic energy and motion (to develop laws of thermodynamics) (Bauer & Chan, 2019), and (b) chemical structure and properties (to develop how energy relates to phase and chemical change). Table 1 lists the chronological sequence of topics. All documentation is stored in the Fire & Ice Collection (Bauer, 2019).

Figure 1
Concept map for Fire & Ice course. Created using  Lucidchart (
Table 1
Abbreviated conceptual outline of Fire & Ice course.

For hands-on activities, we looked for small events that could lead to big ideas: We sought straightforward procedures that science novices could implement with autonomy, that would produce reliable observations, and that would support construction of important concepts. Experienced instructors would recognize many of the hands-on experimental procedures as being frequently described in K–12 teaching compilations and curriculum series. What was novel is a discussion structure that guides student teams to autonomously construct deeper understanding of concepts and to connect them with everyday life extensions. Materials and equipment for the course were selected with a limited budget in mind using common laboratory materials, commercial household items, and devices from STEM teaching catalogs. Grant funds were used predominantly for the personnel and materials to create the video record and to set up the field site.

For example, on the first day as an initiating event, students dipped their fingers (blindly) into hot or cold water, followed by room temperature water, and reported conflicting observations of perceived temperature. Emerging spontaneous questions recorded on poster paper (a question bank) showed an interest in the neurophysiology of temperature sensation. Readings and discussion, planned in anticipation of this interest, expanded into exploring the nature of hot and cold as understood in the 17th century, the development of reliable temperature measurement devices, and human response to chemical agents (menthol “coolness” and capsaicin “hotness”). Visitors to the field site are welcome to inspect and download activity scripts, examine student work, watch how students work through the activities, and review student team responses to questions.

The four graduate student interns were experienced laboratory teaching assistants who were interested in inquiry learning, but not experienced in designing or implementing with that structure. Three have since become high school chemistry teachers.

Documentation process

The course ran twice, the first time without a video record. The second run of the course was video-documented for the National Science Foundation grant (Bauer, 2014). Students were informed about the class structure before registering. All agreed to release ownership of their audiovisual record (nonanonymous) and consented to allow course products to be available (anonymous for graded assessments) for Institutional Review Board–approved research investigations conducted by the authors. All students participated in the focus groups.

The Fire & Ice STEM Pedagogical Field Laboratory is a complete course in vivo, with extensive documentation of instructor insight, student work products, and outcomes. Figure 2 shows the classroom layout. Two cameras were positioned at opposite ends of the room to capture student team conversations. Sound acquisition was by camera-mounted boom microphone or lavalier microphone placed on the table. (The latter was more successful than the former when background noise was substantial.) A third camera, providing a ground-level view from the corner, was linked to the instructor’s microphone. Lastly, a GoPro camera was elevated in the rear to provide a room-wide perspective. A TASCAM digital audio recorder was mounted in mid-room to the ceiling rack. This soundtrack was coupled with the GoPro video. The only technical failing was that sound quality from some student group discussions may be compromised by background noise or quiet voices. Video recording was done for every minute of 27, 80-minute class periods. Raw video was edited into segments approximately 10 minutes long, a comfortable viewing length. The one or two GB file size allows for minutes-long download times. All camera angles were synchronized so that viewers could move from one viewpoint to another and be at the same point during the class.

Figure 2
Fire & Ice classroom layout showing people (dots) and recording devices.

Videos and course materials are stored in the University of New Hampshire Scholars Repository, which may be accessed directly (Bauer, 2019) or through a “front door” website and directory (Bauer, 2020). Each day has a homepage with links to anything associated with that day. The collection allows streaming or downloading. In video form, this includes instructor pre- and postclass commentary, the classroom from four camera angles in 10-minute increments, and a postclass debrief among the graduate interns. The instructor’s intended agenda, student activity instructions, images of hands-on materials, short videos of phenomena, and student work products (written reports or posters) are available in document form. In addition to day-by-day information, there are also videos of a think-aloud course design process, interviews with the graduate interns at key times (preclass, early days when just observing, later days when participating, and after their own self-designed class presentation), and focus groups with students at midsemester and at the end of the semester. Where videos have clean audio tracks, closed captioning was created by the software product Kaltura then edited for corrections manually. Table 2 shows how repository information is organized.

An example of inquiry-based STEM instruction

A growing body of research demonstrates the value of active learning (Cavanagh et al., 2018; Freeman et al., 2014; NRC, 2012; ). Despite persuasive evidence, change in faculty practice has been slow in coming. Research has reported on the extent, fidelity, and sustainability of implementation of research-based instructional practices such that real and perceived barriers to change are becoming illuminated (Andrews & Lemons, 2015; Brownell & Tanner, 2012; Dancy & Henderson, 2010; Dancy et al., 2016; Gibbons et al., 2018; Henderson & Dancy, 2007; 2008; Lane et al., 2019). Shadle et al. (2017) go further, presenting a comprehensive assessment of barriers to and drivers for change. Time investment to learn about and enact changes is cited most frequently as a barrier. Confusion about what inquiry means and uncertainty about how to implement changes are additional barriers. In other words, instructors may lack a good mental model of what it would be like for them to teach using inquiry-based approaches—what they would need to think about at a day-to-day, minute-to-minute level. Perceptions of one’s ability to teach using inquiry approaches (self-efficacy) will affect motivation for initiating or sustaining effort.

The Fire & Ice Pedagogic Field Laboratory lowers some of these barriers and supports some of the drivers for change. For example, it offers STEM faculty members and preservice teachers an easy way to become familiar with inquiry instruction (by “visiting” the video course), to see and hear how a seasoned instructor negotiates the course in real time (through embedded commentaries), and to experience what a novice instructor feels (through the graduate intern reflections). Thus, the field site’s video record provides vicarious experiences and supportive commentary, which are two modes by which self-efficacy expectations regarding teaching may develop (Bandura, 1977; Pintrich & Schunk, 1996). Instructional innovation seems to take root particularly through informal communication with colleagues (Dancy et al., 2016; Shadle et al., 2017) and when some have expertise in STEM educational research (Andrews et al., 2016). The Fire & Ice site provides these affordances because it includes day-by-day instructor commentary and course design reflection that is explicit about implications from research. Further, because the Fire & Ice classroom is always available, there are no scheduling barriers to seeing any aspect of this inquiry-based course in action.

The Fire & Ice site also recognizes that another strategy for supporting faculty change is deliberate focus on beliefs (Henderson et al., 2011). To address this challenge, interviews with instructors and students have been incorporated. They are rich with explicit discussion about thinking, decisions, and emotions, hoping to allay anxieties about implementation and to model pedagogic problem solving. For example, beliefs about student resistance and preparedness can be inspected at the field site by watching students work, listening to focus groups, and inspecting their end-of-course surveys.

Professional development resource

Sections of the Fire & Ice resource can be downloaded and incorporated into faculty workshops or courses for college or precollege teaching. Some potential uses would be to:

  • Select video segments for novice instructors to view and identify what they notice about instructor and student behaviors, using the teacher noticing framework (what is noteworthy, what teaching/learning principles apply, and how teachers analyze this information) (Kisa & Stein, 2015; Sherin et al., 2011).
  • View the progress of an entire lesson and study student work products in order to identify factors that suggest that students are learning sophisticated ideas about heat, temperature, and energy.
  • Inspect the nature of the instructor interactions with student teams to explore to what extent those interactions support or detract from effective team functioning.
  • Have instructors predict the amount of time required for students to complete a specific hands-on activity and their reactions and conversations, then watch students complete the task. What does this imply for design of teaching materials?
  • Search on the keyword “hands-on” to find pieces of the collection that describe hands-on exploration activities, and then identify the extent to which students in working teams were equitably engaged with the physicality of the activity.

Research investigation database

The authors have presented on graduate intern development (Bauer & Chan, 2016a), student learning gains for thermal concepts (Bauer & Chan, 2019), and affective outcomes (Bauer & Chan, 2016b) as research studies. However, the field laboratory provides an opportunity for other researchers to explore further questions. The authors welcome inquiries regarding new investigations, such as the following:

  • What is satisfactory or not about the teaching/learning experiences of participants? How do these opinions align with the instructor’s intentions?
  • Searching the keywords “bond energy” to find places where students try to make sense of this idea: What is the progression of the discourse, and does that provide evidence of a growing understanding of the idea?
  • Creating a day-by-day observation profile using Classroom Observational Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS) (Stains et al., 2018) and investigating alignment with perceived expert and novice instructor intentions.
  • Testing the alignment of different observational protocols.

Conclusions and implications

The Fire & Ice STEM Pedagogical Field Laboratory was designed to reduce barriers and create affordances for visitors to engage with the course and its participants. Temporal and physical limitations are minimized as the course lives in virtual space. Importantly, visitors also have access to tacit cognitive spaces: what the instructor, students, and graduate interns are thinking about the educative process. These normally hidden features are included via contemporaneous instructor pre-/postclass commentary and graduate intern postclass debriefings. Post hoc commentaries are also available from students in focus groups and from individual intern interviews at key times in their experiences. The extensive “behind the curtains” commentary is intended to anticipate questions that visitors may raise about how and why, substituting for the conversation one would want to have when visiting a colleague or when interviewing students in person.

The Fire & Ice Pedagogic Field Laboratory consists of one instructor working with one particular group of students in its own unique setting. Faculty in other settings, for example with large classes, may wonder whether this speaks to them. Granted, the logistical issues for large classes are different and require consideration, but the pedagogic structure and principles may still be enacted there. The Fire & Ice record can serve as a starting point and resource in professional development workshops.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1245730. The manuscript was improved with the helpful review of Dr. Kathleen Bowe.

Table 2. Content of Fire & Ice Collection in library repository.


  • Orientation documents
  • Table of contents by date and segment topic
  • Readings bibliography
  • Keyword tags for video segments


  • Syllabus
  • Design process and structure (concept map, schedule, agenda)
  • Student focus group videos*, course survey
  • Graduate intern interviews*
  • Student work (assessments)


Documents of class components

  • Daily outline (always)
  • Discussion, hands-on activity, materials used, poster products, writing products, departing messages, question banks, summary messages


  • Instructor preview*
  • Ground-level instructor
  • Students teams
  • Elevated whole-room view
  • Graduate intern postclass debrief*
  • Instructor postclass debrief*

Christopher F. Bauer ( is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire. Julia Y. K. Chan ( is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at California State University, Fullerton in Fullerton, California.


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Inquiry Pedagogy Research Postsecondary

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