Project: Inquiry, the pilot program of The Gregory School’s new interdisciplinary capstone research project, has advanced past its first semester. All of its students submitted a tangible “deliverable” at the end of last semester as a point of progress halfway through the year-long process.
This year, Inquiry is a project for upperclassmen that deals with Tucson’s water situation and asks them to solve local water-related issues in an interdisciplinary way by leveraging math, biology, chemistry, government, public policy, literature, rhetoric, economics, photography, and foreign language.
Before this project began, many Inquiry students knew very little about water issues in Tucson, including conservation and drought. Inquiry students continue to work on something that is a current, pressing issue in modern society for which a real solution does not exist yet. Students feel that they could make a real difference.
Inquiry was billed as a collaborative project where teachers and students would work together in groups. Each group would have a sort of ‘faculty advisor’ but they would also have the ability to work with all the teachers so they could find someone knowledgable in every field.
Last semester began with students and teachers taking personality tests in order to discover what type of worker they were in groups. Students were advised to create research teams based on a mixture from all of these groups, but were allowed to form their own groups.
Each group started by choosing a research question focused on Tucson’s water conservation. Even though the questions were intended to be interdisciplinary, research groups ended up focusing more on a specific area like science and technology, math and economics, or government and policy.
For example, seniors Brian Liu and Ruby Meyer worked with junior Tianyi Zhu to develop a more efficient irrigation system using dialysis tubes to conserve water and energy. The special tubes only release water when the soil around it is dry, and the group is trying to test the concept. Meanwhile, senior Daniel Rosenberg and juniors Caitlin McCormick, Alexa Frederique, Ben Davis, and Elaine Wright are developing a curriculum that will educate high school students about water. In order to gauge an understanding about what students already knew about the topic, they reached out to most schools in the Southern Arizona area.
All these groups ranged in size from three to eight students, and each began to tackle research on a different issue relating to water conservation. Field trips were planned during the fall Interim Week to the Central Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project and to see the effects of water issues on agricultural workers here in Southern Arizona. Special guests, such as Dr. Amy McCoy came to talk to the student researchers about the current state of Tucson’s water. Students contacted experts at Tucson Water and other local organizations as they tried to find information related to their topic.
Inquiry seems to have genuinely furthered people’s knowledge not only about water issues, which are extremely prevalent in today’s society, but also about how to work effectively in groups and how to properly conduct independent research.
“It has really prepared me for college,” senior Brian Liu said. “Pacing our own project and setting our own tasks without teacher guidance and skills, like we have had to do with Inquiry, is something that I need to be successful in university and beyond.”
But like all pilot projects, Inquiry has struggled with issues in its first semester. We came across an anonymous document prepared by some members of multiple Inquiry groups that listed some of the issues people were experiencing in the project.
For example, participating students were initially supposed to conduct the majority of their research work on Friday rotations. However, because Friday rotations ended up occurring so infrequently (six to eight times) over the course of this first semester, and because students were often “locked in” to other rotations throughout the day, it was difficult for research groups to make optimum use of their time on Fridays.
The Friday schedule and the concept of mandatory rotations other than Inquiry left some students uncertain about when Inquiry is required and when it’s not. In the document, students described being told one thing by one teacher, another thing by another, and a third thing under the PowerSchool form.
“We were told that we would have time every Friday, and that we wouldn’t have to do a lot outside of class, but it ended up being that my group had to meet every day for two weeks just to get on track. It needs almost as much time as a regular class,” an anonymous student claimed.
Furthermore, students have been confused about what it is they actually need to do in order to be successful in such a project. Because the system is so new, many students had difficulty knowing what it is they are supposed to accomplish. Maybe it’s because students aren’t quite used to self-driven research, but a large number of them have complained about being unsure of what they need to do.
No one is to blame for students being unsure about how to proceed with this project. But communication often suffered. Some students are enrolled in classes that actively integrate Inquiry that other group members are not enrolled in.
For example, people in a certain group may be in AP Government, which required participation in the project for a percentage of the course’s final grade. Some students may have been enrolled in AP Chemistry or AP Statistics, where students were given time to progress on their projects. However, because some students weren’t present in those classes, they were often unsure of the progress made, thus leaving everyone at different stages of completion in the project.
The focal points and questions of certain groups were changed in some of these “Inquiry classes” without other students being informed. “Faculty members completely scrapped parts of our project without consulting the group members who were doing the work for that part of the project,” an anonymous student said.
“Some groups had to completely change their course right before our deliverables were due, which made it really difficult to create a high quality project. The faculty has been trying to split up certain groups because some people were not in an Inquiry class. There is an expectation that people who are not in Dr. Berry’s [AP Government] class know what’s happening, but that is not true at all. This topic is a passion of mine, but since the communication aspect of the project as a whole has been handled so poorly, I can’t do it anymore.”
As a result of the “Inquiry classes”, some people were required to fulfill certain requirements relating to the project that their group members often were not. “It was also strange how the project counted as a a grade only for some people and not others,” an anonymous student said. “It’s not appropriate for people to assign grades for an extracurricular activity. Because it was only a grade for some, others did not feel incentivized and had no reason to complete the work.
Furthermore, some people were unsure about the collaboration with teachers. While students were encouraged to work with teachers, many faculty members had to remind students that it was a self-driven project. “It was supposed to be collaborative with teachers, but our grade was lowered because we sought out faculty help,” an anonymous student said.
Some issues with the project were not as a result of it being its pilot year, and were just typical struggles that students experience with such a complex and comprehensive group project. “I feel like we accomplished nothing,” an anonymous student said. “It made people in the group very angry at each other, and it caused a lot of problems between the students.”
Project: Inquiry, like anything new, is bound to receive its fair share of criticism. There are structural flaws present. However, we hope this project will continue to improve and work through its flaws as it develops and becomes further established in The Gregory School community.
All in all, Inquiry has inspired students to try and help their community at large in ways they never thought of doing before. The participating teachers, especially history department chair Dr. Michelle Berry, have put in massive amounts of time and effort in building this project from the ground up, and that is nothing short of commendable. With the hard work and passion put into this project by the teachers, the future of Inquiry remains bright.
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