Invention activity

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Invention activities are a type of discovery learning and belong the larger family of active learning methods or approaches to teaching different topics. Students work together in groups to discover a target principle or concept on their own through the process of inventing something. Somethings the term is used more loosely to inductive activities where students discuss and deduce a principle from a data set. Lectures are limited in scope, and more focus is on group discussion, and student-teacher and teacher-group interaction.

Invention activities were developed by college professors teaching math, science, and engineering.

  • Students are given data about the IQs of two groups of people, blue people and green people. They must determine whether the data ranges in the two data sets are substantively different, and thus, whether the two groups are really different. This leads them to deduce statistics concepts like variance.
  • Similarly, students are given data about the performance reliability and accuracy of two or three machines, such as a baseball pitching machine for baseball practice (Roll et al.[1]; Schwartz & Martin, 2004[2]). Averages alone are not enough to gauge reliability, so they must deduce the concept of statistical variance.

The invention or task might directly relate to the target concept, or it might not seem to do so, but serves as a memorable analogy for the target concept - a more symbolic or analogical invention activity. For example, in the zoo exhibit activity, students devise zoo exhibit cages with mice and squirrels that allow one animal to pass freely between two chambers while confining the other animal to one side. This example from Taylor et al. (2010)[3] serves as an analogy for teaching cell membrane permeability in biology.

1 Rationale & evidence

In addition to the rationale for active learning activities in general, science pedagogy research provides evidence for the effectiveness of invention activities.

Invention activities were originally created by Daniel Schwartz at Stanford University for teaching statistical concepts, and studies by Schwartz have reported evidence for their effectiveness over traditional teaching methods (Schwartz & Martin, 2004[4]; Schwartz et al., 2007[5]). A recent study by Taylor et al. (2010)[6] assessed their effectiveness compared to problem solving activities (PSAs) and a control group with only standard classroom instruction. The Taylor study found that invention activities and PSA activities lead to similar achievement results in a cell biology course, and also yielded other cognitive advantages.

The study compared groups of freshman students in a cell biology course. Those in the IA condition worked on the zoo exhibit exercise and other IAs, while those in the PSA condition did problem solving tasks directly related to the target course concepts. The two groups showed similar results on midterm and final course exams, showing that in exam performance the immediate achievement benefits of IAs were comparable to those for PSA tasks. More advantages emerged when looking at other factors. Surveys given to the students showed that the IA students made more comments, and made more contributions in creativity, problem solving, and thinking skills, compared to the PSA group. Another measure of group performance was engagement monitoring, or time on task, where the IA group was better able to stay focused on the task; also, some students in the PSA group reported feeling overwhelmed, not knowing where to start, or not feeling they had enough background knowledge to tackle the task (this is not evidence against problem solving tasks, which have been shown in other studies to be very effective, but this shows the need for more instructor guidance sometimes with PSA tasks). Finally, one noteworthy advantage was in problem solving skills. The researchers examined the number of solution threads created or explored by the different groups, and found that the IA group created significantly more solution threads or possible ideas than the PSA group. That is, the IA group lead to more creativity and enhanced problem solving strategies than the PSA or control groups.

Thus, the IA tasks were more engaging and motivating, and students were more likely to spend more time on an unfamiliar but interesting problem. The IA students were better at making connectinons between related concepts, such as the analogies between the IA task and the target cell biology concepts. The students were also more comfortable, more motivated, more creative, and more productive in the IA tasks.

2 Examples

2.1 Mad scientist activity

This symbolic invention activity from Taylor et al. (2010) helps students learn about the basics of DNA functions in cells.

Suppose you are a mad scientist who wants to create “a thing”that is self-replicating. It’s not clear if this thing is a machine or a something else. "Self-replicating" means that if it is left on its own, it will make copies of itself, and the copies will also be able to make copies of themselves.

  • The thing must be able to gather raw materials. The thing must be able to make (or gather) its parts.
  • The thing must have some sort of container to keep its parts together.
  • The thing must be able to gather and transform energy.
  • The thing must have a set of instructions that tell it what to do. Note that this encompasses a lot of ideas such as timing, blueprints, lifespan, error checking, and so on.
  • The thing must be able to pass on its instructions into its copies.
  • The thing must have the machinery (parts) necessary to read and carry out the instructions.

See also the zoo exhibit activity.


2.2 Characteristics of invention activities

Here are some characteristics of invention activities (Taylor et al., 2010).

  • Students “invent” solutions to problems.
  • The activities will not appear to be related to the class material. The activities will allow the students to generate analogies to scientific concepts. In

essence, the students will be solving the same problems that, say, living cells have solved.

  • The problem may have multiple possible solutions, and students should be encouraged to consider, discuss, and develop more than one option.
  • The activities are done before the actual relevant material is presented. The activity serves to prime them for the intended concept.

• Invention activities take time to design, but the benefit is in better, deeper learning and retention of concepts. Such activities are ideally done once or a few times per semester in a course.

  • The activities involve something fun, interesting or real-world-like that will make it engaging for students. For example, the zoo exhibit activity has been

found to be popular among students due to its cuteness factor.

2.3 Implementing invention activities

Invention activities could be done up to several times a semester for teaching more important, abstract, complex, and/or difficult concepts, with the following guidelines (Taylor et al., 2010).

  1. Students work on the given problem in groups (3+ student) for 15-30 minutes.
  2. A facilitator (instructor) is present to guide students and keep them on task.
  3. Each group writes out the solution on blank paper (or posterboard, flipchart, or such).
  4. Each group may be asked to present their solution to the class.
  5. Such activities can be used in large classes. Larger groups can be formed, and certain groups will be asked to share their solutions.
  6. Alternate version: After each group develops its solution, each group explains its solution to one or two nearby groups.
  7. They give each other feedback, and may revise their solutions accordingly. (This is ideal for smaller classes.)
  8. The task is done ideally in class, but may be done outside of class.
  9. After discussing students’ solutions, the instructor explains the intended (target) concept. For example, after the zoo exhibit activity, the instructor then

explains the concept of selective cell membrane permeability by referring to the zoo exhibit ”inventions”.

  1. Inform them that it is not critical that they get through every stage of the activity, but rather to be thorough and get as far as they can.
  2. It is important to stress that these activities are meant to give them practice tackling unfamiliar problems and help them develop scientific thinking skills.

Research has shown that these types of activities have a positive effect on how student think about problems and approach problem solving.

  1. It is important to refer back to the invention activities while presenting the relevant material in the subsequent lectures. Consistently making comparisons between the analogies developed during activities and the actual biological systems helps students make the connections and give them a framework upon which they can build their knowledge.
  2. If you or your students are not used to complex group activities, it might be better to start with smaller, simpler groups activities (not invention activities), so you / they learn how to do group activities, before introducing invention activities.


3 References

  1. Roll, I., Aleven, V., & Koedinger, K. R. (2009). Helping students know 'further' - increasing the flexibility of students' knowledge using symbolic invention tasks. In N. A. Taatgen, & H. van Rijn (Eds.), Proceedings of the 31st annual conference of the cognitive science society. (pp. 1169-74). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society. 2009
  2. Schwartz, D. L, & Martin, T. (2004). Inventing to prepare for future learning: The hidden efficiency of encouraging original student production in statistics instruction. Cognition Instruction, 22, 129–184.
  3. Taylor, J. L, Smith, K. M., van Stolk, A.P. & Spiegelman, G. B. (2010). Using invention to change how students tackle problems. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 9, 504-512.
  4. Schwartz, D. L, & Martin, T. (2004). Inventing to prepare for future learning: The hidden efficiency of encouraging original student production in statistics instruction. Cognition Instruction, 22, 129–184.
  5. Schwartz, D. L., Sears, D., & Chang, J. (2007). Reconsidering prior knowledge. In M. C. Lovett, & P. Shah (Eds.), Thinking with data. (pp. 319-44). New York, NY: Routledge.
  6. Taylor, J. L, Smith, K. M., van Stolk, A.P. & Spiegelman, G. B. (2010). Using invention to change how students tackle problems. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 9, 504-512.