Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.1, 75-78
Published Online February 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 75
The Role of Women in the Utilization of Inquiry-Based
Science Instruction
William D. Simpson
Department of Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum, University of Oklahoma,
Norman, USA
Received December 24th, 2011; revised January 20th, 2012; accepted February 5th, 2012
Historically women have been excluded from the domain of science since antiquity. Women were viewed
as lacking the attributes necessary to carry out rational thought. However, women such as American as-
tronomer Maria Mitchell in the 19th century during her tenure as Professor of Astronomy at Vasser Col-
lege in the United States may have been the first scientist to utilize inquiry-based science instruction.
During the 20th century an elementary teacher named Vivian Coulter was one of the first teachers at an
elementary school in the Midwestern United States to utilize the learning cycle which is a form of struc-
tured inquiry-based science instruction. This led to a partnership with the University of Oklahoma that has
led the learning cycle to be disseminated to many school districts in the Midwestern United States.
Keywords: History of Science; Women in Science; Maria Mitchell; Vivian Coulter; The Learning Cycle
Natural philosophy has since antiquity limited women in the
enterprise of science. As early as the time of Aristotle women
were excluded from scientific inquiry. Aristotle believed that
rational thought was caused by the element fire and since the
source of heat was the male testicles, which women lack, it was
ascertained that women were better suited for other endeavors
not the fire-generated natural philosophy (Scheibinger, 1989).
This attitude was considered true for two-thousand years as
women were routinely designated as unsuited for rational
thought and natural philosophy. There were some women that
flirted with the idea of gaining sound understandings of the
workings of nature. Margaret Cavendish was one of the first
ladies to suggest women had a right to an education in natural
philosophy and she was allowed to attend lectures at C ambri dge
University which disallowed women from earning college de-
grees during her lifetime (Scheibinger, 1989). In France during
the 16th century Emilie du Chatelet helped the natural Philoso-
pher Voltaire interpret Newtonian physics. In fact her transla-
tion of Principia still stands as the only French translation of
Newton’s famous work. In England during the 19th century
Mary Wollstone craft wrote books aimed at showing that w ome n
had a right to be educated in science. However, she would be
discredited when it was learned after her death that she had
many lovers and had mothered an illegitimate child (Rossiter,
1982). That child just happens to be Mary Shelby who arguably
wrote the first science fiction novel: a quite popular book
known as Frankenstein.
Science was considered dangerous for women. Many male
scientists believed that activities involving scientific inquiry
would harden a woman’s ovaries and make her incapable of
having children. Other scientists believed if women were al-
lowed to earn college degrees, the delicate balance which held
society together would break down and moral decay would be
the outcome (Fara, 2004).
However, during the 19th century women’s colleges started to
emerge and many of their teachers were women. Women
proved to be very formidable instructors and some of these
teachers brought an approach to the classroom that was quite
distinctive from men teachers. Before the 19th century science
was predominantly taught through lectures, textbooks and an
occasional demonstration. Such teaching methods are termed
exposition. In the modern world more emphasis has been
placed on empirical gathering of data and allowing the students
to construct knowledge themselves. This philosophical para-
digm has been termed constructivism (Tobias & Duffy, 2009)
and the methodology is called inquiry. In this paper I wish to
illustrate that inquiry teaching may have emerged during the
19th century. Teachers such as Mary Lyons at Mount Holyoke
Seminary and Maria Mitchell at Vasser College emphasized a
philosophical approach in their teaching that may have been the
genesis of inquiry teaching. I desire to consider Maria Mit-
chell’s rise to be America’s first astronomer may have laid the
groundwork for what for what has evolved into inquiry teach-
ing procedures. I also want to describe the story of an elemen-
tary school teacher in a suburban United States town who began
a movement within her school district to utilize a radical but
innovative teaching practice known as the learning cycle. This
paper hopes to not only show women as potential teachers in
the field of science but also as pioneers in science education
that have benefitted not only young women but also young men
in developing their scientific reasoning abilities.
Inquiry Teaching in the Nineteenth Century
It is uncertain when exactly inquiry teaching methods began.
However, when women professors at women’s colleges that
emerged in the 19th century are closely scrutinized, it is appar-
ent that their teaching strategies were different than the exposi-
tory teaching methods of men at more prestigious universities
who stressed lectures and the readings of textbooks (Rossiter,
1982). One such woman was Maria Mitchell who is recognized
as the first woman astronomer in the United States. I wish to
give a brief biographical sketch of Mitchell’s accomplishments
and honors prior to her professorial appointment at Vassar Col-
Maria Mitchell was born August 1, 1818 on Nantucket Island.
She was the third of ten children born to William and Lydia
Mitchell. The Mitchells were Quakers who stressed education
and rejected frivolous pleasures (Shearer & Shearer, 1997).
Mitchell’s mother loved to read and worked in libraries. Wil-
liam, her father, was a school teacher and amateur astronomer.
William taught Maria to respect nature and they were frequent
observers of the night sky (Shearer & Shearer, 1997). Nan-
tucket was a whaling community and William was consulted by
whalers about weather conditions of the sea. Maria learned
from her father how to set the whalers chronometers and she
performed these tasks during the absence of her father. William
encouraged Maria to study mathematics and at the age of sev-
enteen she opened her own school. It was at this time that Ma-
ria began to tinker with experimental teaching methods (She-
arer & Shearer 1997; Bergland, 2008; Rossiter, 1982).
When Maria turned eighteen her father was appointed cashier
at a local bank and a small observatory was built onto the top of
the bank building in which the Mitchell’s lived. William also
worked for the United States Coast Survey who loaned William
a four-inch equatorial telescope. William and Maria spent many
nights calculating the altitudes of the stars and determined the
latitude and longitude of Nantucket. William was well-respected
by other astronomers of the time with whom he corresponded.
These interactions benefitted the young Maria (Shearer &
Shearer, 1997).
In 1836 Maria was offered the position of librarian of the
Nantucket athenaeum. She worked there twenty years and since
the athenaeum was only open in the afternoons and Saturday
evenings, she had plenty of time to conduct astronomical ob-
servations (Shearer & Shearer, 1997).
The event that would catapult Maria to world-wide fame was
her observation of a new comet on October 1, 1847. She also
calculated its orbit. Her Father notified William Bond of Har-
vard College who would confirm the discovery. The King of
Denmark had announced a few years earlier that a gold medal
would be awarded to the first person who discovered a comet
with a telescope. After some verification it was determined that
Maria had discovered the comet first and she received the King
of Denmark’s gold medal. This discovery and award made her
famous in both Europe and the United States and she became
the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences (Shearer & Shearer, 1997; Bergland, 2008).
In 1857 she resigned her position at the Nantucket athe-
naeum and traveled to Europe with the daughter of a wealthy
Chicago banker. While in Europe she met many famous scien-
tists including John and Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville
and William Whewell. She also had the opportunity of meeting
and traveling to France and Italy with Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel
Hawthorne (Bergland, 2008).
During the 1860s Matthew Vassar established a women’s
college he wanted to rival men’s colleges of the time. He of-
fered Mitchell the position of Professor of Astronomy. At first
Mitchell balked because she had she had never earned a college
degree herself. When she accepted the position, she and her
father moved to the campus of Vassar College. While at Vassar
she lived and slept on a cot in the newly built observatory (Ber-
gland, 2008).
While teaching at Vassar she adopted some unconventional
practices in her teaching. She wanted her students to develop
the ability to think and to question what they had been taught.
She didn’t report grades, taught small classes, had her student
to use simple technology and she took her students on field
trips. This was a far cry from traditional expository teaching
that was being used by men at male colleges. According to
Rossiter (1982: p. 14) the more Mitchell “saw of the foibles of
the men in her field, the more urgent she felt the arrival of
Mitchell’s pedagogical techniques were unorthodox as she
stressed to her students the need for self-discovery. This is the
style of teaching found in modern inquiry classes today. Mit-
chell was regarded as one of Vassar’s best teachers. In all
twenty-four graduates from Mitchell’s program at Vassar would
move into professorial positions at other women’s colleges
(Shearer & Shearer, 1997).
After Mitchell’s retirement and eventual death her message
to improve the quality of science education for women did not
open as many doors for women as she had hoped as men soon
began to dominate professional positions in science. Her teach-
ing strategies suffered as well as expository teaching became
the norm for over a half a century. During this time the inquiry
methods utilized by Mitchell were all but forgotten. However,
in the 1950s inquiry would undergo a rebirth and it took space
satellite known as Sputnik to bring to light teaching strategies
that Mitchell had put to use during her teaching career.
The Genesis and Development of Inquiry-Based
Teaching in the Twentieth Century
Throughout the twentieth century science teachers predomi-
nantly used expository teaching methods. This pedagogy con-
sisted of science teachers presenting science concepts using
lectures and textbook readings. After the concept had been
presented didactically, the teacher would then take the students
to the laboratory to verify the concept taught. However, when
the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in the late 1950s, scientists,
science teachers and government leaders panicked. It appeared
that America had fallen behind the Russians in math and sci-
ence education. A movement was started in America to teach
math and science in a fashion that would lead students to utilize
more critical thinking skills in their classes.
In the late 1950s Robert Karplus, a physicist at the Univer-
sity of California-Berkley volunte ered to help ele mentary schools
in Berkley teach their students science. Karplus did not like
what he saw being performed in the elementary schools he
worked with. He set out to develop a pedagogical technique
based upon learning theories espoused in the twentieth century.
Using a teaching strategy based upon the mental functioning of
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Karplus developed a science
teaching method of structured inquiry that eventually became
known as the learning cycle. This teaching strategy consists to-
day of five phases: engagement, exploration, explanation, ela-
boration and evaluation
During the engagement of a learning cycle students are pre-
sented questions to search out what previous knowledge the
students have about the concepts to be learned. During an ex-
ploration, students make observations, take measurements and
collect data through the manipulation of objects pertinent to the
concept being explored. The teacher during this phase directs
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
students on using new instruments, collecting accurate data and
organizing information or data into appropriate tables and
charts. During explanation the teacher guides the students
through predetermined questions that allow the students to con-
struct the concept to be learned. After the students grasp the
concept, the teacher gives the students the terminology and the
language that compose the concept. During elaboration the
students perform additional investigations, work problems and
go over readings that present the concept in different contexts
and allow the students to relate the new concepts to previously
learned concepts. During evaluation tests are given or papers
assigned which the teacher asse sses to determine mastery of the
learned information.
The learning cycle is not only structured inquiry but is based
on the mental functioning model of Piaget. The components of
this model are assimilation, accommodation and organization.
During the exploration phase of a learning cycle when students
are collecting data in their investigations, they filter information
through existing cognitive structures called schemata. This pro-
cess is called assimilation and leads to disequilibrium. During
the explanation phase of the learning cycle students are faced
with questions about the data they have generated. This may
cause disequilibration if it has not already occurred during the
exploration. Through questioning the students the teacher al-
lows the students to come to an understanding of the concept to
be learned. Once that concept has been grasped by the students,
cognitive structures change or new schemata develop and new
concepts have been learned resulting in a new reequilibrium.
This reequilibration is what Piaget termed accommodation and
the students now understand the concept of the investigation.
During the elaboration phase of the learning cycle, the students
further explore the concept through other investigations and
readings that will allow for more assimilation and accommoda-
tion. As the students explore the concepts in new contexts they
are able to relate the concept to new situations and relate the
concept to previously learned concepts. Piaget calls this process
organization. Organization can be understood a putting thought
is accord with previous learned thought. It must be emphasized
that the teacher cannot perform the processes of assimilation,
accommodation and organization (Marek, 2008). Teachers can
only act as guides that foster these natural processes. It is the
students using information that they discover through the learn-
ing cycle that allows for assimilation, accommodation and or-
ganization. Thus as the students progress through a learning cy-
cle, they are concomitantly learning through a natural process.
Getting the learning cycle espoused seems to have been the
easy part of getting science teachers to utilize inquiry-based
instruction. Getting science teachers to actually use it in their
classrooms is another matter. However, in the early 1960s the
University of Oklahoma hired a science educator named John
W. (Jack) Renner. Renner was a follower of Robert Karplus
and a devout Piagetian. He started teaching the learning cycle
and inquiry-based instruction in his classes at OU. In 1963 a
young elementary education teacher named Vivian Coulter
enrolled in Renner’s graduate level science teaching methods
course. Coulter was very impressed with Renner and inquiry
teaching and volunteered the following school year to pilot the
learning cycle in her elementary school science class. The ex-
periment was a great success as the students and their parents
notice a keen increase in their enthusiasm toward science. The
principal of her school was also impressed as were the other
elementary teachers at her school. The next year the thirteen
elementary school teachers at Coulter’s school also chose to use
inquiry-based instruction in their classes. Dr. Renner became
very instrumental in conducting in-service workshops for all the
teachers at Coulter’s school. All these teachers it turns out just
happened to be females.
The superintendent of the school system Coulter worked in
also took notice at the enthusiasm toward science the students
at Coulter’s school demonstrated. Renner was approached to
conduct in-service workshops for all elementary school teach-
ers in the district as the learning cycle became adopted district
wide. Coulter and a handful of other female elementary school
teachers would eventually write a textbook series that contained
learning cycles for all science classes in grades kindergarten
through sixth-grade. Coulter had started something that would
be special for her school district as well as the University of
Oklahoma as a partnership emerged that still exists today
(Marek & Laubach, 2007).
In the 1970s Coulter’s school district under the direction of
Renner and Dr. Edmund Marek and Dr. Linda Atkinson, who
were science coordinators of Coulter’s school district, adopted
inquiry-based instruction for their high school classes and
learning cycles were written for biology, chemistry and physics.
In the 1980s this school district developed learning cycles for
their middle school science classes. Coulter’s efforts turned into
a district-wide phenomenon. Over the years since the Univer-
sity of Oklahoma has received grants from the National Science
Foundation to bring in teachers from schools from the South-
Central United States to learn about inquiry-based instruction.
Now many school districts in surrounding states and Oklahoma
utilize inquiry-based instruction and most states science cur-
riculum standards emphasize the utilization of inquiry-based
science teaching.
On the surface it would appear that Maria Mitchell and Vivian
Coulter had very little in common. One was one of the most
famous scientists in the history of science while the other was
just an elementary school teacher. However, each one wanted
their science teaching to be different and distinctive from tradi-
tional didactic strategies that had been used in the classroom.
Each one wanted their students to be able to think and to be
able to generate new knowledge in their scientific studies. What
is the best teaching strategy? One should consider the quote
made by historian of science Duane Roller (1970) when he said
“Science is the quest for knowledge, not knowledge itself.
Maria Mitchell and Vivian Coulter each wanted their students
to do this “questing.”
It is doubtful that Mitchell’s used anything like the learning
cycle. The theorists that espoused the constructivist theories
upon which the learning cycle was based were just being born
when Mitchell was at the height of her teaching career, but I
can’t help but believe Mitchell would have shown the same
enthusiasm as Coulter if confronted with a constructivist para-
digm. It would be interesting what Mitchell’s response to Kar-
plus, Piaget, and Renner would have been. It is an intriguing
question that science and education can only speculate and
never know the answer.
It is obvious that women have had much to offer the enter-
prises of science and education. Women also have proven to
have been visionaries in their approach to science education.
Historians of science should revisit the teaching strategies of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 77
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
early women of science and explore what these women have to
offer in the development of inquiry-based science instruction.
Women may have been significant figures in developing pro-
gressive pedagogical strategies and may have had much to offer
in the way of inquiry-based instruction. Their contributions to
science education may have been as immense as their “Quest
for knowledge.”
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Marek, E., & Laubach, T. (2007). Bridging the gap between theory and
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