The TIMSS results reveal, and national education standards stress, the value of inquiry-based learning, in which students apply the scientific method. They observe, hypothesize, experiment, and discuss and interpret results. Such learning allows students to build from everyday observations. "Even as simple an idea as dropping raisins in 7-Up and watching them bob up and down teaches principles of science," notes Richard Olenick, chairman of the physics department at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. In the past, such learning was reserved for the gifted; today, it is the goal for all.

Inquiry-based learning can stem from the imagination of an individual teacher, or be part of a large educational reform plan. Joan Wagner's eighth-grade classroom at the O'Rourke Middle School in Burnt Hills, N.Y., for example, overlooks a large pond that pupils built by digging a big hole and adding lining, filter, water, and frogs. The class continually...

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