Engaging Young Scientists with Inquiry: Part One

Building inquiry into your science lessons will make science concepts more concrete for your class.

By Erin Bailey

Boy looking through magnifying glass

We have all watched a baby drop items from a high chair. Over and over and over, yet the game never loses its appeal. Of course, we know the outcome will never change; for the baby this is a mystery that requires lengthy experimentation. This is science at its best: a mystery to solve, an engaged student, and an experiment that begs for repetition. Unfortunately, science instruction in schools often fails to engage learners because the mystery is never presented. Today’s science texts are filled with hundreds of pages of facts, but none of the puzzles that kids love to solve.

What Is Inquiry-Based Science?

Inquiry-based science is like Agatha Christy. Nail-biting tension. Wild chases. Abundant unknowns. A page-turner that students won’t want to put down. This style of instruction is also daunting for many teachers who don’t have the confidence to implement the techniques that make inquiry such a fantastic way to learn. Luckily, it isn’t as difficult as it might seem.

This article and another which will follow tomorrow, will look at the components of inquiry and how to tackle them one at a time. Taking small steps toward better science instruction will deepen your students’ comprehension and interest.

Essential Features

The National Research Council proposes four essential features of the inquiry-based classroom:

  1. Learners are engaged by scientifically-oriented questions.
  2. Learners give priority to finding evidence that helps them develop and evaluate explanations which will address their scientifically oriented questions.
  3. Learners evaluate their explanations after hearing other explanations.
  4. Learners must communicate and validate their explanations based on the evidence and their own scientific understanding.

As teachers, it is our job to create situations in which children use all of the process skills. They must ask questions, design investigations to answer those questions, analyze the information, and draw inferences and conclusions from their data. When children design an open inquiry, they are able to practice all of the process skills. They also get to gather authentic information on their own which maintains interest and builds confidence in their own skills. However, students do not necessarily arrive in your classroom knowing how to think scientifically. These skills must be taught, just like adding in a column or diagramming a sentence.

Making Observations

Developing a classroom environment that supports inquiry begins with teaching how to make observations. Making observations with scientific value takes practice. Helping children differentiate between empirical observations (made with the five senses) and non-scientific statements is a first step toward good observations. Describing the wall as white and bumpy is helpful, while saying, “It is ugly,” provides little useful information about it.

As learners make observations, guide them with questions:

  • Which sense did you use to make that observation?
  • You used your sense of sight. Can you use another sense?
  • Do you think your observation is a fact or an opinion? Would everyone in the class agree with that observation?

To demonstrate how important good observations are, try this exercise:

  • Provide many small items for the class to observe.
  • Some examples might be rocks, seashells, or leaves.
  • Have them each record their observations about one of the objects on index cards.
  • Shuffle the cards and redistribute them among the participants.
  • Then, ask them to locate the item described. This can be repeated as many times as needed throughout the year to deepen observation skills.
  • To wrap up the exercise, ask pupils to comment on what good observations included: adjectives, details, used more than one sense, etc. In time, they will also note that observations like, “It is ugly,” are not very helpful in identification.

As learners develop their skills, introduce other materials to help them make more observations. Give them a piece of graph paper and ask something like, “How could this piece of paper help us make better observations?” Some will trace their object; others might measure it using the squares. Ask them again to locate an item using only the descriptions provided. Children will discover that information about the shape and its dimensions are powerful identification tools.

Asking Questions

Learning how to ask questions that can be investigated using inquiry requires time and modeling. Hanging pictures of places or topics that your class is interested in might serve as a catalyst for asking questions. In a primary classroom, a picture of a black bear next to one of the spirit bear (a black bear with a mutation that turns its fur white), might be a good start. Model open-ended inquiries like, “I wonder if one bear is better at hiding in the forest than the other. How could we find out?”

When studying liquids, pose a question such as, “Do you think that water and alcohol will both freeze at the same rate?” or “I think water will freeze faster than alcohol.  How can we find out?” These are examples of guided inquiry. The teacher knows the answer but learners must investigate to find it.

Another approach is a role-playing exercise. For example, tell the class that they are traveling to Kenya. The teacher will serve as a resident expert on the topic, and the children may ask questions to prepare for the trip. They might begin by asking close-ended questions such as, "Is it hot there?" Model how to ask questions that gather more information:

  • “What types of clothing do you wear in Kenya?”
  • “What types of animals live there?”

The next step is to have children perform a skit about what it is like to live in Kenya using the information they have gathered from their questions.

Making Predictions

Making predictions is another skill that must be cultivated. A role-playing exercise like the one above can also develop prediction-making skills. Tell your class that they are now going to pretend to be a zebra in Kenya and it hasn’t rained for a long time. How might the zebra adapt?

A different method is to present them with a table of materials like plastic wrap, newspaper, aluminum foil, and popsicle sticks. Ask children to make an umbrella to shield themselves from the hot Kenyan sun. Which one material will work best? What if they needed to build a shelter in Antarctica? This second exploration can then be added to the skits. Freeze the action to ask pupils about their choices and hear their logic. This is a good way to better understand the way they are thinking about the science concepts that you are trying to present.

These three process skills are the bedrock of science. The next article will examine the importance of evaluating data, communicating ideas, and the role of assessment in inquiry.

Until then, consider these lessons from Lesson Planet:

Archaeological Inquiry

This study develops observation skills with the help of an archaeological artifact. Participants describe what they see with the help of a worksheet and use the information gathered to determine the item’s purpose.

Is That a Fact? 

A New York Times lesson where learners gather data to support or refute such popular claims as “Eating carrots improves eyesight.” While a thorough list of questions is provided, encourage your class to develop its own questions to practice this vital skill.

Magnets and Springs

Children use springs and magnets to investigate physical science concepts. After participating in class experiments, small groups design their own inquiries to test other variables affecting the strength of the magnets and springs.

Using Java Applets for Inquiry-Based Physics Lessons This article describes how to use Java Applets to demonstrate physics concepts about conservation laws. Although it does not follow all of the tenets of the National Research Council for inquiry-based classrooms, this resource does ask pupils to make predictions, analyze data, and evaluate their own predictions based on the outcomes. Doing such a lesson at the beginning of a unit would ground it more firmly in inquiry since they would not already know the outcomes.