4 Simple, Meaningful, and Impactful Inquiry Project Ideas for 2021

Inquiry-based learning can be a lot of fun – especially finding lots of great ideas and inspiration. However, I tend to hit a roadblock when it comes to planning. Personally, I have a habit of bookmarking and downloading lots of amazing inquiry project ideas, but I find it very time-consuming to actually plan everything out.

Over the years, I’ve narrowed down some great inquiry-based project ideas that touch on a variety of subjects. I’ve found that these projects give students the chance to be creative and derive meaning from the work they do. These projects are also incredibly relevant to the times we’re living in now; they reflect a change in today’s students to be more hands-on with their learning. They want to make a real impact on the world.

The inquiry-based projects I’ve gathered below can be used in-person, but also work great with virtual learning. Some of them have been tweaked slightly to correlate more with current events and the current educational climate, but the outcomes have remained similar. Please feel free to borrow these ideas and let me know in the comments how they worked out for you!

1. What is my family’s story?

In this activity, students explore their family history. This can be done at school, at home, or a combination of both. Through conversations with family, students can create a family tree that shows their family members and ancestors. They could even include some photos. Students may choose to create a digital family tree, or put together a scrapbook of their family’s unique heritage and history. There are many ways students can be creative in telling their family’s unique story.

Alternatively, students could record a “day/week in the life” in personal journals. Students can interview their family members or friends to gain their perspective on a variety of everyday issues. Or perhaps students have a chat with their parents about family events, history, and special memories. Keeping a photo diary would be an interesting way to record daily events and reflect on moments throughout the day.

Focus on inquiry-based social justice

Activities like this are especially important right now with social justice movements at the forefront of our news cycles. Having students take time to observe their home, community, and everyday life can be an extremely powerful way to engage students and help them make connections between issues and events on the news and their own lives. For example, they might notice that their local recreation centre has closed due to lack of funding. Maybe they notice a discrepancy between the selection of books they have at home and the books available at the school library. This activity can also be part of a larger inquiry unit on social justice issues.

With respect to students who might not have a traditional family structure, they could choose to explore the history of their community, their school, or choose someone who inspires them and conduct an inquiry project on them instead. Try to build inclusivity into your projects and be sensitive to the unique dynamics of your students’ lives.

A great resource similar to this activity can be found on Scholastic’s Website as well as in this downloadable PDF document. You may also be interested in letting your students create a project centred around their response to the COVID-19 pandemic; check out Part 1 and Part 2 of the project for the step-by-step guide to implementing this in your classroom!

2. How can we manage food scarcity?

The issue of food production and distribution has brought up questions about how to make our food systems more reliable. This project is suitable for students in middle and high schools who can grasp the concept of food scarcity.

In an article published by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the effects of COVID on the earth’s food supply is discussed. The authors of the article point out that “The underlying cause of the pandemic has been attributed to agricultural activities encroaching into natural habitats. Now the pandemic is encroaching on agricultural production.” There are two paths students can explore from that quote.

Opportunities for change

One path students can take is addressing the first part of the problem – agricultural activities encroaching into natural habitats. Students can research the agricultural activities that pose a risk to natural habitats; for example, the clearing of the Amazon rainforest to make room for cattle farming. Then they can develop ways to potentially solve these problems, either directly or indirectly. Direct methods could include designing solutions to use to limit the negative effects of mass deforestation. Indirect methods could include developing a plan to reduce the amount of meat in our diets to avoid clearing forests for cattle farming.

The other route students can take is delving into the second part of the problem, which is that the pandemic is encroaching on agricultural production. Asking questions such as “how has COVID-19 affected agriculture around the world?” would be a great starting point. From there, students could explore the effects on a global scale, or choose one country to focus their research on. In the article, the researchers focused on three countries in Africa – Senegal, Ghana, and Zimbabwe – and focused on the food systems there. Their research showed the knock-on effect that food insecurity has on communities. Moreover, it also exposed the threats that climate change has on communities worldwide. Students could imitate this study in their communities or within their school.

This is the perfect inquiry-based project for students who are interested in the effects of health outbreaks and climate change on our food supply, or who want to delve into a topic that currently has enormous effects on communities worldwide.

3. How can we make our school more inclusive?

In our quest as educators to create and support more inclusive classrooms, we sometimes need to sit back and ask students about their ideas. How do these topics affect them? What does their idea of an inclusive school look like? There is always room for improvement.

Physical inclusion

Once again, there are a few routes students can take with this question. First, they can focus on physical inclusion. For example, are there any places at their school that could be more accessible? Do ramps, railings, or other supports need to be built in a particular area? Does the layout of the gym, science lab, or cafeteria need to be rearranged to better accommodate students with disabilities? An article published in February 2020 highlighted a community’s efforts to construct a temporary wheelchair ramp for a student, which might inspire your students to take action. Not only does this inquiry-based project include the foundations of mathematics, but it also has a community service component that invites collaboration and problem-solving to the table.

Inclusion in the classroom

Second, students can address the topic of inclusion within their classrooms in terms of the literature, language, and selection of materials used. Edutopia has written an excellent article on ways to promote inclusivity in your classroom by engaging with students, teaching empathy, and displaying your class values prominently. This angle encourages students to think creatively, empathetically, and with sensitivity to cultural, gender, and race issues, and come up with solutions to benefit everyone. Students could design a class library to include more books written by people of colour, or creating posters of influential women in the field of science or math to display in the hallways. The possibilities are endless!

Other ways to promote inclusivity in the classroom include using inquiry to teach social justice issues, as well as  understanding the important links between inquiry learning and mindfulness. What are some other ways students would like to see inclusion promoted in their classrooms? Perhaps they know some great books, paintings, films, or memorabilia that can be added to the classroom to enrich others and promote inclusion. This would be a great inquiry project for students who are always looking for ways to improve and enrich the lives of others.

4. How can we redesign cities of the future that address real-life issues?

In this inquiry-based project, students explore the problems that city planners and engineers face. For example, obstacles such as lack of affordable housing, transportation, and utilizing open spaces effectively. It has been adapted from the Chicago Architecture Center’s unit called “No Small Plans” which includes amazing resources for a project about city design. Students get to explore what makes up a neighbourhood or community. In addition, they will learn skills like mapping, surveys, interviews, and prototyping. Considering the perspectives of members of the community, or long-time residents of a city help to paint a picture of the history behind a particular place.

Students could also choose to examine issues such as homelessness, vacant land, weak transportation links, and other issues that face communities near them. They might use this project as an opportunity to understand more deeply the causes of these issues and viable ways of addressing them. For example, asking questions such as “what kinds of places are in my neighbourhood?”, “is our community serving everyone?”, “who is our city leaving behind?”, “how can cities work for everyone?” helps students navigate their project and build on the answers they receive.

Not only does a project like this incorporate voices from the community and give students a chance to design their futures, but it also includes basic skills such as reading a map, working systematically, using basic math concepts, and communicating with others. A resource called “A Kid’s Guide to Building Great Communities” can be super helpful for anyone considering this project!

5. BONUS Inquiry-Based Ideas:

Hopefully the ideas above have given you some inspiration! If they don’t seem feasible for you or your students, consider some of these inquiry-based ideas:

Please leave your suggestions below, or let me know of some great virtual inquiry projects that have worked for you. I’d love to hear about them!

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