4 Unique Inquiry-Based Learning Project Ideas
Once you get the hang of inquiry-based learning, it can be tricky to come up with unique project ideas. In fact, simply coming up with an engaging and relevant idea is often the hardest part of the process. In previous articles we’ve provided lots of interesting ideas, from outdoor learning experiences to more creative projects, such as building models.
Inquiry projects should be authentic and meaningful. They should incorporate real-world problems and issues and give students opportunities to develop soft skills like problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity. Furthermore, inquiry projects have the benefit of fostering teamwork and curiosity, which are two things that all classrooms need for happy students.
Feel free to use what works from this list, and check out our activity archives for even more inquiry learning ideas, including these popular ones:
- 4 Back to School Inquiry Ideas to Use in 2023
- 3 Engaging and Complex Problem-Based Learning Ideas
- Spooky October Inquiry Ideas
This article maps out four more unique inquiry project ideas that you can use anytime of the year in an elementary or secondary classroom. This post may contain affiliate links. Please see our affiliate disclosure policy here.
Inquiry Idea #1: What are the environmental impacts of plastic use?
Key Learning Objectives:
- Understand the lifecycle of plastic and its environmental impacts
- Identify sources of plastic use in the local community
- Analyze the effects of plastic use on ecosystems and wildlife
- Collaborate to develop practical solutions for reducing plastic use
In this inquiry project, students have the chance to get creative about making a real difference in their communities. They are also challenged to visit places in their community to see how plastic is used. To start, begin by introducing the concept of plastic pollution. Using a provocation like a picture book or photos is helpful when introducing this concept to younger students. Some suggestions include:
- The Adventures of a Plastic Bottle: A Story About Recycling
- The Whale Who Ate Plastic
- Saving Tally: An Adventure into the Great Pacific Plastic Patch
Examining some facts about plastic use also helps to set a foundation for students. Discuss these facts and address any misconceptions students have. From there, set up a Q-matrix and distribute sticky notes to students. Have them write down questions that fit into the category prompts and place them in the right spot. I like to take a photo of their questions to reference later, or use in a display board; something like the photo below:
Related Reading: Creating Strong Driving Questions for Inquiry Learning
Discuss what the next steps of the inquiry process are and how they can find information to help them answer their questions. Use the learning objectives above to provide structure to students who aren’t sure how to start. Help students brainstorm ways that plastic is used in the local community. Some examples include plastic cutlery, food packaging, and single-use plastics. Encourage them to come up with questions to ask people in the local community. Some examples include:
- Asking a grocery store manager: To what extent does the amount of plastic packaging on produce impact your decision to buy from a particular supplier?
- Asking a restaurant owner: How have you limited the amount of plastic that comes with someone’s order when they pick up food to go?
- Asking a clothing store employee: What forms of plastic are used from the time clothes arrive to the time they are sold and carried out by a customer?
Once students have an idea of the types of questions to ask, encourage them to go out into their local community and interact with different people. They can even ask their friends and families about the plastics they use and how (or if) they recycle them. Prior to this, students can research the types of plastics commonly used in our everyday life and their production process. They can also collect data on waste management practices and recycling rates in their neighbourhood.
Putting it Altogether
It’s up to students what they do with this information. Some will choose to create a presentation, while others might equip themselves with this information and host an interview or podcast, or even make a Youtube video. Regardless of the format they choose, encourage them to be creative and think critically about the best way to transmit this information. Remind them that part of the process is to come up with solutions to address the problems they uncovered. For example, coming up with a reusable alternative (product), starting a community awareness campaign, or proposing a policy change can be part of their final project.
During the reflection portion of this inquiry project, ask students to discuss the challenges they faced during the project, and what lessons they learned. Encourage students to share questions they still have to reinforce the idea that learning is ongoing. Students can write individual reflections on their learning journey, reflecting on:
- their understanding of plastic use and pollution
- the effectiveness of their solutions and/or presentations
- their personal commitments to reducing plastic use
Related Reading: The Environmental Impact of SpaceX Launches (idea #1)
Inquiry Idea #2: How do numbers impact our perceptions of different places?
Key Learning Objectives:
- Understand the significance of numbers and data in our perception of places
- Explore the ways numbers are used to describe characteristics of places
- Analyze the strengths and limitations of quantitative data
- Develop critical thinking skills to interpret numerical data
This is a complex inquiry project idea that can have multiple directions depending on the age levels of your students. Keep in mind this is not an inquiry about place value, but rather the way that numbers help us think about places. This inquiry aligns with several components of the relatively new Ontario math curriculum, including understanding how numbers are used throughout the day, in various ways and contexts. It also helps students understand that both positive and negative can express information to us; for example, sea levels, temperature, and saving and spending money, as well as provide a context for understanding numbers less than zero.
Students will explore how numbers are used to describe, analyze, and communicate with various aspects of places. They will investigate how geography, demographics, economics, and social factors work together to influence our understanding of different places.
Begin by discussing the concept of place with students – for example, how do we describe a place? Make a list of words to use when describing places. Some examples include busy, warm, beautiful, exciting, and well-connected. Then discuss the role numbers and data play in our daily lives, including how they shape our relationship with different concepts. Introduce the driving question – how do numbers help us think about a place? Introduce the concepts of qualitative and quantitative data.
Present various types of quantitative data used to describe places, such as geographic coordinates, population density, GDP, crime rates, and more. This data can come in the form of factsheets, articles, or image cards. You can also download a sample quantitative data set for three different places for free. Begin a discussion about what those numbers can tell us about a place.
Example: What can a high population density tell us about a major city?
- It indicates a significant concentration of people in a limited space
- Suggests a high level of urbanization
- Likely a wider range of job opportunities
- More cultural diversity
- Demand for housing and transportation networks
- It suggests that there might be higher strain on the environment
- Higher demand for social services
By this point, students should begin to see that a place can be partially characterized by its numbers. From here, the inquiry can go in a few directions. Students might like to choose a place and investigate its numbers, forming a comprehensive picture of that place based on the data they find.
Alternatively, they can identify trends in the numbers of a particular place and explain how those numbers influence our perception of the place. For example, how has the reduction in crime rate in [major city] impacted tourist’s perceptions of the city? What impact does this statistic have on what area they choose to stay when visiting? Facilitate discussions on the advantages and limitations of using numbers to represent places. Discuss concepts like bias, outliers, and misinterpretation. Engage students in critical thinking activities that involve evaluating data sources for credibility and questioning the narratives behind the numbers.
Putting it Altogether
Encourage students to express their understanding through creative projects. For example, some might like to create an infographic with statistics and a brief summary of those numbers and what they truly mean. Students should include a component where they explain the connections they’ve drawn between numbers and perceptions of places. Furthermore, students should complete a reflection of their learning journey to highlight their understanding of the role of numbers and how to analyze quantitative data in the context of geography and society.
Recommended Reading: Social Science Inquiry Projects for High School
Inquiry idea #3: In what ways is biodiversity impacted by climate change?
Key Learning Objectives:
- Understand the concepts of biodiversity and climate change and how they affect one another
- Investigate the ways climate change affects ecosystems and dependent species
- Analyze case studies of specific ecosystems and species impacted by climate change
- Develop critical thinking skills to propose adaptation strategies
In this geography-focused inquiry project idea, biodiversity and climate change, and their importance for ecological balance, are highlighted. The topic of climate change, though scientifically recognized as a clear and present danger to life on earth, is still a hot-button issue. Some students might come from families that don’t believe in climate change, or believe that the issue isn’t as extreme as it’s made out to be. The purpose of this inquiry is not to present climate change as a polarizing issue or to force students to see it in one way or another. Instead, the focus is about the impact that climate change – as an abstract force – has on biodiversity.
Need some guidance on how to handle these kinds of topics? Check out our article: How to Teach Controversial Issues in the Classroom.
To start, discuss the interconnectedness of these concepts with students and how changes in climate can affect ecosystems. Check to see if students have heard any stories related to climate change, and ask aloud – “what impact do you think this has on ecology?”
Engage in a broader discussion about climate change, the greenhouse effect, and global warming. Use prompts and learning provocations related to the environment, including these resources:
See if students can understand the link between human activities and climate change. It is likely that many of them can come up with examples. For instance, idling your car emits pollution, which contributes to greenhouse gasses. Once students have come up with some links, introduce the concept of ecosystems and their components. Emphasize the role of biodiversity in ecosystem stability. Draw out the idea that changes in climate (natural or man-made) have the power and potential to disrupt ecosystems and, therefore, impact various species.
Researching and Analyzing
Encourage students to focus on a particular driving question that will guide them through some research and investigation. Remind students about the differences between research and inquiry. For instance, they are engaged in the process of inquiry, but using research to establish facts and help them make conclusions.
Some examples of driving questions for this inquiry project idea:
- How might heavy precipitation affect the distribution of plant and animal species within ___ ecosystem?
- How does habitat loss resulting from changing climate conditions contribute to the decline of certain species?
- What are the effects of coral bleaching, and how do rising sea temperatures contribute to this?
- How do invasive species exploit opportunities that arise from changing climate conditions?
- In what way does climate change impact communities around the equator?
- How do invasive species influence native species’ survival?
- How do different biomes respond differently to climate change?
- In what ways does climate change impact food security?
- How can local communities and conservation organizations collaborate to design and implement strategies that support biodiversity?
- How are symbiotic relationships affected by seasonal changes caused by climate change?
- In what way is disease prevalence affected by climate change?
- How do changing climate conditions influence the timing of biological events, and how might this disrupt food chains?
Once students have landed on a question that suits their curiosities, it’s time to get searching. Research can be conducted both online and in-person, utilizing scientific databases, news articles, interviews, and short-form video to gather information. Be sure to guide students so that they are not only finding relevant information, but also mostly adhering to their original question. Remember that it is common for their question to expand or split into smaller, related questions – as long as they are somewhat focused on an overarching inquiry.
Putting it Altogether
Students can present their findings in a way that is effective for them. As this is a hot issue for many, you might find that students want to share their research and discoveries through social media. Ensure you are following your school’s policy regarding the use of social media, and that it is being done in a responsible way. Give students opportunities to share their information with classmates and the school community. Facilitate discussions on the ecological consequences of climate change, and invite responses from a variety of viewpoints to engage students in thoughtful discussions and critical thinking opportunities. Challenge students to consider ethical, economic, and practical implications of their findings as well.
Recommended Reading: 3 Problem-Based Learning Ideas for Back to School
Inquiry Idea #4: How can we create engaging stories from artifacts?
Key Learning Objectives:
1. Understand the concept of artifacts as historical sources
2. Analyze artifacts to extract information, context, and potential stories
3. Develop creative storytelling skills to write engaging narratives
4. Enhance presentation and communication skills through storytelling
In this interesting inquiry project idea, students explore the art of creating compelling stories from historical artifacts. Students have many opportunities to dive into historical periods that they find interesting, and think creatively about the best ways to tell untold stories from the past. Students who love drama, art, mystery, and theater will love this inquiry project! A great starter book to introduce the concept of artifacts is David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries, about an archaeologist who tries to understand the objects in an American motel from 1985.
At first, it might be difficult to narrow in on a specific time period for students to delve into. Check your curriculum and use that as a starting point. From there, determine some basics. For example, do students have a basic overview of that time period? Some students struggle to understand historical overlap – the idea that while one country or civilization was thriving, another may have been in decline. If you need some quick lesson ideas to unpack this thinking, head over to our article – Easy Ways to Teach Events that Occurred at the Same Time in History.
Using Artifacts as a Historical Source
Most students think that studying history means opening a webpage and finding the most important events and people of a specific era. While this might be good to use as a starting point, history is so much more than just facts. History can be explored through the use of photos, letters, sentimental items, works of art, and other artifacts. In my experience, I’ve found that students are very interested in the small details of people’s lives, and having these concrete physical objects makes these anecdotes more real and accessible. Be sure to define “artifacts” with students as physical objects that have historical significance and stories to tell. Introduce the concept of storytelling to students, and discuss why they are important in conveying history. For example, ask students why sharing stories makes history more engaging than simply reading facts from a textbook.
Continue by sharing a collection of historical artifacts for students to explore. Encourage them to examine the artifacts and choose ones that intrigue them and spark their curiosity. Distribute post-it notes and have students write down questions they have about the artifacts. Some possible questions include:
- How can we use these artifacts to learn about the daily life of people from ___ period?
- What can this artifact reveal about social hierarchies, power dynamics, and societal norms of the past?
- In what ways can we use artifacts to piece together stories of marginalized or underrepresented groups in history?
- How do personal artifacts like letters, diaries, and other items offer a look into the emotions of individuals from the past?
- Why is it important to examine artifacts from minority groups throughout history?
Investigating the Artifacts
In one case study, a teacher who shared artifacts with her students categorized their questions as shown below. This helped them to structure their questions and pursue a path of inquiry that interested them:
Once student questions have been categorized, it’s time to start doing some investigating. This will likely begin with dating the artifacts. The specific dates aren’t too important here, but rather a general time period. If students have letters or documents, the specific date can usually be found, but a year or general time frame is fine. Narrow in on a few key things:
- What difference might this have made in someone’s life?
- What was this object used for?
- Was this mass-produced, rare, or unique?
- In what way is this object helpful in our investigation of the past?
Encourage students to think like detectives to piece together as much information and evidence they can about their artifacts. This will likely include some research, so a short skills-based lesson on research will be helpful here. We’ve written about teaching skills as mini activities on a need-to-know basis (section 2). Encourage students to take notes about the information they find, and perhaps create a “then and now” chart that highlights the way the artifact was used then, and how it can be useful now. They might find that certain items have stayed the same over time, while others have changed significantly. Why is this? Why have some things changed and some stayed the same?
Putting it Altogether
The goal of this inquiry project isn’t just to explain what the artifact is and what it was used for. It’s also important to consider the timelines associated with artifacts, and what stories those artifacts tell. Furthermore, artifacts help give us an understanding into the person who owned, created, or purchased the artifact, why it is valuable, the skills that were needed to use it, and many other important insights.
As students think about how to present their findings, ensure that they are being accurate and providing context for their artifact. For example, a diary entry from a fur trader wouldn’t be that useful to us directly now, but back then it provided a wealth of insight into the environmental conditions and safety precautions needed to successfully trap fur in cold climates. In addition, context needs to be provided about the significance of the fur trade and its impact on early Canadian exploration.
Introduce various storytelling techniques, such as suspense, dialogue, and the inclusion of descriptive language. Engage students in activities that help them apply these techniques to their presentations, and explain that including visuals can help convey historical context and immerse the audience. Visuals include things like drawings, maps, and illustrations. Be sure to also organize peer review sessions where students can receive constructive feedback. An exhibition could also be organized so that students can display their artifact stories in a gallery-style fashion.
Check out the following excellent examples of effective historical storytelling:
- Oversimplified Youtube Channel (check that this is suitable for your grade level first)
- Kids Academy Youtube Channel
- Learn Bright Youtube Channel
Discuss with students what makes these videos so interesting, informative, and attention-grabbing. Encourage students to incorporate some of those elements into their own presentations, and provide help if needed.
Using Artifacts in the Classroom (TESSA)
Hopefully this article has provided some unique inquiry project ideas that you can use anytime of the year in an elementary or secondary classroom. If you’d like some additional inquiry project ideas, scroll back to the top of the post for links to our most popular inquiry idea articles. Remember that even though inquiry projects should be authentic and meaningful, you know your students best. Tap into what they’re interested in, what questions they’re asking, and how you can set the stage for authentic learning to take place.