5 Exciting Autumn Inquiry Ideas for September

An autumn inquiry is a great way to get students outside and exploring nature. The season is filled with lots of changes to observe, question, and investigate. 

Autumn inquiry ideas include heading outside to observe changes in the environment, weather, animals, infrastructure, and patterns of human behaviour. 

Read on to get some inspiration for your next autumn inquiry.

1) What factors should be considered when designing and building a bridge? (Grade 8 science)

This autumn inquiry idea requires students to do some in-class research as well as some outdoor observation of nearby bridges. The bridges can be for pedestrians, cyclists, or cars.

A good place to start with this inquiry is to view some maps of your local or surrounding are. Identify with students some places where a bridge could be constructed or replaced. Students might also have some ideas based on their own experiences hiking in woods, forests, or throughout the community. For example, students might suggest a bridge be constructed in an area with a high amount of animals being struck by cars to allow animals to cross safely. Or perhaps an old bridge on a nearby cycling trail is in need of repair, and suggest a feasible solution.

Maps, diagrams, and blueprints of local bridges and structures are helpful in this inquiry so that students can see their basic shape and design. Visiting local bridges would be helpful as well so that students can use nature journals to sketch and/or measure existing bridges and note things like thickness, design, sturdiness, and supports. They can identify problems with existing bridges and compare them to the photos in the B.C Forest Practises Investigation (pgs. 17-28).

You might notice some students turning to technology as they think about bridge designs. Minecraft is a great resource, as it helps students bring their ideas to life in a format that many of them are comfortable using. These bridge blueprints can help students generate some ideas. Some other great visuals for students include the Construct 101 Arched Bridge Plan and the Ontario Wood Bridge Reference Guide.

Assessment for this autumn inquiry idea:

The final product for this inquiry can vary; some students might want to simply sketch alternative structures for pre-existing bridges, or offer a recommendation to the city or town in which a decrepit bridge exists. Some students may choose to construct a model bridge using STEM tools and craft supplies. Other students could prepare a presentation outlining a problem and offer a workable solution that considers cost and environment. For example, the problem might be a lack of safe passages for wildlife in a high-traffic area; the solution is to construct a wildlife bridge to reduce the number of roadkill in the area.

2) How can we plan and create a fair feast? (Grade 4 math/science)

In this fun inquiry, students create a list of seasonal foods to include in a feast for 12 people. They can do this in pairs, small groups, or individually. The inquiry begins with a discussion about seasonal foods and some think-pair-share work to write a list of some examples. Seasonal foods in autumn include pears, apples, pumpkins, potatoes, yams, and brussels sprouts. Students then spend some time discussing ways to create a feast (3 courses) that will feed 12 people.

The accompanying chart shows the different math and science objectives this inquiry covers in a fourth-grade classroom.

Students should consider what foods can be split among the 12 people, and which ones can’t. For example, a cup of juice can’t really be split up equally, but a pizza can be. Creativity is encouraged, especially with regards to the selection and variety of food. Students can present their fair fest in any format they’d like, and should be challenged to include a wide variety of fractions in their final product. Some examples of student work can be found on the Nrich Math website (at the bottom of the page).

Assessment for this autumn inquiry idea:

This inquiry idea helps to introduce or reinforce the understanding that some food items can be split into equal parts and some cannot easily. In addition to the hard skills this inquiry covers, many soft skills are acquired as well. For instance, teamwork, collaboration, and creativity can be assessed at various stages throughout the inquiry.

A co-created success criteria works well for this inquiry. Download a blank copy (or a completed example) of the success criteria here.

3) What happens when leaves fall on the ground? (Grade 3/4 science)

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This autumn inquiry idea is perfect if your students love going outside and exploring nature. It’s also fun because students get to investigate something that happens every year and truly understand what‘s going on under all those piles of leaves they see. If you don’t live in a climate with four distinct seasons, this inquiry can still be a fun way to understand the science and magic that happens.

This inquiry should take place in both the classroom and outside. In the beginning stages of the inquiry, students are encouraged to play in the leaves, pick them up, discuss what they notice, and record their findings in nature journals or other recording devices. Special attention should be paid to what’s underneath the leaves, and what is happening on the dirt, grass, or pavement under large piles of leaves.

Throughout the inquiry, some questions and observations will likely arise about what kind of bugs are found under piles of leaves and why they are there. This will slowly build the levels of understanding with regards to curriculum expectations about parts of plants, their adaptations, the differences between producers, consumers, and decomposers, and ways that trees and leaves react to their environments.

Students may want to extend their research to include alternatives to raking leaves, create posters or infographics to explain why leaves are important on the ground, or perhaps record a podcast episode explaining what happens under all the piles of leaves in the autumn and why we should leave them alone. Some excellent sources of information include the NWF Website about fallen leaves, and this article about what happens to leaves when they hit the ground. 

Assessment for this autumn inquiry idea:

Students in grade 3 and 4 need to know why plants are important to humans and other living things. They also need to be able to:

  • Identify personal actions they could take to minimize harmful effects and enhance positive ones
  • Describe the basic needs and parts of plants as well as the changes they undergo during their life cycle
  • Describe ways that plants react to their environments
  • Identify and define what an organism, food chain, producer, consumer, and decomposer are and how they work together
  • Describe structural adaptations of plants and how they are able to survive in their particular habitat

Download the complete list of curriculum objectives covered by this autumn inquiry idea.

4) How did autumn look in Canada prior to European arrival? (Grade 7 history)

This inquiry challenges students to investigate Canada prior to European arrival, aligning perfectly with the grade 7 history curriculum. In particular, students will explore things like:

  • Land use and resource extraction
  • Environmental challenges facing First Nations, Metis, and Inuit groups in Canada
  • Relocation and forced migration of Indigenous groups, and how this impacted their ability to prepare for the seasonal changes
  • Famous battles that took place during the autumn season in North America
  • Primary sources of information about the autumn season

Students may want to pinpoint a specific year and delve into detail about what that particular year’s autumn looked like. For example, a student might choose the year 1759 and investigate the kinds of trees and plants that were abundant, what preparations were made for the autumn season by that point in time, and the impact the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in September had on Indigenous groups in and around the area.

Primary source documents are fantastic resources for students to consult at any grade level. They offer first-hand accounts of explorers about their interactions with Indigenous people, comments about the weather, clothing, and traditions. They should be used often to help students analyze and interpret the past. In addition, they help provide necessary and helpful context for students.

Other helpful primary source documents for this autumn inquiry idea include the “Exploring Westward” series in the Library and Archives Canada collection, as well as the Featured Collections on the University of Alberta website.

Assessment for this autumn inquiry idea:

The emphasis for assessment should be on the process of inquiry, as opposed to a final product. Using multiple assessment tools such as observations, discussions, and demonstrative tasks throughout the learning process ensures that assessment is holistic. Students should be given multiple ways to demonstrate their learning.

Some additional assessment ideas and downloadable material can be found near the bottom of our Inquiry Learning Roadmap article. 

5) What are my autumn traditions? (Grade 2 social studies)

Understanding the richness of diversity, especially during a season of traditions, is important for students of any age. This autumn inquiry idea challenges students to reflect on their autumn traditions and how they compare to other students’ traditions.

Factors like climate, physical features, and culture all contribute to how people in certain regions live. By the second grade, students are ready to delve into these factors and understand what is similar about their ways of living and celebrating and what is different. For example, how do people in southern hemispheres prepare for seasonal changes? Are they the same as ours, or are they different? Why are they different?

There is a lot of room in this inquiry for students to practise skills like map reading and using cardinal directions. Furthermore, students can develop their acquisition and use of geography vocabulary, and extracting information from globes, atlases and maps.

Specific correlations to the curriculum include:

  • Comparing ways in which some traditions have been celebrated over multiple generations in their family, and identify some of the main reasons for changes in these traditions
  • Comparing their family’s structure and some of their traditions and celebrations with those of their peers’ families
  • Comparing some of the past and present traditions and celebrations of different ethnocultural groups in their local community, and identify some of the main reasons for the change

Assessment for this autumn inquiry idea:

With regards to inquiry-based learning, students are expected to formulate questions to guide investigations into some past and present familial and community traditions. They should also be able to gather information, analyze this information, and display it in effective ways. Skills-based lessons such as constructing different types of charts and graphs, creating lists and mind maps to represent celebrations and traditions, and recording information should all be practised intermittently.

Furthermore, students should be able to evaluate the information they’ve gathered about celebrations, traditions, and preparations for seasonal changes. They should be able to draw conclusions and explain the relevance of their findings using appropriate vocabulary. This can be done in a variety of ways, including scrapbooks, audio recordings, presentations, seminars, or other written, audio, or visual mediums.

Check out our article 4 Simple, Meaningful, and Impactful Inquiry Project Ideas (example #1) for ways students can be creative in sharing their family’s autumn traditions.

Featured photo by Nikola Radojcic on Unsplash

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