6 Social Science Inquiry Projects for High School

Typically, inquiry learning is more popular with elementary-level learning. This is usually because there are larger chunks of time during the school day to spend on a large-scale inquiry project. As students get older, they tend to favour individual tasks over group work. However, this desire to work independently can actually be a great opportunity to use inquiry learning.

Inquiry learning at the high school level looks a bit different than it does at the elementary level. It offers students not only the chance to explore ideas that are topical and relevant to their lives, but also to investigate them with more significant depth and scale.

Although our other examples of inquiry learning can be adapted to fit the curriculum of many high school courses, the ideas listed below are specifically geared towards high school social science courses, including equity studies, general social sciences, philosophy, family studies, and world religions.

1. The Construction of Gender

Example paths of inquiry:

  • What are the impacts of representations of men and women in the media?
  • How is self-esteem and confidence impacted by societal gender norms?
  • What did Simone de Beauvoir mean when she wrote ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one’?
  • How do individuals learn about the gender norms of their communities?
  • In what ways are gender norms socially constructed?
  • How do gender norms function as a product of culture?
  • In what way does gender intersect with other aspects of identity?

Gender, which refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, varies from society to society. Although it is nor necessarily visible to others, it is partly responsible for a person’s inherent sense of being and is unique to each person.

Growing up, students are taught a variety of things relating to sex, gender, puberty, and the changes their bodies go through. This of course differs depending on where a student is educated, how old they are, and what kind of school they attend.

High school is a place where students not only face pressure to succeed academically, but also pressure to fit in with friends. As high school functions as a transitional environment for teenagers, the focus on gender and identity places added pressure on students to fit in and conform. Understanding the construction of gender and exploring the issue can be a great way for students to become more educated and open-minded to the topic. 

The popularity of studying gender

The construction of gender in society is a topic that has become incredibly popular as a cross-disciplinary path of study at post-secondary institutions. However, a lot of students are showing interest in the topic even before they begin high school.

Allowing students to investigate the construction of gender is an excellent way to let students explore not only the construction of the term, but also the ways in which gender:

  • Is used to categorize and understand others
  • Produces inequalities that intersect with other inequalities
  • Influences people’s experience of and access to social services such as healthcare
  • Puts people’s health, well-being, decision-making, and mobility at risk
  • Impacts people’s mental health, self-esteem, and identity formation

One path students can take is addressing the issue of resource availability for people who do not conform to society’s traditional gender norms. For example, how difficult is it to access quality healthcare when you are a trans person? Or, what role does growing up in a sheltered environment have on your development?

Students could also choose to explore the links between hypermasculinity and how rigid ideas affect boys and men’s health and wellbeing negatively. For example, they might choose to focus on the perpetuation of violence, engaging in risky behaviours, and rejecting help or healthcare.

2. Ethnocultural Contributions to Canada

Example paths for this high school inquiry include:

  • In what ways have the contributions of minority groups changed the culture in Canada?
  • What impacts have minority trailblazers had on Canadian society?
  • How has interfaith dialogue impacted Canadian culture?
  • In what ways has ethnocultural diversity contributed to Canada’s national identity?
  • How has respect for ethnocultural diversity in Canada contributed to respect for other kinds of diversity?
  • What systemic barriers do ethnocultural minority groups face in Canada, and how can they be overcome?

This high school inquiry can be broadened on an international and global scale. The inquiry questions could also be applied to any country (not just Canada).

An ethnocultural community or group is defined as a group that has one or more shared characteristics. These could be ancestry, language, religion, place of origin, or national identity. Canada is known as a multicultural society made up of various ethnocultural groups, many of whom face barriers such as unequal access to services, lack of opportunities, exclusion, and poverty.

Students can choose a few different avenues of learning with this inquiry topic:

  • The importance of engagement: Students can focus on ways to engage ethnocultural groups. For example, making sure communities receive information they need, have opportunities to provide input into decisions in their municipality, or connect with other people in their area. Students may choose to create a comprehensive strategy to welcome and engage ethnocultural groups with the goal of welcoming them. A great engagement guide can be found here to give students some ideas.
  • The impacts of contributions by ethnocultural minority groups in Canada: In this stream of inquiry, students conduct research into Canada’s history of settlement and colonization, and explore what contributions have been made by minorities. For example, students could explore African-Americans who contributed to the wellbeing and prosperity of Canada. They might also analyze the changes in Canadian policy as a result of these contributions.
  • Systematic barriers facing ethnocultural groups: Students could narrow in on the struggles and barriers that minorities in Canada have had to face over the centuries, and what they still deal with in our modern world. They might choose to challenge and explore the mainstream interpretations of history, as well as how minorities are portrayed in the media today. We’ve created an in-depth guide on Teaching Social Justice in the Classroom that can help with this.

3. The Evolution of Housing

Example paths of inquiry:

  • What relationships exist between housing and various human needs and wants?
  • What are the impacts and/or effects of inadequate housing and/or homelessness?
  • How has housing evolved to meet human needs?
  • What characteristics or features of early forms of housing have evolved, and what has stayed the same over time?
  • What relationships exist between values, lifestyle, and housing needs?
  • Why do housing needs and preferences vary in different parts of Canada, and/or in different parts of the world?
  • What impact has climate change had on people’s housing needs?
  • How does the lack of a permanent address affect an individual’s access to government support and programs?
  • What relationships exist between resource conservation and housing designs?
  • What might an environmentally-sustainable house look like in the future?

Housing around the world has changed in a variety of ways over the years. Usually, housing transformations are due to demographic and socioeconomic changes, as well as technological ones. Housing has always been an expression of the times; for example, the style and architecture of a house, the primary function of a house, and the materials and knowledge available have all reflected the changing times.

This is a large and exciting high school inquiry topic to explore with students. Not only could they explore the links between housing styles and historical occupation in an area, but they could also investigate how housing has evolved to suit humanity’s ever-changing wants and needs.

Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash

Different directions

There is a lot of opportunity for high school students to also explore the relationship between our values, lifestyle, and housing needs. For example, to what degree does the type of dwelling a person lives in affect their lifestyle choices? To explore this, students might compare houses from two or more countries and examine how people live their lives. Is there any relationship between things like food spending, decor, and amenities of comfort and the size of a house?

Another direction students could take this inquiry is by exploring the issue of homelessness, or the impact of climate change on displacement and human migration. A great resource is the Raising the Roof initiative, an organization that focuses on providing solutions to homelessness in a respectful and dignified way.

4. Exploitation and the Environment

Example paths of inquiry:

  • How does globalization contribute to exploitation of the environment?
  • In what ways do social and cultural belief systems affect decisions relating to exploitation and/or exploitative practices?
  • What effect does fair trade have on the environment?
  • In what ways do environmental standards address issues of exploitation in the environment?
  • How does global warming exacerbate issues stemming from exploitation?
  • What impacts does industrial and factory farming have on the environment?
  • What effects does the use of child labour or bonded labour have on the environment in poorer countries?
  • What environmental changes have resulted from the exploitation of natural resources?

Exploitation occurs at every level in society. For example, children in some parts of the world are exploited by being forced to work at a young age. In other places, children are forced into arranged marriages. Environmentally speaking, exploitation of the earth’s natural resources has been occurring for centuries.

This high school inquiry offers students a few different paths to take. Some students might like to explore the most heavily exploited natural resources and investigate one of them in-depth. Others can choose to investigate the impact of industrial and factory farming on the quality of people’s health, happiness, and livelihoods in a specific part of the country.

Sharing their findings

For students who are inclined to put their research to good use, they might find it important to showcase their findings in a more public way, such as recording a discussion with a scientist, park ranger, or prominent environmentalist in their community. They could share their discussion on a podcast or other medium so that it reaches more people. Alternatively, students might like to prepare an informational bulletin board outlining the links between exploitation of individuals and exploitation of the environment to highlight the overarching impacts.

Creating an infographic (like the one here), building an interactive webpage, or creating a simple brochure are also ways that students can demonstrate the results of their inquiries.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has put together a great introductory package that outlines some key information about this topic. It’s a great starting point for a lot of students.

5. The Concept of Beauty

Example paths of inquiry:

  • How has the concept of beauty changed throughout time?
  • What relationships exist between sexual imagery and the concept of beauty?
  • What impact does stereotyping have on our understanding of beauty?
  • In what ways are people deemed beautiful portrayed in popular media?
  • How is beauty exploited online and in social media?
  • What notions of beauty dominate the fashion, design, and material world?
  • In what ways does beauty create disadvantages in society?
  • What influence does aesthetics have on other subject areas?
  • What impact do images of “ideal bodies” have on people’s self-esteem?
  • How might our concept of beauty be detrimental to young people/minorities in society?
  • How can visual art works raise awareness of gender inequality in our society?

Since beauty is subjective, this inquiry project idea is great for students to share what beauty means to them. It’s also a great way to challenge students to explore the impact that beauty standards have on everyday life. For example, how beauty dominates fashion, design, and material goods, or how beauty creates disadvantages, pressures, and exploitation.

A great place to start would be to explore the definition of beauty – can beauty exist in different contexts? Does one definition of beauty cover all the beauty there is in the world? Discussing the concept of beauty first is a good place to start thinking not only about what beauty is but how we understand it in society. A good resource is this genius hour project, created by a 7th grade student, asking “What is beauty?” For older students, this article is a great starting point.

Challenging the definition of “beauty”

Unfortunately, what society deems as “beautiful” isn’t always a definition that the majority of people fit. However, in recent years, many campaigns have been created to challenge our traditional idea of beauty. Furthermore, what we define as “beautiful” has grown to encompass a variety of shapes, sizes, colours, and features. Students can choose to explore the growing definition of beauty, the influence of aesthetics and beauty products, or perhaps how these definitions impact young peoples’ self-esteem. There are endless possibilities for this inquiry.

A great unit planning tool for this high school inquiry project can be found on the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) website.

6. Functions of Religion

Example paths of inquiry:

  • How does the media and popular culture depict religion in society?
  • What functions does religion have in society, and why might this differ between cultures?
  • How is religious identity constructed and internalized in society?
  • How might religion influence the adoption of gender roles or norms and related behavours?
  • What do religious artworks tell us about the sociocultural context in which they were created?
  • How does religion influence personal and societal choices?
  • In what way does religion shape people’s ideas about relationships?
  • What relationships exist between rights, freedoms, and religious adherence?
  • Why do some individuals become more religious as they get older?
  • How might religion help us understand our life purpose?
  • How did occupations throughout history impact religious belief in a particular area?
  • In what ways are many world religions similar, and how are they different?
  • How does religion shape societal norms, rules, and customs?

A high school inquiry project like this should be treated with great sensitivity and care. Religion’s function differs for everyone, with some students paying it no mind. As teachers, it isn’t our job to convince students to “like religion”, “hate religion”, or adopt religious practices in any sense. Rather, it’s our job to encourage students to ask questions, explore facets of religious thought, and better understand the broad similarities that exist among different religions.

In saying that, it’s important to acknowledge that topics like religion often intersect with subjects like philosophy, cultural studies, and theology. Giving students opportunities to observe, analyze, and critically think about the functions or roles of religion, in my opinion, is very powerful.

Sensitivity to faith and lifestyle

To open an inquiry into the facets of religion, it is useful to consider the aims of religious education. In the Ontario curriculum, the humanities are designed to “explore fundamental questions and ideas about human nature and human condition”. Furthermore, in specific world religions courses, students learn the interconnectedness of religion with other things like the environment, human rights, traditions, ethics, and social responsibility.

Related: How to Integrate Ontario Curriculum Expectations with Inquiry Learning

Of course, when exploring the overlap of more sensitive topics like gender roles, personalities, familial structure, and traditional practices, great care and sensitivity needs to be demonstrated. For example, in what ways do gender norms differ for boys and girls according to their religious beliefs? Or, what role does religion play in the construction and internalization of one’s identity?

Regardless of the specific path students take, it is imperative that teachers ensure that students are exploring these topics with an open-mind, an eagerness to learn, and the skills to think critically and understand deeply the foundations of religious thought.

Looking for more high school inquiry project ideas?

Cover image photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

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