How to Use Scientific Inquiry in the Elementary Classroom
Science is one of those subjects that gets a lot of students excited and curious about learning. It’s also one of those subjects that teachers sometimes feel apprehensive about teaching, and for a variety of reasons; it can be daunting to plan, find materials for, facilitate, and manage. However, using a scientific inquiry in the elementary classroom can be a great way to alleviate some of the apprehension around the subject.
Scientific inquiry refers to a learning approach where students conduct investigations by asking questions, proposing solutions, and solving problems while gaining knowledge about the natural world. The goal is to understand, test, and apply the laws and principles that govern the natural world.
Below we have collected and presented the most important answers to the scientific inquiry questions teachers ask to help them get familiar with the subject and feel comfortable facilitating one in their classroom.
What is the meaning of scientific inquiry?
Scientific inquiry is a learning approach that combines the scientific process with inquiry learning. It refers to the steps and strategies used to investigate a science-related topic, question, or problem.
The scientific method (also known as the scientific process) refers to a process for experimentation. This process includes a series of steps. When students use the scientific method, they are doing things like observing, asking questions, and gathering evidence. In addition, students will also try to find cause and effect relationships and produce logical answers that explain what they’ve seen or done. It is important for students to understand that the scientific method is a process, and that they can back up and repeat steps at any point if they need to.
Inquiry learning is a teaching approach that focuses on student-generated questions, ideas, and observations, and uses these as an anchor for learning. It should be authentic and reflect problems and events that impact our world. Moreover, it should help students become more creative in their problem-solving, and encourage the development of essential skills, such as planning, organizing, processing, and designing.
Scientific inquiry is the combination of the scientific method and inquiry learning. It is a great way to help students investigate their questions through observations and data so that they can answer them as thoroughly as possible.
Characteristics of scientific inquiry
What does scientific inquiry look like in the classroom? How do you know if you’re truly implementing a scientific inquiry? Here are some things to look for:
- Students are making observations and asking questions
- Prior knowledge is activated; as students progress, this knowledge is used to make an educated hypothesis
- Students exhibit curiosity and gather evidence to test their hypotheses
- Explanations are proposed to explain what is happening
- New evidence and ideas are considered and reflected on
- Conclusions are made to explain the outcome of an experiment
- Students generate further questions about the outcomes, and the cycle repeats itself
From this list, there are a few specific characteristics that become obvious while a scientific inquiry is ongoing. First is curiosity. Students are naturally curious and often rely on trial-and-error methods to learn about the world. This tendency carries over into the classroom and helps students modify their existing knowledge based on what they learn.
Second, priority is given to evidence during a scientific inquiry. Students need practise observing and describing things like plants, animals, and rocks. By doing this, they understand the value of logic, reason, and the scientific principles that help us understand the natural world.
Innovation is another characteristic of scientific inquiry. Some people refer to innovation in the classroom as “tinkering” or “playing around until it makes sense”. There is a lot of learning that comes from innovation; testing, re-testing, modifying, and testing again.
What are the steps of a scientific inquiry?
Students engaged in scientific inquiry study the natural world and propose explanations based on the information they observe. Typically, they follow a circular process (the scientific method):
1. Ask questions
At the beginning of a scientific inquiry, students make observations and ask questions. This is what propels curiosity and initiates the scientific process. Questions can be specific or open-ended. During this stage, it is important to help students create rich, high-quality questions that can be observed and researched.
Common aims of scientific inquiry questions are (1) to test whether a theory holds up under certain circumstances, or (2) to solve a practical problem. Questions should seek to explain something rather than simply describe it. Sometimes developing a question can be the most difficult part of the scientific inquiry process, so we’ve written a guide on how to help students create strong driving questions to help with this.
Furthermore, if you’re looking for some sample questions to use for your scientific inquiry, or would like some ideas, download this PDF with 50 nature and environment inquiry questions, or this one with space and science questions.
Once students have formulated a good question, they can move into the investigation stage. In this stage, students make use of their previous knowledge of a subject or concept. Furthermore, students conduct some background research on the subject and put together a plan for answering their question.
It is important that teachers equip students with tools to help assist them in their research. For example, students might need to more deeply understand forces before beginning an experiment on bridge stability. In this case, having books, diagrams, and tactile equipment to explore would benefit them. A few mini-lessons on keyword searching and using an index would be helpful here as well.
This step is important because students need to know what techniques and equipment would be best for investigating their topic. It prevents them from becoming overwhelmed and unsure about the goals and direction of their investigation.
Next, students need to develop a hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess about how things work, and it is an attempt to answer a question. This is a fairly simple part of the scientific inquiry process. Students simply state their prediction using a generic sentence structure. For example;
“If ____, then ____ will happen.”
“If I ____, then ____ will occur.”
Check out Science Buddies for some examples of strong hypotheses and a checklist for creating a good hypothesis.
4. Test with experiments
Once students have formulated a hypothesis, they need to start testing whether their predictions are accurate, and therefore if their hypothesis is supported or not. For the experiment to be successful, students need to understand the concepts of a “fair test” and “variables”. The experiments should also be repeated to make sure the final results weren’t simply an accident. Remind students to only change one factor at a time and keep the other conditions the same each time they experiment.
Some useful strategies for conducting experiments are to keep a notebook handy to record all materials used and observations made during the experiment. Students should also prepare some kind of table or data collection chart so they can write down any measurements as they happen. Notes should be made if any changes occur during the experiments. Finally, taking photos is always recommended so that there is a visual representation of the process.
We’ve created a helpful PDF of Scientific Inquiry Vocabulary, including “fair test”, “variables”, and other vocabulary to use in the classroom.
5. Analyze data
When students have completed their experiments, the next step is to analyze what they observed. Students collect their observations and measurements and analyze them for patterns, trends, and whether or not they support the hypothesis.
It is important to remind students that their hypothesis might not be correct, but this doesn’t mean the student has failed; it simply means that learning has occurred. More often than not, scientists find that their predictions were not accurate. If a student feels upset or frustrated that their hypothesis wasn’t correct, ask them how long it takes to cure diseases and ailments and how many attempts scientists have made in the creation of safe medicines.
When students are analyzing their data, encourage them to look at their results with a critical eye. Ask them questions like, “Is it complete?”, “Do you need to collect more data?”, “Did you make any scientific errors?” to get them thinking about inquiry as a process. Ensure that students are clearly labeling tables, diagrams, and graphs and including units of measurement.
6. Report conclusions
Finally, students will report their conclusions. Using the data they analyzed, students need to draw conclusions and make inferences. This is the stage where statements are made about their specific experiment. Their conclusions should include both quantitative data (observations that can easily be measured) and qualitative data (observations that cannot be easily measured).
Encourage them to think of fun ways to organize and display their data and communicate their findings. Students should also make generalizations and apply their knowledge in a few different ways: (1) Identify new problems or questions to investigate based on what was learned, and (2) Identify how the information gained could be used in other situations.
How do students learn through scientific inquiry?
First, scientific inquiry stimulates students’ thinking by challenging their current conceptual understandings. Learning about new processes or watching something change when you were certain it wouldn’t are ways that scientific inquiry challenges what students already know. When this happens, students are forced to reconcile what they thought would happen with what they witnessed. From there, new understandings are constructed.
Second, emphasis is placed on the importance of observation and evidence. Scientific inquiry helps students learn how to communicate and justify their decisions. By nature, science requires students to use logic and reasoning to explain the natural world. For many students, this is what makes science so enjoyable; being able to understand something new through doing it, not just reading about it.
Using scientific inquiry also helps students develop soft skills like teamwork and communication. Like inquiry learning, the teacher’s role is not to demonstrate how to do something; it is simply to excite students and provide them with opportunities to learn by themselves or in collaboration with others. Teachers can facilitate a scientific inquiry by allocating materials, asking strategic questions, and by providing feedback and encouragement.
How do I plan a scientific inquiry?
1. Frame your inquiry
As with any type of teaching plan, begin with the end in mind. What scientific principles or curriculum expectations do you want them to learn? For example, do you want your grade 1 students to know that the sun, as the earth’s principal source of energy, makes it possible to grow food? Or perhaps your main goal is for grade 7 students to understand how energy is transferred through the food chain. We’ve written a guide on incorporating the Ontario curriculum into your inquiry learning plans for additional guidance on this.
2. Gather your materials, provocations, and other equipment
Once you’ve decided what knowledge students need to have by the end of the inquiry, you need to figure out what specific equipment you will need to facilitate the inquiry. For example, will you need microscopes, geology tools, magnifying glasses, or beakers? Make a list and gather what you need. A great starter kit is available here on Amazon for less than $40.
3. Organize an overview of your lessons
Decide which day(s) of the week and how much time will be devoted to your scientific inquiry. Some may only require a few days, while others may take upwards of a week. Next, set a goal for the function of each day. For example, will students spend the first period brainstorming and engaging with your provocations? In the second period, will they be asking questions, conducting an investigation, or designing a product? Be sure to also determine your role during each period – will you be facilitating, teaching, or conferencing with students?
4. Plan for assessment opportunities
Remember that assessment will take different forms; some lessons will call for a more laid-back collection of data, while others might require you to more formally assess your students. Determine the methods of ongoing assessment you will use (observations, discussions, demonstrative tasks, exit cards, etc.). These two-sided whiteboard answer paddles are great for quick assessments at the end of a work period.
What are some examples of scientific inquiry?
The following examples of scientific inquiries are all a bit different. Some of them are more suitable for older grades, requiring less teacher guidance. On the other hand, some of them are geared more towards younger students, and will require more teacher guidance. All of the inquiries provided require a series of lessons or learning experiences as opposed to one single lesson.
Example 1: What factors affect the growth of trees?
Spark: Students notice that some of the trees in the schoolyard are full of bright leaves, while some are not.
Grade 3 Curriculum Objectives:
- Understand and also assess the impact of different human activities on plants, and list personal actions they can engage in to minimize harmful effects and enhance good effects.
- Assess the effects of natural phenomena on the natural and built environment, and identify ways in which human activities can reduce or enhance this impact.
- Assess the impact of human action on soils, and suggest ways in which humans can affect soils positively and/or lessen or prevent harmful effects on soils.
- Make a list with students of all the reasons why the trees outside might be growing or dying at different rates
- Then create a Q-Matrix (template can be downloaded here) and invite students to write their own questions on a sticky note
- Take photos of the trees and their parts and stick them on a bulletin board next to students’ questions
- Put students in pairs to think-pair-share and activate their prior knowledge about trees, plants, and biology. Students fill in a KWL chart (template can be downloaded here) and discuss with their partner.
- Ask students to think of ways to investigate their ideas to determine an explanation.
- Group students by their choices; for example, if some students think the trees are different ages, put them in a group. If some students believe that over-watering or over-exposure to the sun is a cause, group them together.
- Task students with developing an experiment or investigation that will answer their questions, and have each group explain their ideas to the class for feedback. Jot ideas on the inquiry bulletin board.
- Monitor student’s experiments, data collection, and hypothesis testing. Provide organizational materials (templates here) for this. Be sure to take photos throughout the process and add them to the inquiry bulletin board.
- Meet with groups occasionally to monitor their progress and guide them onto their next steps; for example, if a group has collected enough information to answer their question, encourage them to think of a way to present their data, make a decision, or communicate their findings.
- Finally, reflect on the inquiry with journal entries, think-pair-share sessions, and updates to their KWL charts. Add photos, letters, posters, and other items to the inquiry bulletin board. Assess students using these checklists.
- Science Comics: Trees – Kings of the Forest (this series of comics by Andy Hirsch is great for getting students engaged in science topics)
- Wooden Specimen Kit (Montessori materials)
Example 2: How can the properties of air be applied to the principles of flight?
Spark: Show students some videos of ziplines flying over waterfalls, jungles, and other landscapes and explain their purposes (fun and tourism, utilitarian purposes, navigation, etc). Also, prior to the spark, set up a zipline by running fishing wire (around 1-1.5m in length) between two objects; make sure one end is about half a metre or more higher than the other end.
Grade 6 Curriculum Objectives:
- Use scientific inquiry/experimentation skills to investigate the properties of air (air takes up space, has mass, and can be compressed).
- Use technological problem-solving skills to design, build, and test a flying device.
- Identify the properties of air that make flight possible as well as common applications of these properties.
- Identify and describe the four forces of flight – lift, weight, drag, and thrust – as well as the relationships between these forces that are required for flight and how they can be altered.
- Prior to beginning this inquiry, set up provocation tables with books about pulleys, physics, gravity, and other science terms. Include some photos of ziplines, a video demonstration, and some other tactile objects for students to explore.
- Present the challenge to students: How will you transport a ping-pong ball from one side of a zipline to the other? Ask them to think of obstacles they will have to plan for; for example, how will they keep the ball inside the carrier? How will they balance the carrier on the zipline itself?
- Pair students up to think-pair-share some ideas to these questions. Encourage them to write down their ideas on a whiteboard
- Hold up index cards with related vocabulary on them (you can download a set of vocabulary cards here) and scaffold the definitions with them.
- Show them the materials and ask them to sketch and label a few design ideas. Take photos of these ideas and add them to the inquiry bulletin board. (Materials list here).
- Facilitate the construction and testing processes. This might take 1-3 periods or more depending on the number of students in your class and the amount of time you have. Again, be sure to take photos of the process.
- When students have designed a device that meets the objective, encourage them to communicate their results. Students could choose to draw a final sketch of their contraption, with labels, and explain how it works using the correct terminology. They might also decide to take a video and edit it with snippets, explanations, or labels.
- Reflect on the inquiry with journal entries, think-pair-share sessions, and updates to the inquiry bulletin board. Assess students using these checklists.
- Science Model Building Kit (this is similar to the one I used with my Year 5 students when we learned about simple machines, around $40)
- Forces and structures vocabulary pack (PDF download)
Example 3: What impacts do humans have on terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems?
Spark: How can we modify our relationship with the earth and its ecosystems in a more sustainable way?
Grade 9 Curriculum Objectives:
- Investigate factors related to human activity that affect terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and explain how they affect the sustainability of these ecosystems.
- Assess, on the basis of research, the impact of a factor related to human activity that threatens the sustainability of a terrestrial or aquatic ecosystem.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of government initiatives in Canada and/or the efforts of societal groups or non-governmental organizations with respect to an environmental issue that affects the sustainability of terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems.
- First, hold a discussion with students about the function of the environment, as well as how we use it and impact it. Use think-pair-share for this. Touch on concepts like the Gaia Hypothesis, anthropocentrism, and deep ecology. Record student ideas on flipchart paper (my favourite sticky note flipchart pad is $80 on Amazon).
- Work together to highlight the ideas using two colours – one to show the positive impacts of human interaction with the environment, and one to show the negative impacts.
- Next, students choose the top three concerns they have with the way humans have interacted with the environment in their community. Discuss their ideas as a class.
- Instruct and guide students in developing a detailed plan to investigate their questions. This is a great PDF guide to help you.
- Facilitate an inquiry that includes students conducting fieldwork, data collection, observation, and sampling, among other components. In total, this can take anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks to complete.
- Next, help students come up with some ideas for reporting their results that are feasible and that make sense. For example, students can share the results of their investigation with local authorities by writing a letter or producing a report. Alternatively, students can plan a campaign to make the community aware of the problem and suggest ways for improvement. There are many different paths students can take.
- Finally, students reflect on both their investigation and their actions. As a class, discuss the different perspectives that exist in the world about the impact of humans on the environment. Challenge them to decide what an acceptable level of impact humans should have on the environment is.
- Global Issues Handbook and Resource List
- 50 Nature and Environment Inquiry Questions (PDF)
- Suggested Science Inquiry Structures (PDF)
(1) Scientific inquiry refers to a learning approach where students conduct investigations to gain knowledge about the natural world. The goal is to understand, test, and apply the laws and principles that govern the natural world.
(2) Curiosity, the emphasis on evidence, and innovation are key characteristics of scientific inquiry.
(3) The scientific method, like inquiry learning, follows a circular process. It includes question formation, investigation, developing a hypothesis, testing, analyzing, and reporting and reflecting.
(4) The learning gained throughout a scientific inquiry is substantial. Students gain new conceptual understandings of the world around them. They also learn how to communicate and justify their decisions using evidence. In addition, they develop soft skills such as collaboration, initiative, and problem-solving.
(5) Planning a scientific inquiry includes the consideration of curriculum objectives to frame the inquiry. It also includes organizing the structure of lessons and fieldwork, as well as planning multiple assessment opportunities.