Scientists Ask Questions

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SWBAT recognize that scientists ask questions to find things out

Big Idea

Scientific inquiry is based on questions. Students find out that scientists ask questions and then find a way to work to answer their own questions.

Teacher Background

This lesson is based on the idea from the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) for K-4 Understanding About Scientific Inquiry which states that scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer.  This concept is further detailed in the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993) K-2 Scientific Inquiry standard which states that people can often learn about things around them just by observing those things carefully. Sometimes they learn more by doing something to the things around them and noting what happens.

The idea behind this lesson is that students will realize that different questions will require different ways of attempting to answer the question. It is the beginning of helping students to understand the nature of scientific inquiry and how they can think scientifically when they ask a question, think of a way to answer the question and then draw a conclusion from what they have seen or done.

What Is A Question

15 minutes

I begin today by asking students to gather quietly on the rug. On the easel I have written the following: are you at school        school is a place to learn       I like school  

I purposely do not add the punctuation at this point because I want students to think about what is a question without relying on the telltale grammar involved. 

I ask students to look at the three phrases on the board. I say, " I have written 3 things on the easel. I want you to look at them. You will notice that I did not put in any upper case letters or punctuation. I want you to help me read each out out loud and then I want you to decide if any of these, or all of these are questions. Are you ready to help me read?" I point to each one and we read it aloud. The reason for this step is to make sure that nonreaders are not left out of this exercise. "Ok, now I want you to take a minute of quiet and think about whether any of these are questions. They might all be questions, none of them might be questions or one or two might be questions." I wait about a minute and then I say to students, " ok, now I want you to close your eyes as I read each phrase again. If you think the one I am reading is a question raise your hand. You may vote as many times as you think what I am reading is a question. Does everyone understand what they are doing? " I read the first one and pause to count hands and record the number of votes. I repeat this with the second and third phrases. When I am done I invite students to look with me at the votes. 

The outcome of the vote will determine how I will handle the rest of the discussion. If most of the students correctly identified the question and the 2 non questions, I will ask for several volunteers to tell me how he/she knew whether it was a question or not. We will talk about the difference between a question and a statement and I will ask for several volunteers to come and add the appropriate upper case letters and punctuation to each sentence.

If students show by the vote that they are unclear about whether it is a sentence or a question, I will spend more time talking about how a question leads to an answer while a statement tells us something. We will reread each one and decide if it leads to an answer or tells us something. Then together we will add the punctuation and see how a question not only sounds different and leads to an answer but also ends in a question mark.

Now I will bring out the I Can statement for today. This is the goal for the lesson that I want students to know what they are trying to learn in the lesson. Together we read the statement aloud and I post it on the board. I Can Ask A Question and Look for an Answer. 

Asking the Question

15 minutes

Before beginning this section, I ask students to stand and stretch to the ceiling and then to the floor. I ask them to touch their toes and then clap their hands in front of them and behind them. This quick stretch break will make it easier for them to focus for the next part of the lesson.

Because my goal is for students to understand that scientists ask questions and that the type of question determines how I might go about answering it (either through observation, classification or a fair test) I bring out some materials and place them on the floor in the center of the rug. I place 3 different sized balls, 3 different sized wooden blocks and 3 small (Matchbox type) cars on the floor.

I ask students "What would you like to know about these objects? Hmm.. did I just ask you a question or make a statement? Right, I asked my question .. what would you like to know about these objects and there could be many different questions that you might ask about them. Can anyone think of a question he or she might want to know?" I take suggestions without writing them down at this point. I remind students to listen to each other and get ideas from their classmates.

After I have about 10 different suggestions, I say to the students, "in a minute I am going to assign you a working group and ask you to work together to come up with one question you all might like to ask about these materials. You are the scientists and you need to ask a question. Remember when we met the scientists who visited us and they told us about the questions they ask in their jobs? Remember how different their jobs were, but they were all scientists and they all asked questions so today I would like you to be like our visitors and think of a question. Remember that you are a group so you need to listen to each other's ideas and agree on and write down 1 question. I will give you 5 minutes to agree on your question. Are there any questions? (I pause to take questions) Ok, then before we go can someone remind me of our rules for working in groups? They are posted right here ( I point to the rules the students have created that include listen to your partners, take turns, be respectful, make sure everyone gets a chance to help). " 

After one student has read the rules to us, I assign students to groups of 3 and hand them a paper that has a place for names and "Our Question" at the top. Students return to the desks to talk about and write down their question. I circulate around to listen in on discussions and to help groups who are struggling. 

Answering the Question

20 minutes

Students have about 5 minutes to come up with a question. When I see that most groups have a question (I will work with those that don't as soon as the groups get started), I ring the bell for quiet. I ask students to read us their questions one group at a time. 

"Ok, now you have a question and I want you to try to answer your own question by using the materials. If my question was 'what can I do with these materials?' I might take each one and try different things with it. I could take the balls and roll each one and write down what I notice." I demonstrate rolling the big ball and writing big ball rolled across the room.

"You will need to write down what you do to answer your question. On your paper below the stars you will see a place for what you do and what you notice. You may use pictures or words to fill these two sections in as you try to answer your own question. Each group will have a set of the materials to use. Your only limits are that you need to stay within the classroom, work as a group and be respectful of others space, and remember to work in quiet voices. You need to record what you do and what you see as I did here. Are there any questions? Ok if your group has a question you may get to work. If your group does not have a question please meet me at the back table and we will work together to find a question. "

I give students about 15 minutes to answer their questions. After I have helped the last groups decide on a question I circulate around the room. I check to make sure students are recording what they are doing. I ask them to tell me how what they are doing will help them answer the question they have asked. I ask clarifying questions and provide feedback as appropriate. 

Feedback is important if students are going to move forward in their understanding of questions and how the nature of the question determines the nature of the scientific exploration. For example if students are just playing with the materials but not trying to answer their own question, they will need feedback on how the playing is not helping them. 

At the end of about 20 minutes, I call out CLASS. class-class-class. The students repeat my loud and quick quick quick words and then stop to listen to my directions.

Recording An Answer

5 minutes

"Ok, everyone has had a chance to use the materials and try to answer their question. Now scientists do not get a perfect answer every time they try something and that is ok. So today I want you to give the best answer you can to your question based on what you found out just now. Please take 5 minutes to agree on the answer to your question and then come with your partners to the rug with your paper." 

I demonstrate with my question which was "what can I do with these materials?" by writing I can roll them, throw them and pile them up."

Students write their answers as I circulate around observing who is giving input and who is mostly watching the group work.

Did We All Do The Same Thing and Ask the Same Question

20 minutes

Giving students time to reflect on what they just did is an important part of scientific learning. I want students to think about what they did with the materials and questions relative to what everyone else did. To facilitate this understanding I ask each group to report out by reading us their question, telling us what they did and then giving us their answer. I attempt to quickly type the question, answer and a brief method on the smart board so we have a visual comparison when we are done. 

Each group shares and then asks for any questions the rest of the group might have about what they did or their question or answer. (I only allow for 3 questions per group in the interest of time and attention span.)

When all the groups have shared I ask students to stand up and move to their own circle seats, or to the center of the circle so they can see the Smart Board. This is a quick movement break as well as a way to get everyone situated so they can see the board.

I say to students, "Look up at the board and the questions, methods and answers for a moment. What do you notice?" I let students volunteer what they notice about what we have just done. After they are done (and if it hasn't come up already I say) "I have another question for you, Did you all ask the same question?" (no) "Did you all do the same thing with the materials?" (no) "Why is that?" (because we needed to answer our own questions). "Did the question you asked help you figure out what to do to answer the question?" (yes). 

"Do you think that when scientists ask a question the way they answer the question depends on what they ask?" "Why do you think scientists might ask questions?" (to find something out).

"Before we are done today I want you to turn to your neighbor and tell them something you found out today about questions in science." I listen to the shares to determine if students have an understanding of how scientists use questions to help me plan for a next lesson. I ask for 3 or 4 people to share out what they just told their neighbors. 

Final Thoughts

3 minutes

I ask students to look at the I Can statement that we posted at the beginning of the lesson. It reads, I can ask a question and find an answer. I ask students to read the statement with me. Now I ask for a thumbs up, straight or down depending on how students felt they did with being able to ask and answer a question.


The assessment of understanding for this lesson comes from several different areas. First I have observed during the lesson. I am watching to see if students can formulate a question and an answer. Secondly, when students present their findings I listen to see if their answer matches the questions they asked. Finally I listen as students tell each other what they learned about questions today. From these sources I jot down quick notes. I keep a clipboard with a class list with me. My notes may be simple yes/no, and they may also detail the types of things students were struggling with, such as formulating an answer to the question.

I find that if I have information from several portions of the lesson, I can gauge student understanding and determine if I need to repeat with a similar lesson, or move on.