Essential Questions - Building Student Engagement in Science (Part 1/2)

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SWBAT make connections between a unifying idea of science and their life experiences.

Big Idea

Can knowledge help us survive? Students explore the idea of whether "science" can help or hurt our chances of survival on Earth.


This lesson asks students to think about an overarching essential question for the upcoming year. The lesson is split into 2 parts:

  • Part 1 includes the ENGAGE, EXPLORE and EXPLAIN components of the lesson. This takes about one 50-minute lesson. 
  • Part 2 includes the EXTEND and EVALUATE components of the lesson. This takes about two 50-minute lessons or an equivalent block period.


15 minutes

Middle school students love survival stories - bears, pirates, perfect storms and epic journeys. By framing science understanding as the ultimate survival kit for a world that is filled with hazards and threats, students start to understand that learning about the world may be necessary to their own survival and possibly, the survival of our species.

The nature of science is based on the assumption that science addresses questions about the natural and material world. The scientific way of knowing brings new knowledge that can, in turn, describe the consequences of actions which humans may use to solve (or create) problems. In this activity, students explore the essential question:

Does “science” help or hurt our chances of survival on Earth?

Using essential questions in science can help frame the learning in a broader context that promotes curiosity and exploration of connections between concepts and context. This particular essential question is engaging due to its connection to survival and the suggestion that students could become the stars of their own survival stories armed with knowledge that could save us from nature or ourselves.

The question also works for discussions about how natural and built systems are subject to change and evolution (CCC 7: Stability and Change). The crosscutting concept becomes evident when students start identifying different events that impact our chances of survival such as climate change, storms, nuclear meltdowns and war. Students explore how small changes in one part of a system might cause large changes in another part and how stability might be disturbed either by sudden events or gradual changes.

During this lesson, students ask and answer questions to that can be investigated within the scope of the classroom with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on observations and scientific principles (SEP1). Students also apply scientific ideas, principles, and/or evidence to construct, revise and/or use an explanation for real-world phenomena, examples, or events (SEP6) and communicate scientific and/or technical information in writing and through oral presentations (SEP8).

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, students reflect on the essential question for a few minutes using the Essential Question Exploration Presentation. This presentation outlines the entire lesson. Students share their ideas with a partner and develop a definition for survival. The definitions are recorded on the Essential Question Exploration Activity sheet. We engage in a short share-out of student definitions and tease out common themes from student definitions. To identify these themes, some sample questions to ask might be:

How does that idea relate to survival?

Does it matter if a species survives?

Does survival require action?


20 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore the essential question, with partners, students identify at least two current events from the last year that have threatened our chances of survival on Earth and explain how science contributed to or could affect each possible threat.

Then, students identify at least two current events from the last year that have helped our chances of survival on Earth and explain how science contributed to or could affect each event. Students complete the data table on the Essential Question Exploration Activity. For students who have trouble generating current events, check out the reflection for this section, which discusses "Tapping Into Resources".


15 minutes

The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. This stage of the lesson presents a great place for a quick formative assessment. Student pairs combine with another pair to elect their best example of an event that was a threat or an event that helped our chances of survival on Earth.

Groups share their best example. As they share, I encourage students to explicitly explain the cause and effect (CCC 2: Cause and Effect) of how the current events link to the science that could be related to the event. It is possible for the discussion to diverge in many directions because students care about the topics. If necessary, I will have a student record the topics for future discussion or study so that if somebody gets very attached to a topic, I can assure them they will do our best to come back to them. Additionally, it is natural to worry about students' factual accuracy during this part of the lesson, but I find it more important to promote creative connections. By promoting creativity, students are channeled into thinking about the big picture.

As noted on the example of Survival EQ Student Work, students generate a variety of interesting topics that range from local to global, from small to large scale and from simple to complex. For example, many of my students mentioned the Boulder, Colorado floods as a topic of interest. I was surprised to hear about how students are still affected by and thinking about this local event a year later. By taking the time to hear these ideas, it was possible to make personal connections through science while nurturing the curiosity and care that students harbor about the natural world. As I explain here, this questioning meets a student need of finding ways to clearly communicate scientific thinking:

Part 2 of this multi-day lesson includes the EXTEND and EVALUATE components of the lesson. It takes about two 50-minute lessons or an equivalent block period.