Scientists Inquire

12 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT understand of the process of scientific inquiry as a means of learning about the natural world, and construct and categorize scientific questions to deepen understanding.

Big Idea

The process that scientists use to learn about the natural world must begin with asking questions that can be answered through investigations. The way questions are phrased will greatly influence how much can be learned from their answers.


10 minutes

I start the lesson by writing, "Today's Learning Topic" on the whiteboard, and drawing a giant question mark underneath it.  I give my students exactly one minute to brainstorm and make a list of everything they think they may be learning about. I love doing this, because students often think I have drawn a question mark to signify that the learning topic is a mystery. Most do not realize that we are actually learning about how and why to ask questions! After a minute is up, I conduct a quick Whip Around and have students share one idea they think we will learn about today, reminding them not to repeat the responses of other students.

Next, I pass out an article entitled, Mothers asked nearly 300 questions per day, study finds, for students to read silently. I instruct my students to  look more closely at the learning topic on the board and to highlight any important information in the article that they believe will have to do with today's learning topic as they read.

After all students have completed the reading, I conduct one more Whip Around and have students share their revised ideas. This time, I let them repeat answers that other have shared.  Most students will make the connection between the question mark on the board and the article, determining that today's learning topic will have something to do with questioning.


30 minutes

A few days before this lesson, I fill the freezer in the teachers’ lounge full of 5-6 inch water balloons. (Regular 9 inch balloons work great for this, as they don't get so heavy that they break.) I freeze enough balloons to have one for each team of three students, plus some “just in case” extras.

The morning before the exploration, I fill a small plastic tub for each team with materials to use to explore the properties of ice balloons. The materials may include:

  • Toothpicks
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Plastic knives
  • Paper cups
  • Droppers
  • Measuring tape
  • Food coloring
  • Coarse salt
  • Hand lenses
  • Flashlights
  • Sticky notes (at least one full package per group)

I am sure you could think of plenty of other things to provide in your tubs.  There are no bad ideas! 

On the morning of the lesson, I cut off the balloons ahead of time, leaving just the icy ball.

I explain to the students that they will be given a scientific substance to investigate today.  I tell them that we will investigate by participating in an "inquiry blizzard".  (Not only does this provide a mental image, but also goes along with the ice they're about to handle.) I explain further by telling them that during an inquiry blizzard, it is their job to write down as many questions as they can on their sticky notes (Practice 1: Asking Questions and Defining Problems - Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, models, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.)

Also, the MUST follow these four rules (which I project on the board):

1. Ask as many questions (or inquiries) as you can.

2. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the inquiries.

3. Write down every inquiry exactly as it was stated.

4. Change any statements you make into inquiries.

I emphasized these points carefully, making sure students realize this is a time for questioning and not discussion.

I give each team a frozen water balloon in the tub, along with the materials I had added for their exploration. They use each of the supplies in their kits to further explore, manipulate, and observe the ice spheres. And throughout their observations, the students write piles and piles of questions! As the students work, I monitor the room, providing gentle reminders of the rules as necessary, as they provide a firm structure for an open-ended thinking process. Students are able to generate questions and think more broadly than they would have if they had not been guided by the rules.


10 minutes

After giving several minutes for students to explore and produce questions, the bins and their contents are removed from each table.  I explain that as scientists, we inquire about the world around us in an effort to gain understanding. Many of these inquiries can be easily sorted into categories, based on how and why scientists are conducting an investigation. I ask the students to come up with categories to define their inquiries. I provide students with 4-5 minutes to read through and sort their questions within their groups. The use of sticky notes was very useful, as they can now move their questions around to sort them.

Once students have sorted their questions and are happy with their methods, I ask each group to share with the class how they chose to sort their inquiries, and to provide 1-2 examples of each category.

After sharing several ideas, I post the "Rate my Question" spectrum on the board and explain its meaning. I share with the kids that in order to truly grasp an understanding of a concept, a scientist must not only ask questions, but must ask powerful questions that get to the basic meaning of a concept and explore it from a variety of angles. (SP1- Ask questions to identify and/or clarify evidence and/or the premise(s) of an argument.)

For example, if I want to learn about panda bears, I won't learn a lot simply by asking, "What is a panda bear?"  I might learn that it's an animal, or that it's a mammal, but that won't get me too far. I have to ask questions that are detailed, and leave room for more than a one word answer. I could inquire, "What are some relatives of panda bears?", "What is a typical day like in the life of a panda bear?", or "Where did panda bears originate?"  These types of questions are going to lead me to learn much more about pandas than the more basic ones I started with. Then I go through each level of the spectrum, providing example questions from myself or from student volunteers who feel comfortable taking a risk with the new content.

I select one student - who I know has lower level, more basic questions on their paper - and ask them to provide me with an inquiry they had about their substance. I copy that question on the board, and ask the students where on the spectrum, they feel that question fits. After we have come to a consensus, I ask students to rewrite the question in order to get a deeper answer and to attain more knowledge on the topic.  (I use the word attain to provide academic vocabulary within a context.)

Once students have had a chance to rewrite the question, we share ideas and I copy them on the board to refer to later in the lesson.


10 minutes

Now that students are more familiar with what makes a sound inquiry, I have them return to the questions they wrote in their group, and sort them again, this time based on how "powerful" they are and their position on the "Rate My Question" spectrum. (SP1 - Ask questions to clarify and/or refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.) I give each student a copy of the spectrum to refer to, as well as to glue into their science journals.

After they have sorted their questions, the students then improve and rewrite three of their lower level questions, to increase their "power" without sacrificing the meaning or topic.  This leads students to think about how the phrasing of a question can affect the depth, quality, and value of the information they will obtain.

As an extension to this part of the lesson, you could also use the iOS app, Post it Plus, to capture organize, and evaluate the sticky notes containing the revised questions. This is a very easy way to efficiently share every students' ideas with the group.


10 minutes

In order to assess the students' ability to write deep questions and inquire about a topic, I have them complete the Inquiry Assessment. I monitor the students while they are working, guiding them to improve their questions as needed.

Finally, I provide a more general assessment about the overall concept of inquiry by having my students complete a Ticket Out The Door activity. I use sticky notes for this activity, as they fit perfectly on the poster I have created for them to place their responses (see resources). The question I provide for them to reflect on is as follows:

Why is it important for scientists to inquire? What types of questions make for great inquiries?

I read through these after class to see if anyone needs additional support, and provide one-on-one support the next day, as needed. Once I am satisfied they have a grasp on the importance of inquiry, and how to write strong questions, I have them attach the sticky notes onto the "What do Scientists Do*?" paper in their science journals.

*The "What do Scientists Do?" paper is used throughout the unit. It is best to have students keep it in their science journal or another place where they can return to it throughout each lesson in the unit. We add to it as we build understanding and study each trait of a scientist.