How to Use Scientific Inquiry in Your Classroom

Scientific inquiry means different things to different teachers. In this post, kids will start with a messy problem. Then they’ll find the solution by trial and error. Why not give your science activities a little twist? Let kids figure stuff out themselves.

Scientific inquiry encourages kids to figure stuff out themselves. Instead of showing or telling, ask them to try it on their own.

Ms. Sneed Discusses Scientific Inquiry

Our favorite fourth grade teacher sat at the side table with her mentor. “Okay,” she said, “I’m really not clear about the meaning of scientific inquiry.”

Mrs. Brown chortled. “You and about a million other teachers. As a matter of fact, the NGSS deliberately replaced that word in their science practices to avoid misconceptions. Instead, they use the term investigation. You can see it here in Appendix F.” She slid a stapled set of papers to Ms. Sneed.

“With that said, however, I believe you can encourage inquiry in your classroom without a full-blown investigation. After all, when you improve science activities, not all require the use of a fair test.”

Adding Scientific Inquiry to a Science Activity

“Well,” said Ms. Sneed, “As you know, I’m currently planning my light unit. Recently, I found this really cool science activity on Pinterest. You put different colors of cellophane over flashlights. Then you shine them on some paper to make white light.”

“Hey, that sound like a load of fun. Furthermore, I believe it’s a great activity for scientific inquiry. Do you have the materials?”

Ms. Sneed pulled a bag from under the table. “Yep. Actually, I wanted to try it myself before I show my students.”

“Hmm,” Mrs. Brown replied. “You mean before you let your students try it.”

“What? Oh yeah. They need to use inquiry. I’m beginning to get it.”

Ms. Sneed Tries Scientific Inquiry

“Go ahead,” Mrs. Brown said. “Set it up. In the meantime, I’ll watch.”

First, Ms. Sneed pulled four new flashlights and batteries from her bag. After opening both, she put the batteries in the flashlights. Next, she pulled out a variety of cellophane sheets.

“I know that white light is the blending of the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue,” Ms. Sneed said. She pulled those colors out of the stack of cellophane.

“Ready for some scientific inquiry?” Mrs. Brown asked.

“Sure am!”

Trial and Error

Next, Ms. Sneed taped the red and yellow cellophane to two flashlights. When she attached a piece of blue cellophane to the flashlight, however, the color was too faint. “Hmm, maybe I’ll fold the cellophane in fourths and try again.”

Once she’d folded the blue cellophane, the colors were much more vibrant. “I guess I’m ready to try it out!” she exclaimed.

Ms. Sneed set the three flashlights on the table, facing toward one another.

“I can see the colors shining near each flashlight. Although the middle, where the colors meet, is illuminated, the light doesn’t really seem white. I’m underwhelmed.”

Mrs. Brown nodded, saying nothing.

“Yellow seems to be overpowering the other colors. That’s weird, Maybe that flashlight is brighter.” She switched the red and the yellow. Now the colors seemed more balanced. However, shining them across the table wasn’t really working.

“Okay, I guess I’ll try shining the light on construction paper,” she said outloud.

“White or black?” Still, Mrs. Brown remained silent.

After shrugging, Ms. Sneed tried black. “No, that doesn’t work.”

Next she tried white. “No, it still t looks like it did on the table.”

However, when she lifted the red flashlight, Mr. Sneed noticed something. “The color is more intense when shining down onto the white paper!”

She grabbed all three flashlights in one hand. Then she faced them downward. As she moved the flashlights toward the paper, the colors seemed to focus. “Wow! Bright red, bright blue, bright yellow – and in the middle, white! Yay!”

Mrs. Brown applauded. “Challenging, right?”

“Yes, but also rewarding. I see what you mean. Tomorrow, I’ll let my kids use scientific inquiry to find white light!”

To promote scientific inquiry, don't tell students how to make white light. Instead, let them figure it out themselves.

Ms. Sneed Puts the Onus on Kids

The following day, Ms. Sneed faced her class. “Today, you will make white light using different colors. Please be ready to report back in 30 minutes.”

Each group received three flashlights, six colors of cellophane, and six colors of construction paper. And that was it. Just like Ms. Sneed, her students experiment by trial and error.

Sure, some students got frustrated with scientific inquiry. But their teacher stepped in. Sometimes, she reduced the amount of materials. For example, for one group, she left only primary-colored cellophane. Gently guiding, she helped them over every hurdle.

Enjoy Teaching Science

Do you want to improve science activities in your class? Try some scientific inquiry! When students get their hands on science, they understand it so much better.

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