How to Use Scientific Inquiry in Your Classroom

Scientific inquiry starts with a messy problem. Kids find the solution by trial and error. Give your science activities a little twist – and let kids figure stuff out themselves.

Scientific Inquiry

A New Science Activity in Ms. Sneed’s Class

Ms. Sneed is planning a unit on light. She wants her class to blend different colors of light to make white light. On Pinterest, she finds a great activity. Four flashlights, each covered with a different color of cellophane, face the center. There, a circle of white light appears. Cool! She gathers flashlights and colored cellophane. Before using the experiment with her kids, she’ll try it herself.

Mrs. Sneed Tries It Out

  • “I know that white light is the blending of the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue,” Ms. Sneed thinks. She pulls those colors out of the stack of cellophane.
  • When she attaches a piece of blue cellophane to the flashlight, the color is too faint. “Hmm,” she thinks, “I’ll fold the cellophane in fourths and try again.” The colors are much more vibrant, so she moves on.
  •  Yellow seems to be overpowering the other colors. “That’s weird,” she thinks. “Maybe that flashlight is brighter.” She switches the red and the yellow. The colors seem more balanced now.
  • Ms. Sneed lays the three flashlights on the table, facing toward one another. She sees the colors shining near each flashlight. The middle, where the colors meet, is illuminated, but the light doesn’t really seem white. Ms. Sneed is underwhelmed.
  • “Okay, I’ll try shining the light on construction paper,” she thinks. “White or black?” Ms. Sneed tries black. No, that doesn’t work. White? Hmm. It looks like it did on the table.
  • When she lifts the red flashlight, Mr. Sneed notices something. The color is more intense when shining down onto the white paper. She grabs all three flashlights in one hand. Then she faces them downward. As she moves the flashlights toward the paper, the colors seem to focus. Wow! Bright red, bright blue, bright yellow – and in the middle, white!
  • Ms. Sneed is ready to show her class how to make white light. But should she?

Ms. Sneed Uses Scientific Inquiry – and Puts the Onus on Kids

“Today,” Ms. Sneed begins, “you will make white light using different colors. Please be ready to report back in 30 minutes.” Each group receives three flashlights, six colors of cellophane, and six colors of construction paper. And that’s it. Just like Ms. Sneed, her students experiment by trial and error. They persevere and work through problems. And they’re forced to think – so, so much more!

Scientific Inquiry - Don't tell kids how to do a science activity. Instead, ask them to make sense of a messy problem.

Note: Inquiry frustrates some students. For these kids, reduce group size and materials. Stay close by and lend a hand if frustrations rise. With patience, these students can succeed.

Scientific Inquiry in Your Classroom

Try using scientific inquiry in your classroom. One little change makes a huge difference. Instead of giving kids directions, let them figure it out themselves. It’s scientific problem solving at its best!

You can try three more strategies to increase scientific thinking in your classroom: (1) Ask students to make generalizations and (2) conduct fair tests. (3) Incorporate STEM. Get those little brains working!

The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) advocates a three-dimensional teaching and learning strategy:

  1. Engage students in science.
  2. Integrate science and engineering practices, core disciplinary concepts, and crosscutting topics.
  3. Use observable phenomena to drive learning.

Enjoy Teaching

Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.


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