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How can scientific inquiry be done?

Hello! Welcome to the 17th edition of Things in Education, the fortnightly newsletter through which we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

This is part two of a two-part series on how the process of scientific thinking can be used to engage students in active learning.

In the previous edition, we explored how and why active thinking enhances students’ learning and retention. If you haven’t read it, please do so. In this edition, we will deep dive into one of the approaches that helps students to actively engage in learning the content.

Guided inquiry by students can help with active learning. One of the ways to guide inquiry is to use the process of scientific inquiry. We touched upon this in our last edition as to how asking the right questions can help students think critically.

Here we show you how we did a class on floating and sinking.

Our instructor started the class with a questionnaire in which the students had to predict which of these items would float or sink and why:

A plastic bottle fully filled with water

The same bottle half filled with water

The same bottle without water.

Students got 10 minutes to think and fill in their responses. The majority of the students predicted that full and half-filled bottles would sink due to their weight, while the empty bottle would float.

To check their prediction, each student conducted the experiment with their water bottles. To their surprise, the results didn’t always match their predictions.

Our instructor initiated a discussion by asking why our predictions were wrong. “Can you think of some explanations?”

A student asked, "I wonder why for some students the half-filled bottle sank and for some, the half-filled bottle floated."

Another one added, "Why, in some cases, did half-filled bottles float in the middle of the water column and not on the surface?" "Does floating or sinking get affected by how I place my bottle in the water?"

Our instructor added to the mystery by asking, “What was different about the three bottles? Was it the weight? Shape? Volume? Or something else?

This led the students to make the connection that there was something different about the three bottles which allowed it to either float or sink. Students predicted a bunch of factors, but after a short discussion there were three leading candidates: density, mass, and volume.

So, students had observed a phenomenon, and based on their observations, previous knowledge and intuition made an intelligent guess as to what was causing the objects to sink or float. The students had a hypothesis.

At this time our instructor initiated a discussion to ensure that the students understood the difference between mass, volume, and density.

Based on the students’ hypothesis, they were divided into groups and asked to design an experiment to test their hypothesis.

Without going into the details of the rest of the experiment, suffice it to say that as the students tried to test their hypotheses experimentally, they started building their framework of understanding the phenomena of floating and sinking.

How can we plan a curriculum using scientific inquiry?

So how did we plan for this class? It is a good idea to break down the lesson into actual steps of scientific inquiry.

Observing a phenomenon

Theme: What do you see/feel?

The purpose of the first stage is to pull the students into the world of exploration by evoking strong emotions such as curiosity, surprise, and wonder. Allow students to observe a real-world, puzzling, and engaging phenomenon (observing which bottle floats and which sinks). Apart from direct observations for non-science related topics, indirect experiences like reading thought-provoking texts, empathising with people in a particular situation, etc. can also be powerful as observations.

Asking questions and making an educated guess

Theme: What do you wonder?

The purpose of this stage is to critically formulate a possible explanation for the observation (what makes the bottle float or sink). In the classroom, start by discussing and checking students’ understanding of the different components of the phenomenon. This allows students to make connections with their existing knowledge about the components. In our class we got the students to think about what was different between the bottles.

As the instructor asks questions, the students are simultaneously building a possible explanation based on their observations and prior knowledge. Ask questions like: “Do you notice anything surprising or unusual? What does this remind you of? What do you think just happened? What do you think might happen if...?” These will give students an idea of what they need to think about.

Planning and carrying out investigations

Theme: How do you investigate?

The purpose of this stage is to test the hypothesis or intelligent guess by carrying out investigations. Once students have two or more hypotheses, encourage them to design an investigation to validate their guesses (hypotheses). It can be an iterative process to improve the plan and gather credible evidence at each attempt. Push students to think about the variables, constants, and controls of investigations and their roles. For example, asking questions such as: “How can you check that only mass affects floating and sinking and not volume? What would be the constants and variables in the investigation?”

Engaging in arguments from evidence & Constructing explanations

Theme: How do you know?

The purpose of this stage is to organise and analyse the evidence collected during the investigation. Students would identify and extend the patterns in the data from the investigation to form a new explanation. This new explanation is generally built on previous knowledge. At this stage for a teacher, the focus must be on making connections between previous knowledge, predictions and evidence from the investigation. Allowing students to present their findings to others for feedback is a powerful way of building their new explanations.

Teachers need to ask guiding questions and activate higher-level thinking to interpret the data critically. Also, allow students to take the lead and refrain from explaining and giving direct answers.

The shift from a content-loaded curriculum to one that teaches the content through the process of scientific inquiry is challenging. It might take some time to get used to, for the teachers as well as the students. But there is an enhancement in students' engagement and level of understanding and recall of scientific concepts.


Useful Links:

  1. This blog by Eric Brunsell highlights the features of scientific inquiry with practical examples.

  2. Here is a video on how to engage students in inquiry in a science class.


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Edition: 1.17

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