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Writing Inquiry-Based

Science Lessons

e M I N T S N a t i o n a l C e n t e r
Writing Inquiry-Based Science

eMINTS National Center
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University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65201
Voice: (573) 884-7202 Fax: (573) 884-7614

Cover Photos
Brian Kratzer

eMINTS National Center staff

Written February 2004
Revised February 2009

©2004 The Curators of the University of Missouri and Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary

Use or distribution of materials is restricted to authorized eMINTS instructors and staff. Do not copy, alter
or redistribute without the express written permission of eMINTS National Center. To request permission,
contact the eMINTS National Center at or postal address above.

Titles or names of specific software discussed or described in this document are registered trademarks,
trademarked or copyrighted as property of the companies that produce the software.

Please note that the World Wide Web is volatile and constantly changing. The URLs provided in the
following references were accurate as of the date of publication.
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Table of Contents

Purpose of the Module ............................................................................ 4
Module Objectives .................................................................................. 4
What is Science Inquiry? ......................................................................... 5
Closed, Directed and Open Inquiry ........................................................... 6
Why Inquiry-Based Science? ................................................................... 6
Hints for Introducing Science Inquiry ........................................................ 8
Teacher Strategies for Inquiry ................................................................. 11
Managing Lab Experiences in the eMINTS Classroom ................................... 12
Incorporating Technology ........................................................................ 12
Planning with the eMINTS Constructivist Lesson Plan Format ........................ 13
Sample Science Lessons ......................................................................... 14
Practice ................................................................................................ 14
Resources ............................................................................................. 15

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Purpose of the Module
True science inquiry gives students the opportunity to ask questions, design
investigations, gather and analyze data, draw conclusions and communicate results.
Many lab or hands-on activities performed in science classrooms fall short of being
true inquiry experiences. This session provides an opportunity for teachers to
understand hands-on inquiry-based science instruction for their classrooms so they
can learn to develop lessons truly based on inquiry.
Module Objectives

• Learners will experience a hands-on inquiry-based science activity and compare
it to a more traditional “cookbook” lab experience.

• Learners will develop their own criteria for inquiry-based lab experiences.

• Learners will analyze their own science activities by considering the degree to
which those activities are closed, directed or open inquiries.

• Learners will each transform one of their own science activities by incorporating
science process skills and increasing the level of inquiry in the activity.

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What is Science Inquiry?
Mary Hebrank in the article, Why Inquiry-Based Teaching and Learning in the Middle
School Classroom?, sums up the concept of scientific inquiry:

“Inquiry is the art and science of asking questions about the natural world and
finding the answers to those questions. It involves careful observation and
measurement, hypothesizing, interpreting and theorizing. It requires
experimentation, reflection and recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of
its own methods.

Inquiry is what scientists do. They usually do it in a formal and systematic way
and in the process, contribute to the collective body of information we call

Scientific inquiry in the classroom involves students asking questions they can
investigate, designing such investigations, collecting and analyzing data, drawing
conclusions and communicating results.

Inquiry-based learning in the science classroom incorporates the process skills of
science, those things that students and scientists should be able to accomplish to
successfully learn science by actually doing scientific work:

• Asking questions (both teachers and students should be involved in asking
questions that lead to investigation).
• Making observations, taking notes, comparing and contrasting.
• Forming hypotheses consistent with observations.
• Predicting what might happen in the future, based on observations.
• Designing investigations to reveal information about the questions asked.
• Controlling variables in investigations.
• Collecting (measuring) and analyzing data.
• Interpreting results.
• Seeing patterns.
• Drawing conclusions.
• Communicating results in both written and oral formats.

Many science activities are hands on, but this approach does not necessarily mean
they are inquiry based. “Cookbook” lab experiences where the teacher gives students
the question for investigation and provides step-by-step directions fall short of
inquiry-based experiences. Many times students know an investigation has one right
answer and will seek that answer to record on their papers. Hands-on activities often
reinforce or make visible classroom lessons, so students already know what will
happen. While these activities help students learn content, they cannot be considered

Inquiry-based science students do not memorize the steps, in order, of the scientific
method found in most science textbooks. They learn the scientific method as a living,
breathing process that does not necessarily occur in sequence. Inquiry-based science
instruction involves actually doing science.
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A Word about the Hypothesis
Science textbooks focus on the hypothesis as an integral part of the scientific method.
However, in the scientific world most investigations do not include a hypothesis.
Scientific journals rarely print them. Many scientists believe they should not develop
hypotheses because such expectations might actually affect the way they look at their
data. For scientists to act as impartial judges of the evidence they have collected, they
cannot think about the experiment turning out one way or another.
Closed, Directed and Open Inquiry
Consider scientific inquiry in the classroom on a continuum from closed to directed to
open. The degree to which the inquiry moves along the spectrum depends on the
teacher’s amount of control and direction. In a completely closed investigation the
teacher makes all the decisions. The teacher gives the students the question,
procedures, methods for data collection and analysis and often the answer to the
question. Sometimes called “cookbook” labs, closed investigations require students to
follow step-by-step directions much like the procedures found in a cookbook.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, an entirely open investigation has students make
all the decisions. Students choose the questions, procedures, methods for data
collection and analysis and their own conclusions. Directed inquiry encompasses
anything along the continuum between closed and open. In directed inquiry, the
teacher makes some choices to guide the direction of the inquiry and the students
freely make other choices. The more choices left to the students, the more open the
experience becomes.

The degree to which a teacher directs the inquiry in the classroom should depend on
the experience level of the students and the comfort level of the teacher. Most
students without prior experience in inquiry will be unable to adequately perform an
open inquiry. They will have very little idea where to even begin. Students must first
learn the processes of inquiry, then class instruction can gradually move toward more
open investigations. This process, called scaffolding, helps students incrementally
learn the skills they need to participate fully in inquiry-based lessons.
Why Inquiry-Based Science?
Science inquiry can be a time-consuming task both in teacher planning and the
classroom. Why should teachers take the time to incorporate inquiry into science

Student Misconceptions
Students often hold beliefs about the world that conflict with scientific knowledge.
They have developed assumptions about the way things work based on their limited
experiences. For example, children may believe that when they put on their coats, it is
the coats that make them warm. They do not understand that a coat simply traps
body heat. Just telling students something that contradicts what they believe will not
change those beliefs. Most students must have multiple real experiences that dispel
such beliefs before they are willing to give them up.

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A Need to Experience Science
Students in classrooms without hands-on and inquiry experiences learn to view
science as a set of facts to memorize. They believe science involves finding the one
right answer. Far from the truth, this attitude keeps students from seeing that
scientists discover, consider multiple perspectives, analyze data and examine
evidence. Scientists present and defend their ideas with their peers. Science is more
about doing than it is about knowing. To encourage students as potential future
scientists, teachers must help them experience the active side of doing science.

Student Performance
Students who memorize facts for tests generally forget them. Students who have
experiences with scientific phenomena are more likely to internalize scientific
information and learn it in a way that allows them to retain deep understanding.

Living in a Technical World
John Dewey believed surviving in modern society required the ability to think
scientifically. His belief has even more relevance in today’s world of cloning, Mad Cow
disease and plans to colonize the moon. Technological advances require students to
understand the process of science. Citizens need to understand how science works,
including what it can and cannot do, to make informed decisions.

Preparing for State Assessments
Missouri and other states have established knowledge and process standards that
identify what students should know and be able to do with regard to scientific inquiry.
Standard Seven of the Missouri Standards is devoted entirely to the Processes of
Scientific Inquiry. The Grade-Level Expectations of every grade, beginning in
kindergarten, identify processes of scientific inquiry as necessary to science
instruction. Students who have experience with science process skills will be better
prepared to approach the type of questions found on required state assessments.

Observing What Students Know
Observing students work out problems and think through a scientific inquiry gives
teachers an opportunity to discover what students actually know and believe about a
topic. Teachers have the opportunity to guide students in questioning what they
believe and increase student understanding of science content.

Building Social Skills
Science inquiry encourages students to collaborate and interact socially. They learn to
work with others and to present their findings to a group.

Making Science Come Alive
Scientific inquiry relates science content to everyday student experiences. Inquiry-
based lab experiments use familiar materials and concepts. They capitalize on
students’ natural curiosity.
Hints for Introducing Inquiry
Concentrate on Concrete Concepts
Concrete thinkers have trouble understanding the abstract. With younger students,
use inquiry for concepts students can see and feel rather than abstract ideas. For
example, an inquiry investigation on plant growth will probably have more success
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than an investigation of why there are different seasons or how the earth revolves
around the sun. Models and visual examples can help students with more abstract

Focus on the Familiar
The more familiar the activity, the materials used and the context, the more
successful the students’ experience. Choose activities students can do or spend time
letting them get to know the materials and procedures before carrying out the actual
inquiry. For example, if an inquiry on force uses ramps as part of the lesson, allow
students to build and play with ramps before investigating questions.

Start Slowly and Work Up to Inquiry
Without prior experience, most students cannot perform completely open inquiry
investigations where they must develop their own questions, design an investigation
and analyze data. These difficult skills take time to build. Attempting too advanced an
inquiry may fail miserably. During the year, gradually build inquiry into science
• Start with a traditional lab activity and change it by simply having students
design their own data tables. In an investigation to determine the effect of
fertilizer on plant growth, do not give students a table in which to record plant
height each day. Instead, instruct them to design their own tables. Allow
students to decide what to record and how to organize the information,
however frustrating that may be for some students. Share each group’s table
with the class. Discuss which tables are easy to understand and include all the
information needed. Continue to remove predesigned data tables from future
lab experiences until most students have developed table-design skills.
• Once students can make data tables, remove part of a procedure to allow
students the freedom to decide how to handle the missing part. Consider, for
example, letting them determine how much material to use.
• Next, propose a question for the class to solve. Give students the necessary
materials and let them determine how to use those materials to answer the
question. In a unit on circuits, for example, challenge students to make a light
bulb glow by providing the needed materials and letting them go. Instruction
about circuits should come after students have explored the materials.
• After students have investigated a teacher-posed question with teacher-
provided materials, incorporate student questions. As a group, gather student
questions and choose one to investigate. After students experiment with
making circuits, they will have many questions they could actually test. Discuss
their questions as a class, decide which questions might be testable and choose
one. Allow student groups to design methods for the test. Some groups will
flounder, not be able to get started and need a few good hints. Once the groups
have worked for a while, have them share their discoveries and allow all the
groups to refine their procedures.
• For some ideas on adapting lab activities, consult the online article, “How to
Make Lab Activities More Open-Ended”

Provide Structure
Guide students. Inquiry-based teaching does not mean chaos. Giving students an egg
and asking them to explore the egg, an activity that could be considered inquiry, will
probably not result in a good experience for the teacher or students. Having students
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complete their own individual investigations may not work for most teaching
situations. However, having a science fair can create such opportunities. In the
classroom, students can investigate their own questions by collecting questions for the
class and choosing one to investigate or having groups of students to choose different
questions to explore.

Practice the Process Skills
Students do not automatically know how to perform science processes. They must
practice those skills. Set up activities for students that focus on one skill at a time.
See the following skill-and-practice examples.
• Observation: Have students observe ladybugs and take detailed notes about
what they see.
• Testable Questions: Practice forming testable questions with students about
all types of topics. While in the lunch line with students say, “I wonder if
students drink more chocolate milk than white milk. What do you wonder about
lunch?” Go down the row and take questions. To sort testable and not testable
questions, ask students, “How might we find that out?”
• Handling Measurements: Have students perform measurements which
require them to graph data.
• Graphing: Graph data and draw conclusions from student questions. For
example, do more boys play kickball at recess than girls?
• Measuring: Practice measuring with all different types of measuring tools.
• Drawing Conclusions: Give students data and allow them to draw conclusions
from what they see. Require students to use the data to back up what they
conclude by stating, “This is what I found out …” or “I know this because…”
• Science Writing: Scientific or technical writing, both invaluable tools, can be
difficult to master. Have students write directions for other students to follow.
Participate in the Monster Exchange Project. These activities will help students
develop thorough procedures that take details into account.
• Controlling Variables: When performing any investigation as a
demonstration, discuss with the class the variables that must be held constant
by anyone doing the experiment to make it a fair test. Students often find the
idea of controlling variables, an important scientific concept, difficult to grasp.
Have students try an experiment without controlling variables and then discuss
why everyone has such different results.

Tip: This website outlines the building of process skills during one year in a second-
grade classroom: This website
outlines the building of process skills during one year in a fifth-grade classroom:

Help students improve essential process skills by modeling skills for students, setting
up situations in which students can practice those skills and using class sharing to
exemplify good practice.

A Note on the Proven
Students often like to say they have proven something in their experiments. They
might say, “I proved that fertilizer helps plants grow.” Be careful of this use of the
terminology “to prove.” Help students realize that while one experiment can add to
evidence that supports a conclusion, one experiment cannot prove anything. Teach
students to say, “I found that…” or “I supported that…” This approach may seem
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unnecessarily cautious, but, in the larger world, students need to understand what
one scientific investigation can and cannot tell them. When they hear in the news
that carrots improve eyesight, they should know to question the basis of that
statement if, for example, it only involves the results of one experiment with ten
male subjects.

Add Questions to Lessons
Add a level of inquiry to class activities by simply adding a question for students to

When teaching students Excel by graphing the proportion of different colors of candies
in a sack of M&Ms, tell students the Mars Company has asked them to determine if
the color proportion of the M&Ms in a bag matches the favorite colors of children.
Students can graph the colors of the M&Ms in a bag and then survey class members to
determine if the two proportions do indeed match. They can write letters to the Mars
Company with their recommendations for color schemes.

Many teachers have students use the digital camera to photograph different geometric
shapes around the school. Ask students the question: “Which shape is most common
around our school?” The class can gather photographs of shapes, classify them, count
them and create a graph to draw a conclusion. Students might then ask why one
shape is more common than another. This question could lead to a physics
investigation on structural design.

When studying simple machines, teachers often ask students to look for simple
machines in the school or in their homes. Ask students, “Which simple machine does
our school use most often?” To answer, students can count or photograph machines,
classify them by type, graph their results and draw a conclusion. This activity can lead
to a discussion about which type of machine is most useful and why it is so useful.
Students can even determine the most useful types of machines for themselves and
defend their choices.

During a unit on the parts of speech, say to students, “I wonder which part of speech
a fiction story uses most often: verbs, nouns or adjectives?” Students can divide up a
story, identify, count and graph the parts of speech to draw a conclusion. Many other
questions could arise from this investigation: Is the number different for newspaper
stories and poetry? Do different authors use different parts of speech more often than

After the teacher incorporates questions into several activities, students will catch on
and, with a little prompting, begin asking their own questions for investigation.

Accept Frustration as Good
Most students are accustomed to being given procedures and knowing there is one
correct answer. Inquiry can feel quite frustrating. Teachers often see their role as
helping students know. They may feel like the activity is not going well when there is
frustration in the room, but frustration is actually good. Frustration means students
are thinking! Do not jump right in and help students out of a bind.
• Practice using good guiding questions to get students started thinking when
they are stuck.
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• Allow groups to share their ideas with the class. Discuss the positive aspects
and the downfalls of each group’s ideas, then allow groups to revise their plans
based on what they have learned.
• As a last resort, give little hints to get groups started. A well-planned inquiry
activity can lose the inquiry aspect when the teacher tells too much.

Use Science Kits as Starters
Many programs use some form of science kits for science instruction. Hands-on and
convenient, these activities often lack a basis in real inquiry. To expand kit activities
after performing the provided exercises, gather the class together and discuss what
further questions they have. Students will often have good testable questions after
they have worked with different materials. As a class, sort the questions into those
that can be tested with the kit materials and those that cannot. Choose one question
for the class to investigate or allow groups to choose their own questions.

Remember, students need guidance and practice before completely designing their
own procedures. At first, allow groups to design their procedures and test them. The
groups can then present their ideas to the class. The class together can combine good
ideas to design one procedure to test the question. This process will add additional
time to the kit experiments. Remember the goal is not teaching science content alone,
but teaching essential process skills as well.

For more information about using science kits for inquiry, visit the following website: Scroll to the bottom of the page
to the section entitled, “Extending Kits to Do Inquiry.”
Teacher Strategies for Inquiry
Facilitate with Questions Not Answers
To facilitate inquiry, practice asking good open-ended questions. Instead of pointing
out to a group of students that their idea will not work, ask questions that allow them
to defend their idea and possibly see its weaknesses. Ask questions like, “What are
you doing? Tell me about what you're thinking?” Instead of telling students how to
solve a problem, ask them, "What do you think would happen if...?"

For a list of additional questions to promote inquiry visit the following website:

Use Wait Time
Wait several seconds after asking a question to give students time to ponder what
they are doing and to figure out an answer. The best teaching allows students time to
think and come up with good answers.
Paraphrase Instead of Praise
Respond to students by repeating and paraphrasing what they have said. Try not to
praise or criticize their comments. This approach will encourage students to think on
their own and use original ideas instead of trying to please the teacher.
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Managing Lab Experiences in the
eMINTS Classroom
Many teachers in eMINTS classrooms are wary of conducting lab experiences with
their classes because they have so much expensive equipment in their classrooms.
Managing the situation takes a little prior thought and creativity, but lab experiences
are too important for students in eMINTS classrooms to miss.

Students can do many lab procedures right in the classroom. Stress the importance of
keeping water, chemicals and materials like soil samples away from the computer
CPU. If the CPUs are kept in a protected place, have students work on the tables. Put
the keyboard out of the way and keep paper towels handy. Water would have to enter
the openings in the back of a monitor to be a problem, an unlikely situation.

However, if working near the computers feels too uncomfortable or inappropriate for a
particular group of students, consider the following options:
• If space is available, set up a lab area for the class. A table against the wall or
in the center of the room where students can go to do the messy parts of their
experiments should suffice.
• Work on the floor. Train students to keep all materials away from the computer
tables. Students can work on the floor close to their tables for the actual
experimentation. Stack chairs in another part of the room.
• Work in the hallway, school cafeteria or outside. Choose a place in the building
where students can spill safely. Do the planning portion of the lesson prior to
the experiment in the classroom. Students can begin work well prepared when
they go to the experiment area.
• Trade rooms with another teacher. The other teacher will have an opportunity
to use the eMINTS computers and using another room will provide students
with an opportunity to get a little messier.
Incorporating Technology
Technology and scientific investigation go hand-in-hand in the larger world and can
work together in the classroom as well. The following approaches incorporate
technology into student investigations.

Analyze Data
Use Excel to create data tables, record data and produce graphs.

Present Results
Have students use PowerPoint to present their investigations, data and results to the
class. Students can incorporate Excel graphs into PowerPoint presentations. Digital
photographs can help illustrate their procedures.

Collect Data
Some topics, such as reaction time, have interactive websites useful for collecting
student data. Teachers of older students might consider purchasing computer probes
to measure data such as temperature, heat and acidity.

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Use Real-time Data to Teach Process Skills
Many Internet sites have data that can be downloaded into Excel for students to
analyze and from which they can draw conclusions. For example, students can look at
the incidence of earthquakes around the world or the physical characteristics of

Participate in Online Projects for the Sharing of Data
Online projects make excellent opportunities for students to participate in real
investigations and share their data with other students. Many projects collect
environmental data such as tracking the progress of autumn’s arrival or measuring
the quality of air or water in a particular area. Other projects examine physical science
phenomena such as factors which affect boiling point or different ways to remove
stains from clothing.

Using Web Cams to Stimulate Curiosity and Initiate Questioning
Have students visit the Panda Cam at the San Diego Zoo, watch Shamu the killer
whale in his tank or observe virtual bird feeders to formulate questions about animal

Use and Design Science WebQuests
WebQuests can incorporate inquiry-based experiences and build authentic situations
for students to resolve. These simulations can make lab experiences more real and
meaningful to students. Students can use procedures provided or use the Internet to
research possible ways to solve a problem.

Use Fun and Interesting Science Websites
Use good science websites to spark ideas for inquiry and to encourage students to ask
good questions. Begin a unit on space by visiting the Red Planet at NASA’s interactive
website about the Mars Rover program.

Use the Digital Camera
Use the digital camera to collect information and record observations. If the camera
has a movie setting, consider using it for motion experiments. Students can observe
in slow motion and time the length of a motion.
Planning with the eMINTS
Constructivist Lesson Plan Format
Use the eMINTS constructivist lesson-plan format for planning inquiry-based science
experiences. The 5Es were developed as a method for facilitating science inquiry.
Outlining the standards, the concepts and the essential question will help guide the
lesson in a specific direction.

As students gain experience with inquiry, the lesson plan may become more open
ended. A lesson plan should outline the method for collecting and choosing student
questions to investigate and the method for facilitating the student investigation, but
the actual investigation may not be determined until later in the experience.

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Previous professional-development sessions have focused on transforming
communication arts, social studies and mathematics lessons into an inquiry-based
format. This module has focused on the use of scientific inquiry. However, the same
types of lessons developed in the other subject areas also are appropriate for science.
Use the lesson-plan template as a tool for generating these types of science lessons.
Sample Science Lessons
Find sample lesson plans using varying levels of science inquiry at this webpage: For each of the following topics,
the webpage has links to a traditional science activity and a transformed version of
the lesson that provides more inquiry.

The Ramp Challenge: Each group investigates its own question within the
parameters outlined by the teacher.

Can Worms See?: The teacher provides the question and the procedure after
discussion with the class.

Have You Used a Machine Today?: Students collect and analyze data to determine
which type of simple machine they use most often.

The Cafeteria Dilemma: This investigation focuses on procedure development and
writing, collection and analysis of appropriate data, conclusion formation and the
communication of results.

Whodunit?: Students solve a problem using given procedures.
Consider how inquiry with technology can be included in a science lesson or
interdisciplinary lesson that meets science standards. Develop the lesson and plan to
implement it in the classroom.

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Learning Through Science Inquiry
Virtual workshop consisting of a series of videos with actual classroom
examples of the scientific inquiry process. Teachers can take the workshop for
college credit.

Life Science Inquiry Activities

How to Make Lab Activities More Open Ended

Inquiry Education for Teachers
A list of online articles concerning science inquiry, many with specific classroom

The Inquiry Page

Center for Inquiry-Based Learning (Duke University)
A set of inquiry-based exercises.

Institute for Inquiry
Teacher preparation for inquiry-based instruction.

Science NetLinks: Science Activities by Grade Level

Questions for Science Exploration

Science Process Skills

DESE Grade-Level Expectations (GLEs)