What is Science? – Transitioning to Inquiry Based Instruction

Over the past few weeks I have been sharing with you a series of posts that address the scientific method, science process skills, and science as inquiry. Inquiry-based instruction often represents a new and complex classroom situation for teachers and students. Both need the time to gradually make a transition from the more classical type activities and lectures, to more open-ended activities characteristic of inquiry-based instruction.  Today, I share with you examples of how to easily modify existing cook-book activities for a more inquiry based instructional approach.

what is scienceA good place to start is to conceal the title of the activity.  Frequently the title of an activity can give away the instructional objective and students are thereby easily able to guess at an appropriate hypothesis.  Another suggestion is to remove premade data tables that accompany many lab activities. Have students figure out for themselves what data to record, and how to record it. While students may struggle and need assistance in the beginning, with continued practice they will find success.

Once students are comfortable recording their own data, educators can move on to further activity modifications. For example, parts of the procedures can be deleted. Students make decisions that can have small effects on the outcomes of the activities, while still using the materials the teacher had planned on using. Teachers can also experiment with having activities come before lectures (or direct instruction). This simple change can provide many wonderful opportunities for learning opportunities and discussions.

Example of a Classic “Hands-on” Science Activity

Make an Egg Float in Salt Water

An egg sinks to the bottom if you drop it into a glass of ordinary drinking water but what happens if you add salt? The results are very interesting and can teach you some fun facts about density.

What you’ll need:

  • One egg
  • Water
  • Salt
  • A tall drinking glass


  1. Pour water into the glass until it is about half full.
  2. Stir in lots of salt (about 6 tablespoons).
  3. Carefully pour in plain water until the glass is nearly full (be careful to not disturb or mix the salty water with the plain water).
  4. Gently lower the egg into the water and watch what happens.

What’s happening?

Salt water is denser than ordinary tap water, the denser the liquid the easier it is for an object to float in it. When you lower the egg into the liquid it drops through the normal tap water until it reaches the salty water, at this point the water is dense enough for the egg to float. If you were careful when you added the tap water to the salt water, they will not have mixed, enabling the egg to amazingly float in the middle of the glass.

Tweak it for Inquiry Based Instruction

Walking through the above activity step by step as described is a cook-book approach and while the child may find it interesting, there is little thinking involved.   Instead hand the student an egg and present them with an open-ended challenge, “I bet you can’t get this egg to float on water.”  Allow the child to work through their own ideas and solutions, offering suggestions or hints if necessary.

For more information on modifying science lessons and transitioning to inquiry based instruction, read the Science and Children article, This is Inquiry … Right?  (NSTA publication, Sept 2012).

My earlier posts in this series include:

Science at Home – Air Has Mass

I’m excited to participate in my first Google+ event … Science at Home.  This month, the topic is Air and I have put together two activities that I know you will enjoy, both of which I have used with my own kiddos.  The focus of the demonstrations is to show that air has mass.  When doing these activities with your children, however, try not to reveal the objective of the demonstration.

Allow students to observe the process without knowing the outcome.  This will help them to write their own title and objectives. Instead of standard after-lab-questions, ask students to complete the missing title and objectives. It is a fun twist and makes the lab more creative and inquiry based.

Science at Home HOA2

Air is the sea of particles in which we live. Wrapped around us like a blanket, students sometimes mistake air as being without mass or weight. I shared two science demonstrations today to prove to students that air does indeed have mass.  

Air Has Mass

In the first activity, two balloons filled with air, will be used to create a balance.  Inflate the two balloons until they are equal in size and tie them off. Attach a piece of string to each balloon. Then, attach the other end of each of the strings to the opposite ends of the meter stick, keeping the balloons the same distance from the end. The balloons will now be able to dangle below the ruler.

Tie the third string to the middle of the meter stick and hang it from the edge of a table or support rod. Adjust the middle string until you find the balance point where the meter stick is parallel to the floor. Once the balance scale set-up is completed, the experiment can begin.

As the kids sketch the set-up, ask them to predict or make an hypothesis about what will happen if you were to poke a hole in one balloon.  Do so and encourage them to record their observations in words or pictures in their journal.

The balloon that remains full of air will cause the ruler to tip showing that the air has weight. The empty balloon’s air escapes into the surrounding room and is no longer contained within the balloon. The compressed air in the balloon has a greater weight than the surrounding air. While the weight itself cannot be measured in this way, the experiment gives indirect evidence that air has mass.

CO2 is Heavier than Air

Another fun demonstration you can do easily at home illustrates that carbon dioxide gas is heavier than air. It takes a little practice but once you’ve got it down it’s pretty fun!  You’ll need two glasses, baking soda, vinegar, and a small candle.  Measure a tablespoon of baking soda into one glass.  Light the candle.  Measure a tablespoon of vinegar and pour it into the glass with the baking soda.  Allow it to bubble for a moment and generate the carbon dioxide gas.  Depending upon the size of your glass, it may bubble over.  No worries.

When the bubbles have receded a little, carefully lift the glass and pour the carbon dioxide gas into the second glass.  Be careful not to pour the liquid; you won’t actually see anything pour – but trust me.  Then, gently lift the second glass (which appears to be empty) and pour it over the burning flame. In just a few seconds, the flame will be extinguished.

In order to burn, fire requires oxygen. Fires start when a flammable material, in combination with a sufficient amount of oxygen gas (or another oxygen-rich compound), is exposed to a source of heat, and is able to sustain a rate of rapid oxidation that produces a chain reaction (the fire tetrahedron).  Fire cannot exist without all of these elements in place and in the right proportions.  When the carbon dioxide gas is poured from the glass, gravity pulls it down and it pushes the oxygen rich air away.  Without oxygen, the flame is extinguished.

Take it Further

Can you find ways to test the mass of different gases?  How could you compare the mass of helium and carbon dioxide?  What can the periodic table tell you about these elements?

In addition to two activities I shared in the hangout today, I also did a few other simple activities with my kiddos which I have described in more detail in an earlier post, Air Pressure and Wind Activities.

If you missed the hangout on Google+, you can see the full video recording at Science at Home.

The Secret of the Tides

I grew up in Bandon, Oregon and though we now live in the valley of northern California, we travel home as often as possible.  While we go primarily to see family, the ocean pulls us to her just as compellingly.  We have enjoyed exploring the tide pools, investigating the unique estuarine habitats, and tasted freshly caught Dungeness crab many times in the past.  Recently, however, we spent some time taking a closer look and discovering the secret of the tides.

tidal chart

As pictured in the the photo collage above, we visited a beach access area at both low tide (6:59 a.m. @ -1.9′) and high tide (6:56 p.m. @ 1.5′).  I specifically selected this area because on low tide, we had access to tide pools.  Shortly after I took the photo, we walked down the stairway and spent time investigating the marine invertebrates.  While we marveled at the sea stars and innumerable sea anemones, I began to pose questions about the animals we observed and about the wave evidence on the shoreline.  We noted specifically where we found each species and shared our hypothesis for how these organisms could survive in such a dramatically changing environment. I’ll share our discoveries soon – the kids are still working on their nature journals.

Create a Tide Graph

One of the most useful activities we undertook this past week was to create a tide graph and then use the newspaper to also plot the corresponding moon phases.  To create a tide graph yourself, use a tide chart and select a specific month; you can access tidal data from NOAA.  Use a piece of graph paper to  graph the highest high tide and the lowest low tide for each day (recall there are typically two high tides and two low tides each day).  Use a different colored pencil for each tide type.  The day of the month should be on the x-axis and the height of the tide on the y-axis.  Tides can be negative, so be sure to include negative numbers on your y-axis.

Lastly, find a moon phase calendar for the selected month (or look up the moon phase in your local newspaper).  Sketch the four major moon phases (new moon, 1st quarter moon, full moon, and 3rd quarter moon) under the corresponding calendar date and label them accordingly.  After completing the graph, answer the questions listed below.

  • Is there a relationship between the phase of the moon and the tides?  Explain what you observed based upon your graph.
  • What are spring tides? Based upon your data, around what phase(s) of the moon do spring tides occur?  How do you know this?
  • What are neap tides? Based upon your data, around what phase(s) of the moon do neap tides occur?  How do you know this?

Take it Further

If you have enjoyed this activity and would like to explore related lessons and inquiry activities, check out Estuary Ecology, a fourteen lesson hands-on life science curriculum unit study that focuses upon estuaries and salt water marshes.

** Please note that graphs will vary depending upon the selected location and time of year.  A great extension activity is to create tide graphs for distinctly different locations (Newport, Oregon and Cape Code, Massachusetts, for example) and/or different seasons.

Submitted to the Outdoor Hour Challenge Blog Carnival at Handbook of Nature Study.


What is Science? – The Importance of Inquiry

Earlier this month I shared with you my view that science is an exciting and dynamic process of discovery.  Today, I expand upon that definition to explore the importance of inquiry, specifically scientific inquiry.  The National Science Education Standards (NSES p. 23) defines scientific inquiry as “the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Scientific inquiry also refers to the  activities through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.”

what is science

Unfortunately, our traditional educational system has worked in a way that discourages the natural process of inquiry. Students become less prone to ask questions as they move through the grade levels. In traditional schools, students learn not to ask too many questions, instead to listen and repeat the expected answers.

In many classrooms and homeschool families, students enjoy fun science lessons that feature hands-on projects and activities that help bring the exciting world of science to life.  Unfortunately, many of these science experiences are canned lessons that do not require them to apply their skills and understanding of the scientific concepts.  Frequently, the experiments are laid out for them including the title, question, materials, and procedures.  While these technically “hands-on” activities are essential, they are not enough.  Students must also have “minds-on” experiences as well. Science is an active process, learning science is something that students should do, not something that is done to them.

Success in science is more than “science as process,” in which students learn such skills as observing, inferring, and experimenting.  Inquiry is central to science learning. When engaging in inquiry, students describe objects and events, ask questions, construct explanations, test those explanations against current scientific knowledge, and communicate their ideas to others. They identify their assumptions, use critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations. In this way, students actively develop their understanding of science by combining scientific knowledge with reasoning and thinking skills.

importance of inquiry

The importance of inquiry does not imply that teachers should pursue a single approach to teaching science, nor a single curricula. Just as inquiry has many different facets, so teachers and home educators need to use many different strategies to develop their students’ understandings and abilities. The content can be organized and presented with many different emphases and perspectives in many different curricula.

Join me again in two weeks when I share with you examples of how to easily modify canned science activities to create inquiry based experiences.  I will provide examples of how teachers can move their classical instruction to an inquiry-based instructional approach.

My other posts in this series include:

Apps for Nature Study

Have you ever been on a walk with your kids and they spot a cool insect that you have never seen before?  Have you ever looked at a tree and wondered to yourself, “I wonder what type of tree this is?”  Next time you’re out walking in nature, enhance your experience with great iPhone apps for nature study.

There are apps available to help you find nature, navigate through it, and learn more about it during your outings.  Whatever your interest, apps for nature study abound.  Here are a few of our favorite apps for nature study.

  • nature apps

    EveryTrail – Find great trips and hikes in your area; an interactive map uses GPS capability to show the path you are taking. You can post pictures and videos along the way and share via social networks.

  • NatureFind – NatureFind will help you find nature centers, gardens, zoos, museums and so much more. It also keeps you informed on upcoming events at these venues.

  • My Nature Animal Tracks – Helps you identify the animal, interactive maps show you where the animal can be found in North America, sound files of each creature’s vocalizations, a nature journal and more.

  • Leafsnap – Uses visual recognition software to identify tree species from photos of the leaves. Location data is sent to database so scientists can track how the numbers and ranges of trees are changing over time.

  • Arbor Day Tree Identification Guide – This is a mobile version of the Arbor Day Foundation’s award winning field guide.

  • Project Noah – Helps you identify an unknown plant or animal, see what kinds of plants and animals have been spotted near you, and contribute to ongoing research projects.

  • Audubon Insects and Spiders – A field guide with 500+ descriptions and photos, a journal to track your findings, & a reference section with tips on finding insects and how to start your own collection.

  • iBird – A must have for any avid bird watcher; audio songs and calls, maps, and information on habitats and behaviors. Share your own photos via social networks.

  • Rockhound– Let Rockhound know where you are, and it will tell you what rocks, gems, and minerals you may discover there. There are pictures of each rock to help you identify what you find.

  • Meteor Counter – As you tap the keys, the app records critical data for each meteor you observe: time, magnitude, latitude, and longitude, along with optional verbal annotations.

  • SkyView Free – Take a photo of the sky and then tap to find out more. Change the date to see what the sky looked like long ago, or what it will look like in the future.

Do you have a favorite iPhone app for nature study that I have neglected to include here?  Leave a comment and let my readers and I know.  🙂

What is Science? – The Process of Discovery

With the growth of social media, blogging, and the popularity of Pinterest, I frequently see science activities and lessons that parents, home educators, and teachers have pinned. While I love that social bookmarking sites have made science more accessible, I am frustrated with the cookbook approach and the growing misconceptions about what is science.

what is scienceOver the next few weeks, I will be sharing with you a series of posts that address the scientific method, science process skills, and science as inquiry.  Along the way, I will address several key misconceptions about science.  I look forward to engaging you in a dialogue – I hope you will join in on the discussion.

What is Science?

  • Focuses on the natural world
  • Aims to explain the natural world
  • Uses testable ideas
  • Relies on evidence
  • Involves the scientific community
  • Leads to ongoing research
  • Benefits from scientific behavior

Science is the human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions.

For example, an ecologist observing the territorial behaviors of bluebirds and a geologist examining the distribution of fossils in an outcrop are scientists making observations in order to find patterns in natural phenomena. An astrophysicist photographing distant galaxies and a climatologist sifting data from weather balloons similarly are scientists making observations, but in private settings.

The above mentioned examples are observational science, but there is also experimental science. A chemist observing the rates of one chemical reaction at a variety of temperatures and a nuclear physicist recording the results of bombardment of a particular kind of matter with neutrons are scientists performing experiments to see what consistent patterns emerge. A biologist observing the reaction of a particular tissue to various stimulants is likewise experimenting to find patterns of behavior.

Common amongst each of these scenarios is that these scientists are making and recording observations of nature, or of simulations of nature, in order to learn more about how nature works.

How Science Works


Science is an exciting and dynamic process of discovery.  The chart illustrated above was developed by the University of California and the UC Museum of Paleontology, with funding by the National Science Foundation. The flowchart represents the process of scientific inquiry, through which we build our knowledge and understanding of the natural world. Most ideas take a serpentine path through the process, winding through process as shaped by unique people and events.

Exploration and Discovery

There are many routes into the process – like making a surprising observation in nature.

Testing Ideas

Testing ideas – in the field or in a lab setting – is at the heart of science.

Community Analysis & Feedback

Science relies on a community – within research groups and across all science disciplines.

Benefits & Outcomes

Science is intertwined with society and it affects our lives every day. 

Next week, I will explore in more detail the concept of scientific inquiry; addressing the misconception that there is a single scientific method that all scientists must follow.

Additional posts in this series include: