Inquiry Archives - Eva Varga

November 5, 2020

When An Experiment Fails

In our homeschool STEM Class, I attempted a little chemistry demonstration – just for fun.  I’d originally read about the pumpkin demo here, Rainbow Fire, and I did the experiment as described but as the kids can attest, it didn’t work. On the drive home, my kiddos hypothesized that the fact that I waited a little while for everyone to get settled may have caused the hand sanitizer to evaporate. Upon further investigation, however, perhaps I was missing a key chemical.  Another site I found, Green Fire, suggested the use of Heet (methanol).  I will have to try again.   If any of you give this a try, please let me know what you discover. 🙂

The fact that it didn’t work out though is perfect science (though very embarrassing when done as a class demonstration).  When an experiment doesn’t go as planned, however hard to admit, it is actually great.  It gives you the chance to go back and really figure it out.  There is always an answer for why it didn’t work. You often learn more when it doesn’t go as planned.

Later that afternoon, Buddy was working on an aeronautics project (he’s trying to make an airplane with cardboard, rubber bands, and plastic propellers).  When his design doesn’t work out, he gets very frustrated and laments, “I wasted so much time on this! I wasted all this glue!” (or tape, or whatever materials he used). It is difficult to console him but with my own failure earlier that morning, I had an example with which to show it happens to all of us.

Recently, another activity seemingly failed and I thought I would share our process of discovery with you …

Signs of Fall

One of the extension activities I had suggested to my STEM students when we were covering plants was a chromatography activity to investigate the pigments in leaves, Signs of Fall (scroll down for the activity “Invisible Changes”).  Another link, with the same title, Signs of Fall, provides a PDF download for a student page with guiding observation questions.

My daughter and I worked together to set up the investigation just as it was described.  She was even careful to measure an exact amount of isopropyl alcohol into each jar. We then placed a strip of coffee filter into each jar, taping it into place to secure it and then capping each jar with a small piece of aluminum foil.  We left it overnight but there was not a single strip with any color pigment.  We thereby walked away, shrugging our shoulders. Another failed experiment.  This was getting frustrating.

I couldn’t let this one go, however.  We must have overlooked something.  I thereby left it set up on the kitchen counter for another day or two while we contemplated and brainstormed what we might have done wrong. When we happened to peek into the jars a couple of days later, we surmised that perhaps we had put the coffee strips into the jars too soon – before the heat of the water bath had had time to activate the pigments because the liquid in the jars was now clearly colored when before it had remained clear.

We thereby pulled off the aluminum foil, discarded our first strips and inserted new ones.  We checked the progress of our test a few hours later …

When a Science Experiment Fails: Signs of Fall @EvaVarga.netWhoa-lah! 

If chromatography is something you’d like to investigate further, you might also consider this activity, Rainbow Candies: A Candy Chromatography Experiment for Kids.  It is a great way to use up some of that leftover Halloween candy that may be lying about.

Life Logic: BotanyAn expanded version of this lesson is available in the Science Logic curriculum
Life Logic:  Plenty O’Plants.

September 23, 2016

When we lived in California we had a tropical bird-of-paradise in our yard. While it was not a native flower, we could agree that it was extravagant. When we traveled to Peru, we enjoyed a nature walk at the Inkaterra Hotel in Machu Picchu where we observed over 100 different native orchid species in their natural habitat.

Tropical species provide an interesting point of discussion in the classroom, sparking questions such as: “Why are our local flowers different?” or “What characteristics do the wildflowers we find here in North America share with tropical species?” These questions offer a perfect springboard into science inquiry.

inquiry-skills-birdsleuthWhat is Science Inquiry?

When most people think of science class, they picture classrooms of students all engaged in the same canned activity, following a scripted set of procedures that lead to a predictable outcome. Inquiry based science education is much more. Inquiry science engages kids in inquiry-based science lessons provides them with a way to explore on their own. It removes the teacher as somebody who is providing them with information that they need to memorize. Instead, the kids are experiencing, discovering, and developing their inquiry skills as they go. That is what real scientists do.

Although inquiry based instruction has been written about for decades, it is not widely used in science classrooms. Open inquiry, in particular, is often thought to be difficult to use in the classroom. Perhaps one explanation for this is the perceived difficulty in moving students toward the development of experimental questions.

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.

Many home educators have experience in leading their children through guided nature studies and observations. Keeping a nature journal is a popular pastime amongst many.  When we take a group of kids outside, however, you will quickly observe that the majority of their questions are reference questions. Questions they can answer relatively easily with experience identifying and using reliable sources.

If your goal is for students to generate questions that inspire investigations, then you need to be able to guide learners into reframing their questions. The Integrating Inquiry for Educators: Developing Student Science Practices online course is a wonderful guide designed to help you – the educator – do just that.

integrating-science-inquiryScience Inquiry Skills for Educators

If you wish to go further with inquiry and citizen science, I strongly recommend Cornell University’s BirdSleuth online course Integrating Inquiry for Educators. They have designed this self-paced course to help educators explore the process of science inquiry and investigation, especially as inspired by outdoor observations and citizen-science participation.

I was provided free access to this course in exchange for an honest review. Having completed the course, I would gladly have paid three times the course fee of just $49. I was very happy with the design of the course as well as how the material was delivered. The course text (eBook option is FREE), videos, assigned NSTA reading materials, case studies, interactive quizzes, and the application assignments were all nicely balanced.

The online course both challenged and piqued my interest in science inquiry. I am now – more than before – looking forward to engaging my kids in a inquiry based science explorations in the years to come.

You can also elect to earn two optional Continuing Education Units (CEUs) if you successfully complete the course. All online materials will be available to you for six months following your enrollment.

Whether you choose to enroll or not, you can support student inquiry by taking the opportunity to download their free Investigating Evidence lessons which will guide you towards supporting scientific questions through citizen science. To accompany these lessons, they have also compiled an extensive list of resources including power points and videos.

Enroll Today

Publish Student Work

In addition to the course materials and other online resources, their annual publication BirdSleuth Investigator provides students with an opportunity to share their research. You will find rich pieces of work done by students in grades K-12 throughout the country. Written by and for students, is also beautifully illustrated by youth.

The goal with BirdSleuth Investigator is to encourage students to pursue their scientific interests through inquiry and investigation by showing them that their hard work can get published. They accept bird-related submissions from all students. Submissions can take the form of artwork, poetry, or scientific reports; anything that a student has truly put effort into has the potential to get published.

To share your students’ projects with us, submit them here. Students certainly feel rewarded for their hard work when they find their work in a published journal! Read the submission guidelines for more details.

January 25, 2016

Though we are in the middle of winter, we’ve been immersed in a study of maple trees. A few weeks ago, I shared a post relaying the science of sugaring.

The United States has 13 native maples, with at least one species native to every state except Hawaii. I’ve selected seven to highlight today – with particular attention to the species native to Oregon.

Our Native Maple Trees @EvaVarga.netGenus Acer

Maple trees are classified in the genus Acer in the Maple family (Aceraceae) and nearly all of the species are deciduous. Three traits that can help you identify a maple tree are:

* Leaves palmate and lobed (for most species),

* Opposite branching, and

* Winged seeds called samaras.

Acer trees and shrubs are commonly known as maple. There are approximately 128 species, most of which are native to Asia, with a number also appearing in Europe, northern Africa, and North America.

Acer saccharum

The Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) is one of America’s best-loved trees. In fact, due to its historical and economical importance (both in the production of maple syrup and as a timber species), more states have claimed it as their state tree than any other single species (New York, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Vermont).

The simple leaves of Sugar Maple measure from 3 to 5 inches long and are in an opposite arrangement on the twigs. They are usually five-lobed, dark green on the top surface and paler underneath. They are generally smooth on both sides, although the veins underneath may be slightly hairy.

Acer nigrum

Black Maple (Acer nigrum) is a species of maple closely related to A. saccharum and treated as a subspecies of it by some taxonomists. Identification can be confusing due to the tendency of the two species to form hybrids and to share habit, range, and quality and use of wood.

BigLeafMaple*Acer macrophyllum*

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) is native to the Pacific Northwest and grows in mountainous regions. It is widespread in the Coast Ranges, the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains, and the foothills of the Cascade Range and the northern Sierra Nevada. It is also commonly known as Oregon Maple for its prevalence in our state.

The deeply lobed leaves are generally 6-12″ in diameter but have been known to exceed this in favorable conditions. The samaras have a fuzzy head, unlike the other species in Oregon.

*Acer circinatum*

One of the most beautiful sights in our woods and forests has got to be the native Vine Maple (Acer circinatum). Found as an under story plant to tall evergreens, from southern BC to northern California and east to the Cascades, Vine Maple is a hardy species.

This elegant tree grows quickly to 10-15′ with multiple trunks and spreads to 20′ widths, much like a vine. Brilliant red and orange colors signal the arrival of autumn, while showy white flowers appear in early spring. It features 3-5 lobes and smooth-headed samaras that grow in a “V” shape.

*Acer glabrum*

Douglas Maple (sometimes referred to as Rocky Mountain Maple) is native to both sides of the Cascades, from southeastern Alaska to southwestern Alberta and south into New Mexico and California.

Its leaves feature 7-9 lobes, easily distinguishable form its close relative the Vine Maple. Hardier than Vine Maple, this tree is often multi-stemmed, with greenish-yellow flowers, and samaras that are oriented in a “V” shape.

Our Native Maple Trees @EvaVarga.netAcer saccharinum

Native to eastern and central North America, Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) gets its name from the silvery undersides of its leaves. The simple, palmately veined leaves are 3–6″ long and 2–6″ broad, with deep angular notches between the five lobes. With slender leaf stems, a light breeze can produce a striking effect as the downy silver undersides of the leaves are exposed. 

The winged seeds or samaras are the largest of any of the native maple. They are produced in great abundance annually, providing many birds and small mammals with food. Silver Maple and its close cousin Red Maple (with which it can hybridize) are the only Acer species which produce their fruit crop in spring instead of fall.

Acer rubrum

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) is one of the most common and widespread deciduous trees of eastern and central North America. One of the best named of all trees, it features something red in each of the seasons—buds in winter, flowers in spring, leafstalks in summer, and brilliant foliage in autumn.

Produces red (sometimes yellow) clusters of small flowers winter to spring and features medium to dark green leaves 2–6″ in length with 3 lobes and sinuses that are irregularly toothed.

 * * *

Other Maple species found throughout the United States include Ashleaf or Boxelder Maple (Acer negundo), Canyon or Bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum), and Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum).


But are Sugar Maples the only trees that can be tapped to produce maple sugar? This is a question that has long intrigued my father. Together, we’ve undertaken an investigation to discover the answer for ourselves.

Join me again in a few weeks as I share with you our own experiences in tapping maple trees on the Oregon coast.



*Acer species found in Oregon

July 25, 2014

This is the fifth and final post in a 5 day series, The Ins & Outs of Science Fairs

science fairs

Competing at local, regional, and state science fairs is a great way for students to learn more about science. Science encourages an open mind, tenacity enough to find an answer to your question, critical skills, and honesty.

Kids get a great deal of confidence and satisfaction from having participated in a science fair; it’s a great confidence builder. It is a good opportunity to teach ethics, and for students to learn it is ok to be wrong.  For example, sometimes the data does not support the hypothesis.

Some science fairs invite community scientists, local doctors, professors, field scientists, researchers, geologists, to judge the students’ projects.  In most cases these “judges” do not give a rating.  They discuss the project with the individual students, ask questions, and give complements and suggestions for improvement.

getting the most out of a science fairTips for Attending a Science Fair

  • Don’t try to see it all – pick 2-5 projects and really see those
  • Choose a different age group for each project you visit
  • Spend time listening to the student present their project
  • Ask open-ended questions and avoid criticisms
  • Enjoy listening to the learning that is happening
  • Experience the fun the student has had preparing and now presenting to you
  • Ask about family interaction with the project
  • Keep the student talking

July 24, 2014

This is the fourth post in a 5 day series, The Ins & Outs of Science Fairs

science fairs

Preparing Your Science Fair Display Board

For almost every science fair project, you need to prepare a display board to communicate your work to others. In most cases you will use a standard, three-panel display board that unfolds to be 36″ tall by 48″ wide. Be sure to check the rules and regulations of your local fair, however.

Organize your information so that your audience can easily follow your experiment by reading from top to bottom, then left to right. Include each step:  abstract or summary (in brief, what is your project share or demonstrate), question or problem, hypothesis, variables, background research, results, materials and methods, and finally your conclusion.

You may also wish to include acknowledgements to give thanks to those who helped you along the way.  This is particularly true if resource specialists or other scientists provided assistance.
display board

The title should be big and easily read from across the room. Choose one that accurately describes your work, but also grabs peoples’ attention.

Use photos or draw diagrams to present non-numerical data, to propose models that explain your results, or just to show your experimental setup.

Your laboratory notebook and any materials you used may also interest. Again, be sure to check the rules for your science fair.

Preparing Your Science Fair Presentation

  • If you can communicate your science fair project well, you improve your chances of winning.
  • Write up a short “speech” (about 2–5 minutes long) summarizing your science fair project. Talk about how you developed the idea, the theory behind it, and why your project turned out the way it did. You will give this speech when you first meet the judges.
  • Practice explaining your science fair project to others and pretend they are judges. You may wish to organize a list of questions you think the judges will ask you. Prepare answers to these questions and then practice answering them.
  • Practice explaining your science fair project in simple terms so anyone can understand it.

science fair display boardTips for Success During the Science Fair Judging Period

  • Dress nicely.
  • Make good use of your display board. Point to diagrams and graphs when you are discussing them.
  • Be positive and enthusiastic.
  • Be confident with your answers and speak clearly.
  • It is okay to say “I do not know.”
  • Treat each person who visits you like a judge, even nonscientists.
  • After the science fair, ask for feedback from the judges to improve your project.

Join me again tomorrow for the final installment in the Ins and Outs of Science Fairs: Getting the Most Out of a Science Fair.


July 23, 20141

This is the third post in a 5 day series, The Ins & Outs of Science Fairs

science fairs

At the dialectic or logic stage (i.e. middle school), students should be expected to utilize the science skills they have been developing the past few years to design and carry out their own experiment. Students at the grammar stage (elementary school) may feel more comfortable with the project alternatives I described in my post yesterday, The Ins & Outs of Science Fairs: Types of Science Fair Projects.

Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work.

An inquiry based project is essentially an experiment whereby a student scientist tests a hypothesis. It needs to have several parts including a control and a variable. It also needs to follow the scientific method rather closely.

Independent Variable: What the scientist will be changing during the experiment
Dependent Variable: What the scientist will be measuring or observing.
Controlled Variable: What the scientist keeps the same during the experiment.

Steps to the Scientific Method

  1. Choose Topic – Is there something that interests you? Is there something about it that makes you wonder?
  2. Research Topic – Take time to gather information and discover what others have learned.
  3. Write Your Experimental Question – Ask a specific question that can be answered in a measurable way. Typically, if the question can be stated, “How will _______________ affect _____________?”  students will be able to design a successful experiment.  The first blank would be the independent variable whereas the second blank would be the dependent variable.
  4. Write Your Hypothesis – Based on your knowledge of the subject, make an educated guess or prediction about what you think will happen. Essentially, answer your experimental question before you begin your experiment.  In your report, provide some reasoning for your prediction.
  5. Write Your Step-by-step Procedure or Experimental Plan
  6. Collect all the Materials
  7. Conduct Your Experiment and Collect Data/Observations in a Journal – Your data may include notes, tables, drawings, photographs, or a combination. Use this information to create graphs and charts to help determine if your hypothesis is true or false.
  8. Draw a Conclusion – Don’t worry if your prediction or hypothesis turns out differently than you anticipated. Some of the best science is when our predictions are wrong. Use the data you organized to help determine why? Perhaps you have come up with new questions?
  9. Build a Display
  10. Prepare an Oral Presentation

inquiry scienceInquiry Based Science Fair Projects

For successful inquiry based science fair projects, begin by choosing a general area that interests you and then try to narrow it down from there. Most project ideas can be adapted to fit younger or older students. Here are few ideas to get you started:

Life Science

  • Study the conditions under which mold grows best.
  • Figure out what is the best preservative to prevent mold growth.
  • Do plants really respond to music? Affection? Sound?
  • What type of fertilizer or “plant food” works best?
  • Sugar level in plant sap at different times and dates
  • Effect of salinity on brine shrimp or other organism

Earth Science

  • Does the height of a volcano affect the viscosity of the lava?
  • Grow a crystal garden. What factors affect the rate and size of crystal growth?
  • Is there a relationship between sunspot cycles and earthquakes?
  • Study the small scale wind currents around buildings
  • What effects the rate of evaporation the most – temperature, humidity, wind speed, or other factors?

Physical Science

  • Explain how trajectory affects flight distance and vice versa in paper airplanes.
  • Explain how putting a spin on a ball affects the flight pattern. (How does a curve ball work?)
  • Which anti-bacterial hand lotion is most effective? (Grow your own bacteria in a petri dish.)
  • Which brand of popcorn is best? (As judged by which brand leaves the least amount of kernels unpopped.)
  • Which stain remover works best?

Engineering & Design

  • How do different bridge designs affect the strength of the bridge?
  • What is the most efficient design for a windmill?
  • How does the weight and shape of an object affect the rate by which it sinks?
  • Why do the inside of cars get so hot in the sun? What ways can you reduce this heat?

Join me tomorrow when I share details on Preparing Your Display Board and Presentation.