What is Science? - Transitioning to Inquiry Based Instruction - Eva Varga

July 29, 20132

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:

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