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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Mining Activities for Inquiry

OK, so you want to teach using an inquiry methodology and you tried to let the kids come up with their own testable questions. You may have ended up with 25 or more different activities all going on at the same time with kids asking you 90 questions per minute driving you crazy and not allowing you to focus on the main point of the lesson, to teach the skills of inquiry. You finish the lesson with no idea which kids really improved their skills and which did not.  Sound familiar?

Well, if it does you are not alone. Many teachers believe in the value of inquiry. All the key education indicators point to the fact that we have to get better at engaging our students in activities that prompt and teach them to ask good questions, to evaluate evidence, to consider alternative explanations and to design experiments to give answers to complex questions. Trying to do that with a class full of 7th graders is asking for a long stay in a mental institution. So, short of medication what can you do?

The answer is to slow down and structure the class a bit differently. I am a firm believer in baby steps. In my class I began with questions. I require that the students respond to questions with an opinion and then to back it up with evidence. A wise woman once told me that percentages were the “to die for” math skill. I asked her what then is the similar skill in science. She said, “If I could get all my students to argue from evidence…I would die happy.”  So, arguing from evidence became my goal in all lessons.

At the time I was teaching a unit on the characteristics of solids, liquids and gasses. So, I structured the inquiry and guided the students through a series of 6 lab experiences. After each one I asked the students to line up the evidence to back up their assumptions about solids, liquids and gasses. I used a lot of discrepant events like the “glurch lab” and the “ooblick lab” where the material behaves like a solid and a liquid depending on the conditions.

We examined dry ice and how it behaves in water. We extracted gasses from soda pop.

In general we rambled through the characteristics of solids, liquids and gasses with abandon. The students kept a journal record of what they though the characteristics of solids, liquids and gasses were. However, as we moved through the labs, those changed. I had them, as many of you do, record revisions in a different color pen/pencil so they can see a record of the changes. It was by accident that most encountered many of their misconceptions and altered their assumptions in light of new evidence.  That, alteration of preconceptions, is the whole reason for doing inquiry and I came upon it by accident.

Now, when I do the same unit I am much more organized. We do a good amount of exploration but I frequently use formative assessments to see what the kids are thinking and target the next experience to engage a preconception that is false and that seems to be sticking around. Throughout the unit I ask the students to be thinking about a good testable question about one of the states of matter that they would like to pursue. That question is the full inquiry that completes the unit.

The kids have some amazing questions and as always, these questions and experiences always lead to more questions. I save a bit of time for those follow up questions as they are generally more rigorous than the initial ones.

This year my students followed some interesting paths:

  • Why does soda fizz more when I open it in the mountains?
  • Can any gas dissolve in water in the same amounts?
  • Can you tell what a material is by its melting point?
  • What makes some liquids thicker and some thinner?
  • Why does solid ice float but most solids are denser than their liquids?

At first blush there does not seem to be a ton of science in these questions but a deeper view, the one the teacher holds fast to, reveals a lot. The idea of density, a huge concept in its own right, is imbedded in these questions. Likewise, the idea of intrinsic and extrinsic properties shows up in the melting point and others. The idea of atmospheric pressure and that air has mass will come up in the soda fizz question. The concept of viscosity can be pretty involved and lives in the thickness of liquids idea. These explorations can be quite deep but lead to a student examining something of importance to them using the organizing ideas of characteristics of phases of matter as a guide. The real payback is not just the rich deep understanding of these phases but the idea of engaging in inquiry.

A good primer on inquiry in science can be found at:
and also:

So, how do you get started? Use one of your current units and begin by looking at how well your planned activities engage the students in confronting their preconceptions. It helps to ask the kids to write out what they know and think about the topic first and then begin the process of figuring out which of those preconceptions holds up in light of the experiences you present. For some excellent inquiry labs check out:

Make sure you visit the Exploratorium as it has some amazing activities that would fit into any science unit.
Inquiry is the right road to be on to prepare our kids for the next century. It is up to us to help each other move to inquiry with as little stress as possible. This theme will be on my mind throughout the year so chime in and ask some questions. After all, it is all inquiry.

Shannon C ‘de Baca is a passionate educator who teaches at Iowa Learning Online.

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