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Science

What Is Inquiry-Based Learning in Science?

7 Min Read
Inquiry Based Learning in Science Hero

Definition of Inquiry in Science

Inquiry-based learning in science ignites students’ desire to explore and take their learning deeper by increasing their agency. For a definition of inquiry in science, as in other subjects like math and history, inquiry-based science instruction encourages students to:

  • Express their own curiosity
  • Investigate their own questions
  • Present their findings and learnings
  • Reflect on what they learned and their process of learning

The National Research Council states that inquiry “refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.” Students encouraged to use inquiry in the science classroom become more curious and apply the inquiry process to learn more about the world around them, even outside of the classroom.

According to Heather Banchi and Randy Bell, there are four levels of inquiry-based learning—progressing from the least to the most open-ended: confirmation, structured, guided, and open inquiry:

  • Confirmation inquiries let students confirm a principle through an activity when the answers are known in advance.
  • Structured inquiries allow students to investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure.
  • Guided inquiries let students investigate a teacher-presented question using procedures designed or selected by students.
  • Open inquiries allow students to investigate student-formulated questions using procedures designed or selected by students; teachers provide input to ensure the questions and procedures are appropriate.

The 5Es of Inquiry-Based Science

In order to more easily facilitate inquiry in the classroom, many instructional approaches follow the 5E model of science instruction. As the chart below explains, each step focuses on what the students will do. Notice that it’s the students explaining and not the teacher—as would have been the case in a more traditional instructional model.

Engage

Students ask questions, share observations and ideas, and express current understanding.

Explore

Students test predictions, plan and conduct an investigation, problem-solve, and compare ideas with others.

Explain

Students record understanding, explain using evidence, listen to other explanations, and share their possible solutions.

Elaborate

Students draw conclusions, make connections between new and prior experiences, use the information to ask new questions, and apply explanations to new situations.

Evaluate

Students evaluate their progress, give peers feedback, check work with a rubric or criteria, and answer open-ended questions.

Through each phase, teachers serve as a facilitator, guiding students along the learning process. (Read more about the 5E’s of inquiry-based science here.)

Importance and Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning in Science

One of the benefits of inquiry-based learning is that it’s student-centered, meaning students pose their own questions and work to answer them using their own investigations and experiments. Adding this type of student agency generates natural engagement as the students seek to satisfy their curiosity. Additionally, inquiry-based learning in science builds students’ critical thinking skills. By problem-solving, drawing conclusions, and defending their results using evidence, students utilize reasoning skills. Students connect what they’re learning in class and scientific knowledge to their investigations and informed predictions.

Finally, inquiry-based learning in science lends itself to robust and effective differentiated instruction. Students can explore their inquiries alone or in small groups. And the content students use to learn more about scientific topics can be presented in multiple formats, such as via video, text, or audio.

Inquiry-Based Learning Science Examples

Inquiry-based learning in science can take on many forms, especially depending on the level of inquiry. A teacher might present a procedure that students must follow to explore an inquiry, or students might design or select a procedure with guidance from the teacher.

One common way for students to explore science topics is through a hands-on experiment. Though science experiments are common in science classrooms, no matter how instruction is delivered, inquiry-based learning can include many other forms of instruction. For example, students curious about an engineering question could draw a model, create or utilize a computer simulation, design a scale model, or even write a proposal for a more elaborate solution. Students wondering about the local wildlife can explore the outdoors, interview DNR experts, investigate local conservation efforts, or design recycling plans for their school, district, or town.

The following video from our 90-Second Science series presents a great example of structured inquiry. The teacher first asks the students what they know about static and demonstrates how humans are good conductors of electricity through an experiment. Then, in small groups, students perform a similar experiment to explore and attempt to understand or figure out the phenomenon.

Developing Inquiry-Based Science Questions

Inquiry-based learning starts with asking questions about phenomena. These questions must be testable. Additionally, questions that students can easily answer with a simple yes or no or by searching the internet do not make for strong inquiry-based science questions. Effective questions require deeper exploration beyond the surface, requiring evidence to support students’ solutions or explanations of the question.

For example, “Is the sun a star?” wouldn’t make for a good inquiry question since it can be answered with a yes or no. However, the question “Why does the sun appear to move across the sky?” is effective since it requires deeper exploration.

Overall, inquiry-based questions appeal to students’ interests, even if they don’t connect immediately to a unit being studied in class. The following resources provide more examples of how to form inquiry questions in science:

Inquiry-Based Science Lessons

Inquiry-based science lessons can be used as standalone activities or made into extended lessons that last days or weeks. HMH science programs are full of inquiry-based science lessons, and the activities below are examples of structured or guided inquiry.

Activity 1: Design a Listening Device

In this activity, students design a hearing-enhancing device to investigate the following phenomenon: engineers make and improve designs to meet various needs and solve problems. First, students form questions they have, considering what they think their device needs to do. Then, they sketch potential designs and brainstorm materials they think they’ll need to create the device. After making the devices with their teams, students test their results and think of ways to improve their designs.

Download Student Activity

Download Teacher Guide

Activity 2: Model the Apparent Motion of the Sun

In this activity, students investigate the question: Why does the sun appear to move across the sky? Students determine the answer to this question by working in pairs and modeling the Earth-sun system—one student acts as the Earth while the other plays the role of the sun. By the end, students form an explanation for the sun’s apparent motion in the sky.

Download Student Activity

Download Teacher Guide

Activity 3: Build Your Own Science Equipment

Students might have questions about the tools scientists use to conduct science experiments. The batch of activities below provides guidance on building DIY lab equipment; students can make and test their own scientific instruments and determine how they can improve their designs.

Activity 4: Experiment with Static Electricity

Here’s an activity for Grades K–12 students to learn more about electric fields and forces. In small groups, students experiment with static electricity and aluminum-wrapped spheres to investigate the question: Can you control electricity?

Inquiry-based strategies in science can be incorporated into many lessons; however, to develop an inquiry-based science lesson plan, consider these tips:

  • Summarize the unit or lesson.
  • Connect the lesson to standards.
  • Pose a question or guide students in asking what they want to learn more about.
  • Let students investigate their inquiries.
  • Have students communicate their findings.
  • Reflect on learning.

The effectiveness of inquiry-based learning can’t be denied. Inquiry-based learning is especially suited for the science classroom as the subject is built on critically questioning and investigating the natural world. For more activities and experiments that can support students in exploring inquiries, explore these blogs:

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