Science Inquiry

Wiki Contributions


Contributed by Norm Herr - from Chapter 22 of the Sourcebook for Teaching Science) Science is the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. Science is investigative, and an emphasis on inquiry must be modeled in the classroom, just as it is practiced in the research laboratory.  This chapter provides strategies and activities to engage students in scientific research, in which they define and answer their own questions.

The National Science Education Standards were developed by the National Research Council to “promote a scientifically literate citizenry”.  The Standards frequently encourage the use of inquiry in the science classroom, defining it as "... a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations." [i] These skills are addressed in a wide variety of activities in this book, as referenced below.

  • Making observations (5.2)
  • Posing questions (23.1)
  • Examining resources and reviewing what is known (3.1, 22.5 )
  • Planning investigations (5.5, 5.6, 5.7)
  • Using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data (19.1-5, 22.2)
  • Proposing answers, explanations, and predictions (6.2, 6.3)
  • Communicating results (3.2, 3.4, 3.5)

A special case of inquiry learning is problem-based learning (PBL).  Students are assigned to teams and provided with an ill-defined problem.  Teams must organize themselves, define objectives, assign responsibilities, conduct research, analyze results, and present conclusions.  The problems are purposely “ill-defined,” causing team members to work collaboratively to define specific issues, problems, and objectives.  Such tasks mimic the problem-solving skills that professionals engage in, whether repairing automobiles, or treating cancer patients. Problem-based learning employs open-ended questions that are not limited to a single correct answer.  The questions elicit diverse ideas and opinions and require students to work as a group. Problem-based learning naturally integrates various fields of study as students search beyond the traditional curricular boundaries to develop solutions. The activities in this chapter provide students opportunities to develop scientific reasoning and skills through problem based learning and other inquiry-based activities.

Researchers have found that inquiry is a very effective learning technique.[ii] A helpful way to visualize inquiry learning is with the 5-E model proposed by Richard Bybee[iii].  The 5-E model (Table 22.1) is a constructivist approach[iv], which provides students the opportunity to use logic and prior knowledge to build understanding.

Table 22.1 The 5-E Learning cycle and instructional model 

Engage  - Provide activities that access prior knowledge,  capture student interest and stimulate student thinking.  Possible activities include: counterintuitive demonstrations, intriguing movie clips, current events, and hypothetical questions.

ExploreProvide students the opportunity to plan, collect, and organize data. Possible activities include: designing and performing an investigation, solving a problem, and reading to collect further information.

ExplainStudents analyze data they have collected, and formulate explanations. Possible activities include: comparing, classifying, and analyzing data; building explanations, and supporting ideas with evidence.

ElaborateStudents expand their understanding by applying it to real world situations. Possible activities include: giving examples of how the principles apply to other phenomenon, and making decisions based upon new understandings.

EvaluateStudents evaluate their understanding. 

Possible activities include: determining the limits to findings, and evaluating the authenticity and accuracy of information and conclusions.

The 5-E model seeks to engage students in the lesson before exploration or explanation.  This contrasts with traditional instruction in which teachers present principles that students verify in the laboratory. Although inquiry is a powerful approach, it is time-consuming and should be integrated with other instructional strategies.  More recently, a 7-E model[i] has been proposed: Elicit, Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate, Extend. 


[i] Eisencraft, A. (2003). Expanding the 5-E model. The Science Teacher. 70(6)


[i] National Academy of Sciences.  (1996). National Science Education Standards.  Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.

[ii] Bransford, J.,  Brown, A., and Cocking, R., (eds.) (2000). How People Learn. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

[iii] Bybee, R.W. (1997). Achieving Scientific Literacy. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

[iv] Wheatley, G. (1991). Constructivist perspectives on science and mathematics learning. Science Education 75(1): 9-21.