Encouraging Inquiry-based Research

What Students "Know"
Students often have prior beliefs that profoundly affect their ability to learn new ideas. Many students have misconceptions about how things work, and they often devise their own explanations for natural phenomena on the basis of selected observations or literal interpretations of language (e.g., the sun rises). In order to build a more scientific understanding of concepts, students need opportunities to engage in hands-on, minds-on inquiries.

Overview: Students categorize questions they generate in preparation for pursuing answers that expand their existing knowledge.

Scientific investigations typically begin with observations of something intriguing or baffling, which in turn, inspire questions. When you engage your young scientists in observing the natural world firsthand or via video clips and photos - or have them review data, engage in fruitful discussions, read about scientists' observations, create KWL charts, respond to journal questions, and so on - curiosity and questions can flourish. With guidance, these can lead to fruitful thinking, discussions, and investigations.


1. Once students have generated a batch of questions about a topic or phenomena, invite them to review the list and try to categorize them on the basis of how they might answer them.

Younger Students: You may want to have younger students use just two categories. For instance:

  • questions we can answer through observations and those we can't and
  • questions we can answer by using reference materials and those that can't.
Older Students: Consider having students review and mark their questions according to these means of answering them:
  • Firsthand Observation: Put a star (*) next to questions they can answer through firsthand observations (e.g., What do robins eat?).
  • Measurable Data: Put a D next to questions they can answer by looking at measurable data (Do male eagles travel faster than female eagles?).
  • Experiment: Put a plus (+) next to those they can answer by conducting an experiment (Will tulips in compost come up earlier than tulips in regular soil?).
  • Written Information: Put a B next to those can answer by reading information from books or articles (How many times do a hummingbird's wings beat per minute?).
  • Scientist Input: Put a J next to those they think Journey North scientists could best answer (How do whooping cranes decide who leads the pack?).
  • Speculation: Put an X next to questions that are speculative (Why don't more people care about protecting habitat for migrating birds?). These can't be readily answered by any of the above, but students might suggest alternative means such as conducting surveys, debates, or a role-play exercise.
Consider grouping students with an interest in similar questions. Challenge each group to come up with a proposal describing how they would go about answering questions and present their plans to you or their peers for review. If time allows, have groups carry out the research. When appropriate, students should create hypotheses and use them to guide research.

Questions that lend themselves to setting up structured observations or experiments will enable students to think and act like scientists. This Inquiry Strategies feature will help you guide this process: Planning Science Investigations.

Discussion and Journaling Questions

  • Did any of the information we found or uncovered conflict with other information? If so, explain why you think that happened.
  • Do some questions have more than one answer? Explain when and why that might happen.
  • Which method of finding answers to questions do you most trust? Why?
  • What new questions did your research raise?
  • Why do you think it's it difficult to answer speculative questions?

Digging Deeper/Assessment Products

  • Ask students to think about the most memorable zoo or museum exhibits they've seen. What intrigued them most about the exhibit? Make a class list of the kinds of things that could be included in a museum or zoo exhibit on migration. Have student groups develop a school exhibit or special event for the species the class is following. They should incorporate the information they found during their research.

National Science Education Standards

Science as Inquiry
Ask a question about objects, organisms, events. (K-4)
Plan and conduct a simple investigation. (K-4)
Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations. (5-8)