Inquiry Strategies
for the Journey North Teacher

Planning Science Investigations

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Framing "Testable Questions"

Many of the questions asked by student and professional scientists lend themselves to systematic investigations. But questions often need to be reworded so they can actually be tested. Here are some strategies for shaping questions at different grade levels:

  • In the early primary grades, you can help shape youngsters' "wonderings" so they can "try out" an idea (e.g., Can we grow bulbs in water?)

  • As students mature, you'll need to help them refine their questions so they are clear and able to be investigated with available resources. A simple way to help students write testable questions is to use the stem, What would happen if....?

  • In fourth or fifth grade and beyond, you can help students refine questions so they lead to "fair tests." (investigations in which everything is kept constant except one variable). These types of questions should imply what you'll need to do to answer them or what comparisons or measurements will be made, for instance, Will tulips sprout earlier if we grow them in soil with compost or in regular soil?

A Fair Test Is . . .
To make sure an investigation is a fair test, you need to keep everything constant except the variable you're testing. Take the question, Will tulips sprout earlier if we grow them in compost or in regular soil? Students might plant one tulip in each of six pots. Three pots will contain compost and three will contain regular soil. Students must try to keep all other variables - sunlight, moisture, type of bulb, planting depth, and so on - constant. If they didn't - and planted some bulbs deeper than others, for instance - they couldn't be sure whether it was the soil type or bulb depth that made the difference.

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