It’s been almost twelve years since I went to science camp, but I still vividly remember my experiences. I had never been that engaged in my science classes, as I was more interested in reading and writing, but the week I spent in the outdoors with my fellow elementary students was one of my favorites. Why? you might ask. I was allowed to “play” outside with my friends in the dirt, exploring the woods and examining banana slugs—while learning! At the time I may not have realized it, but I was engaging in a hands-on version of science, now being referred to with the word inquiry.

According to the National Science Education Standards, “Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work.” In terms of education, this method allows students to understand scientific concepts through a personal lens, testing and developing their own theories. Inquiry science is a free-form learning experience that does not rely directly on textbooks and step-by-step procedures. Instead, students build from data-gathering techniques and factual information they have learned in the classroom or from previous textbook studies; they then take the learning outside to engage in science without the constraints of a lab. The students are responsible for finding credible solutions to their questions as well as developing the best way to present and synthesize the information.

For example, Adam Flynn, chair of William M. Davies Career & Technical Center’s science department, may ask his juniors where they think the next earthquake will strike. Rather than basing their answers purely on speculation derived from what they’ve read in their textbooks about why and how earthquakes occur, students build upon their previous knowledge and perform research to support it. As long as the students provide a logical explanation for their hypotheses, the method of obtaining exterior research is up to them—some may comb through the news, while others may explore the US Geological Center or other online sources.

Julia Steiny’s interview with Adam Flynn in Education News reveals three questions Flynn asked each science teacher:
1. What are the desired results? What, exactly, should students know and be able to do?
2. How will you assess your teaching so you’re sure the kids got it?
3. And only lastly, given numbers 1 and 2, what’s the lesson plan?

By answering these three questions, teachers are driven to assess student learning, rather than solely planning and implementing activities. For those who are wary about the effectiveness of inquiry science, Synergy Learning also offers a variety of reasons to why it works, from helping students reflect with their peers and increasing communication to connecting sequences and events, which allows them to predict and notice change. Through implementing inquiry science, students are encouraged to answer questions and critique their own work—skills that are crucial in any environment, both in and out of the classroom.

Further Reading:

“Scientific Inquiry,” National Science Teachers Association, accessed February 12, 2013.
“Julia Steiny: Inquiring Minds Want To Know Science,” Education News, accessed February 12, 2013.
“Inquiry Based Science: What Does it Look Like?” Institue for Inquiry, accessed February 12, 2013.