Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Top 10 Ways to Promote Science Inquiry

About a month ago, I promised to post my suggestions for guiding children in their science investigations.

Here are my suggestions, in no particular order:
  1. Join in the fun. There's nothing like modeling the behavior you wish to instill to get kids motivated. This isn't "learning" science from a textbook. This is "doing" science. Get your feet wet or your hands dirty. When I was preparing to go out and draw the caterpillars, my daughter (age 5) couldn't wait to get started. My son (age 8) opted not to participate. That is, until he saw the two of us heading out with our pens, hand-lenses, and colored pencils. "Oh... magnifying glasses!" he said. He quickly changed his mind and joined us. I had to insist he come in when it was dinner time.
  2. Provide basic materials to enhance observations. For small items, this includes magnifying glasses (hand lenses). For birds or far-off objects, binoculars will do the trick. A bug house or butterfly house is also nice, if you have it. Large jars with holes in the lids will also work for most insects. In addition, a decent set of colored pencils and a notebook chosen for the developmental stage of your child is good. For younger kids, this might be a notebook with blank space at the top for drawing with large-ruled lines below. For older kids, this might be all blank pages (like my son chose) or lined pages. (See examples here.) 
  3. Teach kids how to use the tools properly. Practice this before an investigation is to start. Once the novelty of a hand lens wears off, kids are less likely to hold it up to their eyes and make silly faces. (Though that can be fun, too). In a classroom setting, however, it's best to get the silliness out of the way so the more serious work of science can begin. Let them be silly for a few minutes, then indicate when it's time to work.
  4. Maintain your sense of wonder. Listen to your children/students talk. Remember what it was like to be a kid, awestruck by natural phenomena. Listen for possible investigations.
  5. Slow down and pay attention. Instead of rushing from commitment to commitment, take a few minutes to notice your environment. Is the moon out tonight? Are there any flowers still in bloom?
  6. Spend time in nature. This is an extension of above. You can't pay attention to nature without being outside. City dwellers... paying attention to the nighttime sky is a great way to connect with nature's cycles. Or, how about those plants growing up in the cracks of the pavement? Or maybe the birds on a wire above your head. What can you learn by observing them?
  7. Share what you're doing with others. Talk about what you've noticed. People are interested in natural phenomena, even if they forget to stop and notice it themselves. Ask if they've noticed the same things as you. Listen to, and learn from, each other.
  8. Help kids ask questions and seek answers to their questions. This is the beginning of any scientific investigation. When scientists set-up experiments, they are looking for answers to their questions.  
  9. Remember that not every question will lead to an investigation. If that were true, we'd never do anything but investigate (for those of us who have young children, anyway. There's a steady stream of questions from young kids). But, saying, "I wonder..." keep kids thinking in this way even after they pass through the early years. I'd even go so far as to say that it helps keep us grown-ups "young."
  10. Know your limits. Learn to recognize when you can continue an investigation without knowing the outcome and when you need to seek more information. For example, I knew enough about the first caterpillars we were investigating (Swallowtails, by the way! Still no changes.) to move the caterpillars into our butterfly house. Once we found the woolly bear caterpillar, however, I recognized that I did not know enough specifics about woolly bears to move it into the butterfly house. As a naturalist, I do not want to harm any animal I'm observing.  I did some quick research before giving my daughter the go ahead. 
Bonus idea for teachers:
Plan ahead. This is especially important for classroom teachers who have a room of 20 or more kids to organize. Having good lesson plans decreases behavior issues. If you don't know what the kids should be doing, how will they? Along these same lines, have good procedures in place. Model the behaviors you want kids to demonstrate. Practice them right from the beginning of the year. Assign jobs such as Materials Manager, Recorder, etc.

Here are two of my favorite books for those of you who want to learn more. Both books are useful for parents and teachers, though Rachel Carson is especially good for parents and Ellen Doris is especially good for teachers.

(I use this book in the graduate level science methods course I teach called "Science in the Elementary Schools: Teaching with Evidence").

Have any of you tried doing investigations with your children/students since you read my posts about the caterpillars? Will you try one now? How helpful was this information?


  1. Love this list. I'm going to Tweet about it.

  2. You made the #elemchat Daily: