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What is Inquiry Based Science Curriculum?

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With so many different approaches to teaching science, sometimes curriculum can be mystifying to parents and novice teachers. This is a brief overview of the inquiry science model and how it fits into today's science standards. 

Inquiry based science teaching is a way to frame science topics and questions so that students are driven by their own curiosity and discovery to find the answers. The inquiry model can be applied to just about any science lesson or curriculum with a little time and thoughtful preparation by the teacher. Although in many ways the learning in this type of lesson is student driven, teachers who use the inquiry model for their lessons must carefully frame them so that students have the resources, framework and background knowledge they need to be successful.

The “5 E Instructional Model” is a way to guide inquiry instruction. The 5 E’s are: Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend (or Elaborate) and Evaluate.

During the “engage” portion of a lesson, students are presented with a topic, idea or question that piques their interest and allows them to call upon and make connections with their prior knowledge. “Explore” allows students to directly engage with materials. After students have had a chance to make observations and ask their own questions, the “Explain” phase kicks in. This is where students can share their own explanations and teachers can provide content knowledge that confirms what students have found, or helps to redirect any lingering misconceptions. “Extend” or “Elaborate” is a chance for students to apply their new understanding to a task or further question. The process finishes with “Evaluate”, which is just as it sounds, teachers assess whether or not students have an understanding and mastery of the concept.

For example, an inquiry lesson at the elementary level on flower parts might look something like this:

Engage- students are presented with a question: Are all flowers the same? Do all flowers have the same parts? Students are then given the opportunity to share their ideas. This phase engages students but also serves as a way for teachers to assess the prior knowledge of the class.

Explore- students are given a variety of flowers, magnifying glasses, tweezers and their science notebook. They make observations, draw and investigate the flowers.

Explain- students are given the opportunity to share their ideas and observations. Then the teacher provides some background content. A diagram or a large flower model is shown and students learn the names for the different parts of the flower.

Extend- students are given more flower samples, this time with the directive to see if they can find particular parts of the flower. They question and try to explain how the shapes are different on the different varieties of flowers.

Evaluate- students are given some sort of assessment to see if they can identify the different flower parts. This might be in the form of designing a poster, using technology to magnify and project an image of a flower sample and pointing out the different parts to the class, a written assessment, or a task where they must build a flower with the appropriate parts out of paper or other media.

Science inquiry is promoted by the National Science Education Standards, and the more recent Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that have been adopted by several states since their completion in 2013. To see if your state is one that has adopted the NGSS click here. Science curriculum varies widely depending on where you are in the United States. To better understand how science is taught at your child’s school it is best to discuss the teaching methods, amount of time spent on the subject, curriculum and texts used with their teachers or administrators. Best practice science is taught in a hands-on or inquiry-based way.

As states begin to adopt the NGSS, schools will be working to be sure their curriculum aligns with these standards. The standards require that science lessons help students develop crucial critical thinking and communication skills. Being able to explain science concepts and understanding through models is an important aspect of the NGSS. When we say “models” here we do not necessarily mean 3-D models, but a scientific idea or a description that combines creativity with data and observations. Inquiry lessons work well to meet NGSS, as they encourage critical thinking, developing models and carefully collecting data.

Wading through the different standards can be daunting. The difference between the Common Core State Standards for Literacy in Science and the NGSS is that the Common Core standards are meant to aid students in meeting reading, writing and speaking the language of the sciences. The Common Core literacy standards do not serve as science education standards; they instead work to supplement them. To answer other questions you may have as your state adopts the NGSS standards visit this FAQ page. 

Another great resource for understanding how science can best be taught is A Framework for K-12 Science Education, which can be purchased or downloaded in .pdf form for free here. This text was the pre-cursor to the NGSS and is written in a narrative, “user-friendly” way that is enlightening for parents and educators alike. I highly recommend taking a look at it if you are a parent, teacher or interested in science education curriculum.

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Sarah Benton Feitlinger is a science teacher, curriculum writer and developer, blogger and kid's science news author. With over a decade of experience teaching in informal settings such as environmental education centers and museums and in the traditional classroom teaching and developing curriculum for Preschool through 6th grade science she has a passion for sharing science with others, particularly children. Believing very strongly that science is something that should be accessible and enjoyed by all, she now puts her Masters degree and experience in science education to use writing her blog, "Share it! Science News", and writing science articles and curriculum for sites such as DOGOnews and Shmoop.com. When she is not crafting new ways to share a science concept, she is out in the garden, taking a walk in the woods or enjoying some family time.

  • Guest
    Peggy Ashbrook Saturday, 28 May 2016

    Thank you for the clear description of, and additional resources for understanding, science inquiry!

  • Guest
    Sarah Benton Feitlinger Saturday, 28 May 2016

    Thanks for reading, Peggy!

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