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Science & Technology Curriculum Framework
Owning The Questions

Strand 1: Inquiry

Lifelong learners are able to use the methods of inquiry to participate in scientific investigation and technological problem solving.

As stated in The Massachusetts Common Core of Learning, all students should investigate and demonstrate methods of scientific inquiry and experimentation.

Before there was science or technology, there was inquiry. Questions like "What causes the seasons?" and "How can we grow more food each year on this land?" were asked by human beings long before science or technology became disciplines. Human beings are curious. They want solutions to everyday problems. And so they become scientists and technologists -- sometimes without even knowing it.

In the same way, inquiry in the classroom builds on students' own curiosity and practical-mindedness. It leads them to a deeper understanding of the world than they would get by just reading about it, and it leads them to discover governing principles instead of just memorizing them. Inquiry helps students to learn not just "what we know" but "how we know."

In the early school years, inquiry leads children to engage with the world. They make careful observations and talk about what they see. Through guided observations, they learn to notice as much as possible about objects and events and pay attention to details. At first, children record their observations in drawings; later, as their writing skills develop, they annotate their drawings. Gradually, a foundation for more quantitative inquiry is laid through activities such as collecting, grouping, and ordering familiar objects; noting similarities and differences among them; observing and talking about changes; and asking even more questions. Even very young children can make measurements using common objects found in the classroom, such as Unifix cubes; older children can learn to use conventional measuring tools accurately. By checking their observations and measurements against their ideas, and vice versa, children start to build strong conceptual understandings.

During the elementary school years, children come to realize that some of their questions can be answered by testing them. Investigations may be designed and carried out by the whole class. Later, students develop the skills needed to design and carry out their own tests, using specialized instruments and tools. Some tests will be scientific investigations, searching for understanding; for instance, students may try to discover why shadows fall in different directions. Other tests will take the form of technology design challenges, searching for workable solutions to problems; for instance, students may try to design a car that will stop before it rolls off the edge of a table.

In the middle grades, students plan and carry out more sophisticated tests and design challenges, gradually learning to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information. They also become more proficient with data, manipulating and analyzing it with confidence if not always with accuracy, and they can now more readily justify their conclusions with evidence. In middle school, science and technology learning continues to take place in the context of extended investigations.

In their high school years, students become better abstract and hypothetical thinkers. As they hone their analytical skills, they can design more rigorous scientific investigations and meet technology design challenges involving problems that have not necessarily been solved before. They now are more proficient at working with quantitative data, and they can represent it graphically and symbolically. They also get better at interpreting complex and messy data, creating models, making inferences, and using evaluative feedback to check specifications.

Inquiry skills built in grades nine and ten are expanded in grades eleven and twelve to include reflection on the assumptions and concepts that guide investigations and problem-solving activities. Students learn how to construct and evaluate their own scientific and technological explanations and to judge the work of others.

Questions are an integral aspect of lifelong learning and adult basic educators are strongly encouraged to implement these Inquiry Learning Standards and to adapt them to the literacy and experiential levels of their students.

Grades PreK-4 Learning Standards

  • Observe and describe familiar objects and events, identifying details, similarities and differences.
  • Ask questions, both investigable and non investigable, about the objects and events observed. Suggest ideas about "how", "why", and "what would happen if"?
  • Make predictions based on past experience with a particular material or object.
  • Plan and conduct a simple investigation knowing what is to be compared or looked for.
  • Extend observations using simple tools, e.g., hand lens, rulers, two-arm balance.
  • Recognize and communicate simple patterns in data.
  • Describe ideas about "how", "why", and "what would happen if"?
  • Interpret findings by relating one factor to another, e.g., If a ball is dropped from a higher place, will it always bounce higher?
  • Describe and communicate observations through discussions, drawings, simple graphs, and writing.

Grades 5-8 Learning Standards

  • Note and describe relevant details, patterns, and relationships.
  • Differentiate between questions that can be answered through direct investigation and those that cannot.
  • Apply personal experience and knowledge to make predictions.
  • Apply multiple lines of inquiry to address and analyze a question, e.g., experimentation, trial and error, survey, interview, and secondary sources.
  • Design an investigation or problem specifying variables to be changed, controlled, and measured.
  • Use more complex tools to make observations, and gather and represent quantitative data, e.g., microscopes, graduated cylinders, computer probes, stress and impact testers, wind tunnels and timers.
  • Describe trends in data even when patterns are not exact.
  • Reformulate ideas and technological solutions based on evidence.
  • Analyze alternative explanations and procedures.
  • Represent data and findings using tables, models, demonstrations and graphs.
  • Communicate ideas and questions generated, and suggest improvements or alternatives to the experimental techniques used.
  • Communicate the idea that usually there is more than one solution to a technological problem.
  • Design a solution involving a technological problem and describe its advantages and disadvantages.

Grades 9-10 Learning Standards

  • Distinguish those observations that are relevant to the question or problem at hand.
  • Formulate testable questions and generate explanations using the results of predictions.
  • Use a range of exploratory techniques, e.g., experiments, information/literature searches, data logging, research, and development, etc.
  • Make decisions about the range and number of independent variables and how to control other variables in designing experiments.
  • Select and use common and specialized tools to measure the dependent variable.
  • Select appropriate methods of recording and interpreting data.
  • Accurately use scientific and technological nomenclature, symbols and conventions when representing and communicating ideas, procedures, and findings.
  • Select appropriate means for representing, communicating, and defending a scientific and technological argument.
  • Question interpretations or conclusions for which there is insufficient supporting evidence, and recognize that any conclusion can be challenged by further evidence.
  • Formulate further testable hypotheses based on the knowledge and understanding generated.
  • Interpret data in the light of experimental findings, and appropriate scientific and technological knowledge and understanding.

Grades 11-12 Learning Standards

Inquiry during these years is characterized by work that builds upon the inquiry skills honed during grades 9 and 10, and expands them to include reflecting on the assumptions and concepts that guide student investigations. Students need to learn how to construct and evaluate their own and others' scientific and technological explanations, as well as learn how to evaluate evidence.

Example of Student Learning

Inquiry: Crossing the Domains of Science, and Connecting Science with Technology


Adopt A Tree

Second graders "adopt" the sugar maple just outside their classroom window. The tree becomes part of a year-long study about change and life cycles. They begin this study by listing observations about the maple and speculating about changes they think might occur over the course of the school year. Together, based on their discussion, they make a timeline of the predicted changes.

Their existing knowledge, observations and speculations serve as a starting place for posing questions. Some of their questions include:

  • When will the leaves change color and fall from the tree?
  • What is the difference between an old tree and a young tree?
  • Is the soil under our tree the same as soil just beyond the tree?
  • Is a tree's shadow always the same?
  • What in our school is made from wood?
  • What can we do to take care of trees?

These questions provide opportunities for addressing learning standards from each of the four strands and for integrating the three domains of science.

Together, the students plan and conduct an investigation to determine when and how the leaves on their tree will change. They choose a leaf hanging within reach and place a tag on the leaf stem. They then make weekly observations and drawings of the leaf, noting changes that have occurred since the previous week. Once leaves have fallen from the tree, students begin weekly or monthly observations of the developing buds, flowers, and new leaves.

Assessment Embedded in the Field Study

Students record their tree observations in journals. Their first drawings are kept and labeled and dated, so students can see how their observations and ideas change during the course of the project. The teacher develops strategies for assessment, such as a rubric for detail in observational drawings, and emerging `research' questions, which are shared with the students. Their records are mostly drawings with notes indicating the importance of particular details. Their teacher encourages them to write down new questions that surface during their explorations. At various times during the year students identify a journal entry "where they learned something special" and share this with their teacher and classmates. The teacher looks for evidence of children's attention to details of leaf structure, recognition of patterns, new questions, and indications that conceptual understandings about change are developing. After the last observation, students do a final drawing.

At the end of the year, students look back over their journal entries and select some examples of their work that they believe tell something important about what they have learned. These selections are each accompanied by a section where they reflect upon why the piece of work has been selected. The students each have a conference with the teacher to discuss the work they have chosen. These "portfolios" are presented to parents as documentation of important learning during the year.

Physical Sciences

Students become aware of the behavior of light and shadow when challenged to describe the size, shape, and location of the tree's shade. As part of their field study, they make drawings to show the relative position of the sun, the tree, and its shadow. After returning to the classroom, they compare the strategies they came up with and share findings. They then repeat their observations and data gathering later in the day and talk about the changes noticed. (Their shadow drawings are carefully labeled so they can be compared to ones done later in the project).

Life Sciences

Students begin to recognize variation in growth and development as each team compares the adopted tree to one nearby. The students are asked to decide whether they think their tree is older or younger than the others and to support their decision with evidence. Students also monitor the changes happening to other trees and plants in the area, to find out if they, too, go through cycles of dropping leaves in the fall, and growing buds and flowers in the spring. Some students decide to keep a chart of when each plant gets its first leaf in the spring.

Earth and Space Sciences

The students investigate properties in the earth's materials by collecting and comparing two soil samples -- one from under the tree and one from beyond the tree's canopy. The students separate each sample into various components, e.g., rocks, organic materials, living things, to see how they are the same and how they are different.


Students realize that many objects in their classroom are made from wood when they go on a "wood search." They learn that maple is hard wood and comes from broad-leaved trees, while trees with needles have soft wood. They look at how wood is used in constructing a building. A parent who works in the construction industry comes to class and talks about her work.

Science, Technology, and Human Affairs

Students begin to understand that we (as individuals, groups, and communities) can make decisions that change the natural environment by devising a plan for saving and recycling paper in their classroom.

Example of Student Learning

Inquiry: Crossing the Domains of Science, and Connecting Science with Technology

Grades 5-8

How Do Objects Fly?

Middle school students' study of flight begins with building and informally testing different types of gliders. The students explore features that make flight possible and variations in design that influence flight, e.g., weight, center of balance, wing size and wing span. These investigations serve as conceptual building blocks and catalysts that lead students to ask their own questions and pursue further inquiries. These include:

  • Which glider flies the farthest? Which stays in the air the longest?
  • What forces influence how a stunt glider and a distance glider fly?
  • How is the structure of an eagle and that of a glider the same?
  • How is flight affected by environmental factors such as wind and air pressure?
  • How does purpose of the aircraft affect wing design?
  • What impact does air traffic have on people and organisms in communities near an airport?

These questions provide opportunities for addressing learning standards from each of the four strands and for integrating the three domains of science.

Students develop the skill to design and conduct a scientific/technological investigation. After building and informally testing different types of gliders, the students devise controlled tests to determine how particular design features affect flight distance. Students evaluate the most effective design for a designated purpose.

Assessment Embedded in the Project's Work

The teacher shares the criteria for evaluation with her students. These include:

  1. Accurate reporting of the design process and the testing procedures.
  2. Clear presentation of results of trials in graph or other form.
  3. An interpretation of the success of the design that takes into account its goals and outcomes.

Students' project glider and the data accompanying its test results are presented to the class. A team presentation includes input from each team member. This oral presentation includes sketches of design ideas, documentation of solution choices, and some technological history. At an open house, students' projects are shared with parents and other family members. Students record the obstacles and successes in their journals, and these reflections on their own progress are considered along with their teachers' evaluation of their work.

Physical Sciences

Students learn that several forces act on objects. These can be regarded as pushes or pulls and can either reinforce or cancel each other out. Students observe the flight of two gliders and explain variation in behavior with particular attention to the forces that are acting on each glider and the effects of different materials.

Life Sciences

Students develop understandings about diversity and adaptation of organisms as they compare the structure of an eagle's wing to that of a glider, taking into consideration form, size, and weight.

Earth and Space Sciences

Students develop understanding that objects on or near the earth are pulled toward the earth's center by gravitational force as they observe the behaviors of their gliders.


Students learn that transportation vehicles are designed for different purposes. As part of their study, they compare the wing structure of a passenger plane, a cargo plane, and an Air Force jet. Students learn that today's airplane is the result of cumulative work by men and women from various cultures and races.

Science, Technology, and Human Affairs

Students recognize that while technology can help us to manage societal and environmental problems, it can also have an impact on society and on the natural world, both positive and negative. Students interview nearby residents, environmentalists, and local officials to find out about the impact of air traffic on people and organisms near the airport.

Example of Student Learning

Inquiry: Crossing the Domains of Science, and Connecting Science with Technology

Grades 9-12

Effects of Oil Pollution on Ocean Ecosystems

Tenth graders begin a coordinated study of the effects of oil pollution on ocean ecosystems by immersing fresh water plants in oily water and observing reactions. This initial exploration leads them to ask to new questions, including:

  • What is the impact of oil pollutants on salt water organisms?
  • How do oil pollutants affect the transmission of light through the water?
  • What is the impact of mining and shipping fossil fuels on ocean ecosystems?

These questions provide opportunities for addressing learning standards from each of the four strands and for integrating the three domains of science.

Each student team designs an investigation to determine the impact of oil-based substances on different biological systems, e.g., chemical change in the water, growth of microorganisms or water plants. Students extend their understanding of experimental design, meaningful data collection, dependent and independent variables, and positive and negative controls.

Assessment Embedded in the Project's Work

Students relate what they have learned to an actual oil spill in their local area. Using evidence and ideas from their prior investigations, they focus on one or more of the following important issues:

  1. How have the pollutants in this specific oil spill blocked energy flow?
  2. What is the flow of toxins?
  3. What is the effect on the biosphere (immediate and long-term)?
  4. What organisms are impacted and how?

Student teams prepare a presentation for their class that targets the implications of what they have learned for state or federal regulation. The presentations involve use of primary and secondary sources, and involve use of drawings, diagrams, and other forms of explanation to argue their points. Student presentations are evaluated at the team level, and each individual rates herself for her contribution.

Using this Framework for Interdisciplinary Planning . . .

Our Backyards: An Environmental Project with an Interdisciplinary Focus

Our Backyards is an environmental project that teachers designed with the help of this framework (The Ten Mile River Project in the Science, Technology and Human Affairs Strand provided the inspiration). The project invites teachers and students to learn about their unique water address called a watershed. When a raindrop falls anywhere in the world it has to land somewhere and then flow to somewhere. The number of raindrops that fall on a watershed and where they fall controls the kinds and numbers of plants and animals, including people, that can survive at a certain water address.

The environmental focus crosses all subject areas as well as domains within the sciences. Real world problems are posed and students are invited to create real solutions.

In teachers' efforts to cross the domains of science, they first looked at the framework learning standards, selecting standards from the three domains of science, technology, as well as Science, Technology, and Human Affairs. These standards focus on the nature of the water cycle, geologic impacts on water flow, the chemical nature of water, interaction and interdependence of species within an environment, and the impact of human technology and activities on the land, and their resulting effects on the watershed.

The invitation to inquiry included the following questions for students to investigate:

  • What is your watershed and how large is it? Look at the USGS Topographic Quadrangle that includes your school and community-using the highest elevations, find the boundaries of your local watershed. Where does the water flow? Does it go to a river or other body of water?
  • How much rain falls each year on your school yard? What path does a raindrop take; if it lands on the grass, or if it lands in a parking lot? Look at the entire surface area of your school yard and determine how much water goes into the ground and how much runs off.
  • What effect did the glaciers that advanced into New England and retreated 18,000 years ago have on the rocks and soils of your watershed?
  • What plants and animals live on, under and over your watershed? What habitats do they require? Are there any endangered species?
  • How do people use the land in your watershed? What is the impact of this use in your community? Where does your water use come from? Where does the waste go?
  • Design a primary water filtration system.

When students planned and conducted investigations and research to explore these questions, they used teamwork to read and make maps, construct models, apply mathematical strategies, and interview local resource people.

In planning for the interdisciplinary collaboration within our school, it is clear that the following ideas connect to the other Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks.

Social Studies

Students study global problems such as acid rain, ocean pollution and holes in the ozone. They use topographic maps and construct 3-D maps.

Students consider environmental legislation and collect opinions on local environmental issues. They attend public hearings or city council meetings. They work with organizations to assess or influence public opinion.

Students search networks for resource information, they collaborate with students in other watershed areas and construct maps and graphs of current or historical information.


Students test for water quality, and test water conservation devices. Students identify which household products contain recyclable material and evaluate household hazardous products.


Students calculate the amount of rainfall in an area. They present their data in charts or graphs. They study population growth and change of living organisms.

Adult Learning Looks Like This . . .


Ms. Cruz, an adult basic educator in Lawrence, prepares students ranging in age from 17 through 25 for the General Education Diploma. She has a degree in electrical engineering and as part of her teaching, encourages young women to pursue careers in mathematics and science. Her program, "Explorations in Math and Science" involves a project about their local environment.

I give my class the challenge and wonderful experience of designing a park. Their park needs to include a stream, a hill, and at least two trees. They need to figure out how to make their park safe and fun for all visitors, and stay within a budget of five thousand dollars. The students become seriously involved in all aspects of the project. They learn to organize information, visualize, make group decisions, use models, do scale drawings and compute.

Last Updated: January 1, 1996
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