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Science and Technology/Engineering
Curriculum Framework - Spring 2001

Inquiry and Experimentation

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Asking and pursuing questions are keys to learning in all academic disciplines. There are multiple ways that students can ask and pursue questions in the science class. One way is to explore scientific phenomena in a classroom laboratory or around the school. Classroom investigation and experimentation can build essential scientific skills such as observing, measuring, replicating experiments, manipulating equipment, and collecting and reporting data. Students may sometimes choose what phenomenon to study, e.g., for a science fair project. More often, they conduct investigations and experiments that are selected and guided by the teacher.

Students can also examine the questions pursued by scientists in their investigations of natural phenomena and processes as reported or shown in textbooks, papers, videos, the internet, and other media. These sources are valuable because they efficiently organize and highlight the key concepts and supporting evidence that characterize the most important work in science. Such study can then be supported in the classroom by demonstrations, experiments, or simulations that deliberately manage features of a natural object or process. Whatever the instructional approach, science instruction should include both concrete and manipulable materials and explanatory diagrams and textbooks.

Scientific inquiry and experimentation should not be taught or tested as separate, stand-alone skills. Rather, opportunities for inquiry and experimentation should arise within a well-planned curriculum in the domains of science. They should be assessed through examples drawn from the life, physical, and earth and space science standards so that it is clear to students that in science, what is known does not stand separate from how it is known.

In the earliest grades, scientific investigations can center on student questions, observations, and communication about what they observe. For example, students might plant a bean seed following simple directions written on a chart. Then they would write down what happens over time in their own words.

In the later elementary years, students can plan and carry out investigations as a class, in small groups, or independently, often over a period of several class lessons. The teacher should first model the process of selecting a question that can be answered, formulating a hypothesis, planning the steps of an experiment, and determining the most objective way to test the hypothesis. Students should begin to incorporate the mathematical skills of measuring and graphing to communicate their findings.

In the middle school years, teacher guidance remains important but allows for more variations in student approach. Students at this level are ready to formalize their understanding of what an experiment requires by controlling variables to ensure a fair test. Their work becomes more quantitative, and they learn the importance of carrying out several measurements to minimize sources of error. Because students at this level use a greater range of tools and equipment, they must learn safe laboratory practices (see Appendix V). At the conclusion of their investigations, students at the middle school level can be expected to prepare formal reports of their questions, procedures, and conclusions.

In high school, students develop greater independence in designing and carrying out experiments, most often working alone or in small groups. They come up with questions and hypotheses that build on what they have learned from secondary sources. They learn to critique and defend their findings, and to revise their explanations of phenomena as new findings emerge. Their facility with using a variety of physical and conceptual models increases. Students in the final two years of high school can be encouraged to carry out extended independent experiments that explore a scientific hypothesis in depth, sometimes with the assistance of a scientific mentor from outside the school setting.

Skills of Inquiry

Grades PreK-2

  • Ask questions about objects, organisms, and events in the environment.
  • Tell about why and what would happen if?
  • Make predictions based on observed patterns.
  • Name and use simple equipment and tools (e.g., rulers, meter sticks, thermometers, hand lenses, and balances) to gather data and extend the senses.
  • Record observations and data with pictures, numbers, or written statements.
  • Discuss observations with others.

Grades 3-5

  • Ask questions and make predictions that can be tested.
  • Select and use appropriate tools and technology (e.g., calculators, computers, balances, scales, meter sticks, graduated cylinders) in order to extend observations.
  • Keep accurate records while conducting simple investigations or experiments.
  • Conduct multiple trials to test a prediction. Compare the result of an investigation or experiment with the prediction.
  • Recognize simple patterns in data and use data to create a reasonable explanation for the results of an investigation or experiment.
  • Record data and communicate findings to others using graphs, charts, maps, models, and oral and written reports.

Grades 6-8

  • Formulate a testable hypothesis.
  • Design and conduct an experiment specifying variables to be changed, controlled, and measured.
  • Select appropriate tools and technology (e.g., calculators, computers, thermometers, meter sticks, balances, graduated cylinders, and microscopes), and make quantitative observations.
  • Present and explain data and findings using multiple representations, including tables, graphs, mathematical and physical models, and demonstrations.
  • Draw conclusions based on data or evidence presented in tables or graphs, and make inferences based on patterns or trends in the data.
  • Communicate procedures and results using appropriate science and technology terminology.
  • Offer explanations of procedures, and critique and revise them.

High School

  • Pose questions and state hypotheses based on prior scientific observations, experiments, and knowledge.
  • Distinguish between hypothesis and theory as scientific terms.
  • Either individually or as part of a student team, design and complete a scientific experiment that extends over several days or weeks.
  • Use mathematics to analyze and support findings and to model conclusions.
  • Simulate physical processes or phenomena using different kinds of representations.
  • Identify possible reasons for inconsistent results, such as sources of error or uncontrolled conditions.
  • Revise scientific models.
  • Communicate and defend a scientific argument.

Last Updated: May 1, 2001
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