George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Casey Middle School

Grades 6-8 | Boulder, CO

Inquiry-Based Learning in the Science Classroom

Beginning with a central question and driven by curiosity and personal passions, science students at Casey Middle seek answers through research, experimentation, and data analysis.

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Inquiry-Based Learning in the Science Classroom (Transcript)

Student: This is still settling but we found a lot of little organisms.

Student: That's so cool.

Student: The real question we're trying to answer here is, if it's safe to tube in the water, because I swim here every summer and I just realized how dirty it was.

Ian: When we design a science lesson to be an inquiry based lesson, we start everything around a central question that may last for one class period or a series of class periods. And then they work through some experiment and conversation, perhaps some reading and they work together. And the answers are always just a little bit out of reach for the kids until they really reach a point where they have this sense of discovery.

Each of you are going to be in a group where you're going to sample one parameter down at the creek, and then you're going to make an infographic about your parameter. So for example, maybe it will be temperature and turbidity, and then ultimately, what you're going to have to decide in your final prompt is going to be answering this question: would you recommend to your friends coming from out of town that they go tubing in Boulder Creek?

Alison: Well, if you just asked a question and then gave the answer, it would be the same as if you just read the textbook, so we don't like to do that. We like to ask the question and then give a lot of different experiences, both through media, through discussion, through research, so kids can start to answer that question themselves.

Ian: When we actually go down to the creek, it's an exciting day for the kids. We've talked up the idea that we're really in an outdoor classroom.

Let's find a spot and let's sit down and start working on our physical survey of the area everybody, so you'll work on your map first.

Suddenly, they're looking at it through a different lens. They're looking at it through a lens as a place where we're now going to be doing some sampling and some scientific thinking. If the water appears clear, is it clean? And then if it's not clean, what does that mean?

Jessica: Mister Schwartz gave us bugs that can live in healthy water and bugs that can live in unhealthy water. We're going to find which bugs we find in here, and if they're all unhealthy water bugs, then we're going to know that this is unhealthy water.

Student: I think it's five ppm.

Student: Five ppm.

Student: From what we found, there wasn't as much nitrate as we thought there would be.

Alison: We would still go swimming, even though it seems pretty dirty, but we know that it's just, there's a lot of organisms in here, and that leads us to believe that it's actually pretty healthy.

Ian: And we spend the next class period sort of going through that data and they put that into a poster, an infographic, where they can actually share with the class in a way that's relevant to the kids, something that's kind of flashy and interesting. What is the data that our group got, and then, what do we do with that data if we look at everyone's data together? So kids reach their conclusions a couple days after we do our sampling.

Alison: Because sometimes when you're just reading from a book, you don't really think about how this is actually real life and this is how it actually works.

Ian: We're working through some question together and we're discovering things as we go. And kids always bring with them knowledge, and very often it turns out that the kids teach me a lot, and we're all sort of learning together.

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  • Producer: Kristin Atkins
  • Field Producer: Sarita Khurana
  • Managing Producer/Editor: Julie Konop
  • Editor: Mitch Eason
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Inquiry-Based Learning in the Science Classroom

Inquiry-based learning uses a central question to frame a curriculum unit or module. Students answer this central question for themselves, discovering and learning through a series of guided discussions, experiments, and hands-on activities over several class periods. Teachers find that students are more engaged in what they're learning, and have a wider context for understanding the material rather than just hearing a lecture or memorizing facts.

Ian Schwartz, a science teacher at Casey Middle School, says:

Having kids engage in inquiry-based science lessons really provides them with a way to explore on their own. It removes the teacher as somebody who is providing them with information that they need to memorize. And instead, what the kids are really doing is they're experiencing, they're discovering as they go. And that’s what real scientists do.

How It's Done

Designing an Inquiry-Based Lesson

To design an inquiry-based module, teachers at Casey Middle School use a central question to frame a series of classes. Every class is then organized to help answer that question through readings, hands-on activities, group work, and student discussions. A good central question can frame several classes, or can even take weeks to answer as students work to piece together their learning and understanding of the subject matter.

At Casey MS, a good starting point is the Boulder Valley School District Adopted Standards. The standards are used to form big questions (i.e. How does where you live affect how you live?), which can then be broken down into more specific questions that speak to a particular theme or unit. For example, eighth grade students take earth science, which is divided into four curriculum units during the year:

  1. Atmospheric science and weather
  2. Earth systems
  3. Space science
  4. Energy resources.

Each unit can have a central guiding question, or can be broken down even further into modules with mini guiding questions.

Sample Question and Lesson Plan

"Would you recommend to friends visiting from out of town that they tube in Boulder Creek?"

In Ian Schwartz's science class, students look at whether their neighborhood creek is clean enough to tube in. All students at Casey MS know the creek as a place for recreation, often going there with friends and family on the weekends. By connecting students' learning to something they are familiar with, Ian has made the learning relevant and utilized the Boulder community as an outdoor classroom. He says:

The kids see the creek as a place to recreate and have fun with their friends. But suddenly they're looking at it through a different lens. They're looking at it through a lens as a place where we're now going to be doing some sampling and some scientific thinking.

During week one, students talk about the cycle of water in the Boulder community, the limited supply, and how it gets treated and reused by the community. Week two starts with a class lecture and discussion on the types of pollutants that might be in water. Later in the week, students are introduced to basic water tests and water sampling. They also begin to hypothesize and discuss what they think about the "answer" to the Boulder Creek question. Some students think the water is healthy because it is clear, and therefore safe to tube in. Others are not so sure. All observations and hypotheses are recorded in students' science notebooks.

The week concludes with students going to the creek to sample and analyze the water. They use LaMotte water-testing kits and to test for things like dissolved oxygen, the pH of the water, and nitrates and phosphates. While at the creek, they compare their findings to a chart that gives them some qualitative measures of how much dissolved oxygen is in the water, and whether or not that falls into a healthy bracket. In addition, they record things like the day's weather, the air temperature, and the water temperature, all of which may affect the creek's water quality.

During the third week, students compare their data with other groups, and start to get a picture of what's going on in the creek. They also start to work on their final presentations, a lab report, and an infographic (electronic poster) about their findings and conclusions, ultimately answering the question about whether they would recommend whether friends should tube in Boulder Creek.

Inquiry-Based Learning vs. Hands-On Learning

Inquiry-based learning utilizes hands-on learning, but not all the lessons pertaining to the central question are hands-on. Though hands-on strategies are often integrated, sometimes inquiry-based learning is about reading material, discussing it with other students, or doing some research. Hands-on learning (like we saw at Boulder Creek) is part of the experience, though not all classes will be hands-on in an inquiry-based learning unit.


Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom
Discover tips for empowering students to create their own questions.

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John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Good stuff! I'd call this project-based learning, so I'm wondering why it was called "inquiry-based" - is it because there was no tangible object created? That's not necessary to meet my definition of PBL. It has all the features of PBL - it was not just series of lessons. It was a few weeks' work all focused on answering the one driving question, which I like because it was so focused and relevant to students. But whatever you call it, this is a good example of the kind of teaching we need in science.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Hi John, the reason the piece is about "inquiry-based learning" is simply because that's how the school frames it and we want to represent what they do in their own words.

You make a great point about PBL not necessarily needing a tangible object at the end. Like in life, the journey itself is the destination.

amunsey's picture

Love this lesson! The kids were incredibly engaged and I'm sure got a lot out of it. Can I ask what you used to make your infographic?

lvelt5's picture

John, I would enjoy an example of this at the secondary level in some of the introductory level science courses. Many students choose not to enter into more than the required courses. Inquiry based learning is multi-faceted. The students are engaged in problem solving; the learner is the central core. By beginning with what the students know, they are able to determine what they are looking for to draw a conclusion. With this knowledge, the students are able to discern methods to achieve the goal. The teacher was able to weave the students' interest into different areas of the project and encourage them to explore options, ask questions, and make discoveries. The students are engaged in learning. This learning is cyclical because they can take this newly founded knowledge from the field and apply to other disciplines. This is constructivism at work, where the students construct their own learning with no concern of right or wrong answers. (Crain, 2011).
This is exciting. I would love suggestions.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

This is one example of a physics class. There's a link to the Challenge in the description. This teacher is one of our Critical Skills Master Teachers- I'm sure he'd be happy to talk with you about his process.

Coach Christopher's picture
Coach Christopher
Curriculum Designer at Courage To Core

It's great to see students intellectually and physically engaged! As a high school math teacher it has been my career mission to create similar levels of engagement in math courses. I try to connect the mathematics as much as possible to real world scenarios, and give students a framework for experimentation and exploration which takes place over several days. Check out my Algebra curriculum at Thanks for the post!

imeeserrano's picture

Inquiry-based approach is really a student centered approach that hones every child's critical mind and enhance his ability to discover new things on his own especially in the world of science...

imeeserrano's picture

Hi! I'm a public high school teacher and I'm teaching Science 10. Can you give me the best strategy on how to teach the subject matter in a more interactive way? Thank you.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

imeeserrano, that's a really broad question. As a place to start, you might want to look at our resources for project-based learning (PBL), which you can find here: I think you'll find that there's a lot of room in PBL for interactivity (and for meshing with inquiry-based learning).

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