Nature of Science & Engineering
The Practice of Science

Scientific inquiry uses multiple interrelated processes to investigate questions and propose explanations about the natural world.

Benchmark: Reasoning based on Evidence

Use logical reasoning and imagination to develop descriptions, explanations, predictions and models based on evidence.


Standard in Lay Terms 

MN Standard in lay terms:

Inquiry is way to investigate the natural world.  Inquiry might utilize the skills of questioning, observation, comparing and contrasting, planning, predicting, interpreting, hypothesizing and inferring  These skills are used to gather information that allows learners to understand and construct workable explanations of science phenomena.  There is not a lock-step "scientific" method of inquiry, rather it is a cyclical process that is embedded throughout the curriculum.

Big Ideas and Essential Understandings 

Big Idea 1: Scientists use repeatable observations and testable ideas to understand and explain our planet.

1.3: Scientists do reproducible experiments and collect multiple lines of evidence. This evidence is taken from field, analytical, theoretical, experimental, and modeling studies.

Earth Science Literacy: The Big Ideas and Supporting Concepts of Earth Science.

Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations. Some investigations involve observing and describing objects, organisms, or events; some involve collecting specimens; some involve experiments; some involve seeking more information; some involve discovery of new objects and phenomena; and some involve making models.

Scientific investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or procedures for an investigation, or develop new technologies to improve the collection of data. All of these results can lead to new investigations.

Mathematics is essential to asking and answering questions about the natural world. Mathematics can be used to ask questions; to gather, organize, and present data; and to structure convincing explanations.

National Academy Press (1996) National Science Education Standards

Benchmark Cluster 

MN Standard Benchmarks: Use logical reasoning and imagination to develop descriptions, explanations, predictions and models based on evidence.


"Asking the correct question is half the problem. Once the question is formulated there remains to be found only proof of that question. The path to the proof is then direct."

-Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

  • NSES Standards:

Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry

Abilities to Do Scientific Inquiry

IDENTIFY QUESTIONS THAT CAN BE ANSWERED THROUGH SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATIONS. Students should develop the ability to refine and refocus broad and ill-defined questions. An important aspect of this ability consists of students' ability to clarify questions and inquiries and direct them toward objects and phenomena that can be described, explained, or predicted by scientific investigations. Students should develop the ability to identify their questions with scientific ideas, concepts, and quantitative relationships that guide investigation.

DESIGN AND CONDUCT A SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATION. Students should develop general abilities, such as systematic observation, making accurate measurements, and identifying and controlling variables. They should also develop the ability to clarify their ideas that are influencing and guiding the inquiry, and to understand how those ideas compare with current scientific knowledge. Students can learn to formulate questions, design investigations, execute investigations, interpret data, use evidence to generate explanations, propose alternative explanations, and critique explanations and procedures.

USE APPROPRIATE TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES TO GATHER, ANALYZE, AND INTERPRET DATA. The use of tools and techniques, including mathematics, will be guided by the question asked and the investigations students design. The use of computers for the collection, summary, and display of evidence is part of this standard. Students should be able to access, gather, store, retrieve, and organize data, using hardware and software designed for these purposes.

DEVELOP DESCRIPTIONS, EXPLANATIONS, PREDICTIONS, AND MODELS USING EVIDENCE. Students should base their explanation on what they observed, and as they develop cognitive skills, they should be able to differentiate explanation from description-providing causes for effects and establishing relationships based on evidence and logical argument. This standard requires a subject matter knowledge base so the students can effectively conduct investigations, because developing explanations establishes connections between the content of science and the contexts within which students develop new knowledge.

THINK CRITICALLY AND LOGICALLY TO MAKE THE RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN EVIDENCE AND EXPLANATIONS. Thinking critically about evidence includes deciding what evidence should be used and accounting for anomalous data. Specifically, students should be able to review data from a simple experiment, summarize the data, and form a logical argument about the cause-and-effect relationships in the experiment.  Students should begin to state some explanations in terms of the relationship between two or more variables.

RECOGNIZE AND ANALYZE ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS AND PREDICTIONS. Students should develop the ability to listen to and respect the explanations proposed by other students. They should remain open to and acknowledge different ideas and explanations, be able to accept the skepticism of others, and consider alternative explanations.

[See Teaching Standard B]

COMMUNICATE SCIENTIFIC PROCEDURES AND EXPLANATIONS. With practice, students should become competent at communicating experimental methods, following instructions, describing observations, summarizing the results of other groups, and telling other students about investigations and explanations.

USE MATHEMATICS IN ALL ASPECTS OF SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY.Mathematics is essential to asking and answering questions about the natural world. Mathematics can be used to ask questions; to gather, organize, and present data; and to structure convincing explanations.


Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations. Some investigations involve observing and describing objects, organisms, or events; some involve collecting specimens; some involve experiments; some involve seeking more information; some involve discovery of new objects and phenomena; and some involve making models.

Current scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations. Different scientific domains employ different methods, core theories, and standards to advance scientific knowledge and understanding.

Mathematics is important in all aspects of scientific inquiry.

Technology used to gather data enhances accuracy and allows scientists to analyze and quantify results of investigations.

Scientific explanations emphasize evidence, have logically consistent arguments, and use scientific principles, models, and theories. The scientific community accepts and uses such explanations until displaced by better scientific ones. When such displacement occurs, science advances.

Science advances through legitimate skepticism. Asking questions and querying other scientists' explanations is part of scientific inquiry. Scientists evaluate the explanations proposed by other scientists by examining evidence, comparing evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations.

Scientific investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or procedures for an investigation, or develop new technologies to improve the collection of data. All of these results can lead to new investigations.

AAAS Atlas:

The Nature of Science: Evidence and Reasoning in Inquiry

The Nature of Science: Scientific Investigations

The Nature of Science: Scientific Theories

Benchmarks of Science Literacy:

1. The Nature of Science: B. Scientific Inquiry

Scientists differ greatly in what phenomena they study and how they go about their work. 1B/M1a

Scientific investigations usually involve the collection of relevant data, the use of logical reasoning, and the application of imagination in devising hypotheses and explanations to make sense of the collected data. 1B/M1b*

If more than one variable changes at the same time in an experiment, the outcome of the experiment may not be clearly attributable to any one variable. It may not always be possible to prevent outside variables from influencing an investigation (or even to identify all of the variables). 1B/M2ab

Collaboration among investigators can often lead to research designs that are able to deal with situations where it is not possible to control all of the variables. 1B/M2c*

What people expect to observe often affects what they actually do observe. Strong beliefs about what should happen in particular circumstances can prevent them from detecting other results. 1B/M3ab

Scientists know about the danger of prior expectations to objectivity and take steps to try and avoid it when designing investigations and examining data. One safeguard is to have different investigators conduct independent studies of the same questions. 1B/M3cd

Common Core Standards (i.e. connections with Math, Social Studies or Language Arts Standards):

Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards in Mathematics (2007 version). Adopted September 22, 2008. Collect, display and interpret data using scatterplots. Use the shape of the scatterplot to informally estimate a line of best fit and determine an equation for the line. Use appropriate titles, labels and units. Know how to use graphing technology to display scatterplots and corresponding lines of best fit. Use a line of best fit to make statements about approximate rate of change and to make predictions about values not in the original data set. the reasonableness of predictions using scatterplots by interpreting them in the original context.

Minnesota's newly revised (2010) English Language Arts (ELA) standards set K-12 requirements not only for ELA but also for literacy in history/social studies, science and   technical subjects.  Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a            self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional       related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.  Gather relevant information from multiple data,  print, physical (e.g.,       artifacts, objects, images), and digital sources, using search terms effectively;         assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the       data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a               standard format for citation.      Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support               analysis, reflection, and research.   Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and        revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of     discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.


Mrs. S's eighth grade Earth science class was moving into a new unit on weathering and erosion.  The class was discussing how important observations are to learning and gathering initial data on a topic being studied.  Before starting to talk about unit topics or vocabulary, the students were instructed to go outside and do at least 10 observations of how the non-living parts of the schoolyard (sidewalk, building, parking lots, ground, paths, etc.) have been changed by something that has happened. Observations are recorded in their composition notebooks.  Mrs. S.  explained that these observations could be written, drawn, or both.  She also gave the students parameters as to where they could go in the schoolyard to observe.  The students got together with their groups, went outdoors and got right to work. 

Mrs. S.  circulated among the students and asked what sorts of things they were finding. Three students pointed out the sidewalks on the east side of the school.  "Look how different this section is from the rest of the sidewalks.  It is very uneven and cracked.  It doesn't look like it is made from the same type of cement, either."  After about 15 minutes, Mrs. S.  asked the students to wrap up their observations and to meet her at the bench in front of the school.  As students settled in on the grass, she asked them to share some of the things that they found out from their schoolyard observations.  As students talked about their findings, she recorded them on a small white board.  When everyone had shared at least one observation, she asked them to pick 4 observations - either of their own or that were recorded on the white board - and go back and observe those items more closely.  They needed to extend those initial observations by recording more details. 

Students were gathered back again in 10 minutes and again asked to share their findings.  This time, Mrs. S.  asked them, "Now that you have observed a little more closely, what questions do you have about what you saw?"  She asked students to get back in their groups and take a minute to jot down these questions in their notebooks.  When they were done, she asked them to share their questions.  One group asked, "Are the small gullies in the gravel parking lot from erosion?"  Another group asked, "Are the sidewalks on the east side of the school older than the ones on the other sides?"  Mrs.  S. commented, "Both of those are good questions and it seems like most of the groups have some interest in those two areas.  If we are going to investigate those questions, is there a way we can tweak those questions a bit so that we can actually gather some data about the sidewalks or the parking lot?"  Katie offered, "Well, for the sidewalk one, we could ask, 'Which sections of the sidewalk are the oldest?'"  Mrs. S. probed further by asking, "How could we find that out?"  Jack suggested, "We could do some more observations and look for which sections had the most cracks or were the most uneven.  I noticed before that some sidewalk pieces were pitted - like little pebbles fell out.  All of the pieces weren't the same color, either.  "Ok - that sounds workable, said Mrs. S.  What about the parking lot?"  Sam said, What if we checked to see if there was some pattern to where the gullies are?"  "So the questions you would be investigating would be..."  "I suppose, 'How are the gullies oriented in the parking lot?'"  Mrs. S.  then asked, "How are you going to collect data to find that out?"  CJ said, "We could map where the gullies are and the direction that they each go in that one section of the parking lot."  "All right.  Sounds like we have the start of some plans", Mrs. S.  said.  Since most of you seem interested in one of those two topics, get together with your group and decide which one you might want to investigate.  You will have to firm up how you want to collect that data.  Let me know if you can't find the tools that you need.  Let's get to work!"


Instructional Notes 

Instructional suggestions/options:

Inquiry is not something you teach as a stand alone unit. Rather, it is meant to be taught as a thread that runs through all we do in the science classroom. It is not something extra that you have to add to what is already being currently taught, it is teaching what you currently teach in a more effective way! We talk of shifting activities to be more inquiry-based, but what does this mean? Doing inquiry in your classroom implies that you are intent on developing in your students the skills that are necessary to do inquiry. These skills vary from source to source, but most agree on the following list:








If you examine the activities you are currently using, ask yourself what can you do to embed more of these skills into what students are doing and conversing about. Instead of creating new lessons to do inquiry, look instead at shifting what you currently teach to make it more inquiry-based.

Selected Activities

T.E.A.Classroom Activities: Cold Hard Facts...What Inquiring Minds Will Know Inquiry-based Ice Investigations

In this activity students will work with ice to learn math concepts: perimeter, diameter, circumference, adding decimals, and linear measurement. This math lesson will evolve into an inquiry-based study to determine if the dimensions of the ice will make a difference in the way the ice floats in the water.,

Basic Inquiry: New York State DLESE Collection

This activity consists of two parts in which students investigate heat transfer by radiation and by conduction. In the first part, students design and conduct an experiment to test the effect of color on an object's ability to radiate energy (heat). In the second part, they investigate the transfer of energy from a hotter object to a cooler one, in this case, containers of hot and cold water. In both experiments, they are required to state a hypothesis, make a list of materials and procedures needed for the experiment, collect and graph data, and state a conclusion. Each experiment is accompanied by a set of analysis and conclusion questions.,,

National Academies Press. Activity 1: Introducing Inquiry and the Nature of Science

This activity introduces basic procedures involved in inquiry and concepts describing the nature of science. In the first portion of the activity, the teacher uses a numbered cube to involve students in asking the question 'what is on the bottom?' and the students propose an explanation based on their observations. Then the teacher presents students with a second cube and asks them to use the    available evidence to propose an explanation for what is on the bottom of this cube. Finally, students design a cube that they exchange and use for an evaluation. The site has a list of materials and all information needed to complete the activity.

Institute for Inquiry: How to Make Lab Activities More Open Ended

This article by Alan Colburn illustrates how a traditional "cookbook" activity can be shifted toward inquiry. This shifting allows teachers to become more comfortable with the inquiry process and students to have more freedom and responsibility as they gain skills.

Instructional Resources 

Additional resources or links:

Institute for Inquiry: Fundamentals of Inquiry

Using hands-on experiences and focused reflection, Institute for Inquiry® workshops give teachers a thorough grounding in the pedagogy and practice of science inquiry. You may download the facilitators manual for each of their workshops and  examine different ways of teaching hands-on science, explore the process skills of inquiry, engage in a full scientific inquiry, and consider ways to include inquiry in their own classrooms.

New Vocabulary 


Understanding Science: How Science Really Works - Vocabulary Mix-Ups

This web page is part of the Understanding Science project developed by the University of California Museum of Paleontology, in collaboration with a diverse group of scientists and teachers. The vocabulary used in inquiry contains many common words that hold the potential for misunderstanding. Many of these words show up in discussions about the "Scientific Method" and as such, student understanding of these terms is fairly varied. Take time to talk through these terms with your students as they do science in your classroom.  Terms are linked to the Museum website.











Technology Connections 

PhET Interactive Simulations

Computer simulations provide students opportunities to to work with phenomena in ways that support hands-on laboratory activities. They are not meant to replace what we do in lab, rather to enhance it. This website allows free access to their simulations.

Explore Learning: Gizmos

Gizmos offers many computer simulations that are useful for students initially investigating a hard-to-visualize concept or in situations where an actual lab would be difficult to perform.  Many of the Gizmos allow students to manipulate variables to see how that affect the outcome of the investigation.

Vernier Software and Technology

Vernier offers LabQuest data-loggers and a myriad of different sensors that could be used by students collecting their own data.  Available lab books come with a CD of the book's activities to allow editing and extension. 

Cross Curricular Connections 

Art: Observations as a part of the inquiry process lend themselves easily to the infusion of art skills and processes.  Sketching organisms, objects, or landforms in the environment prods an attention to the detail of form and function.  Field Sketching and Keeping a Nature Journal is a quick introduction to using sketching in the field.



PALS: Grade 5-8 National Science Education Standards - Science As Inquiry

PALS is an on-line, standards-based, continually updated resource bank of science performance assessment tasks indexed via the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and various other standards frameworks. The tasks, collected from numerous sources, include student directions and response forms, administration procedures, scoring rubrics, examples of student work, and technical quality data calculated from field testing.

Keeley, P. (2008). Uncovering student ideas in science, volume 3. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

The entire series of Uncovering Student Ideas...books is amazing as both a resource and for a myriad of quick, simple formative assessments, each with research and tips for using, K-12.  This particular volume contains the "nature of science" assessment probes, in addition to those that are more content specific.  The "Doing Science" probe (p. 93) and "What is a Hypothesis?" ( p. 101) relate most directly to the process of inquiry and related misconceptions.


How is inquiry the same/different from the traditional teaching of the "scientific method"?

How can I incorporate inquiry across the curriculum that I use in my classroom? 

What inquiry skills do I want to work on in this particular unit?


The inquiry classroom looks much busier than a traditional classroom. It requires students to be collaborating with each other in their group and also with other groups. The teacher often will be having conversations with individual groups rather than with the entire class. Typically classes will start together and end together, but students  direct their learning in between. Questions will be a primary driver of a lessons flow and direction. Administrators need to understand that having students involved with inquiry does not mean that teachers are turning students loose with no control. Inquiry done well requires students to be in control of their learning.


Struggling Learners 

Struggling and At-Risk:

Many of the strategies mentioned and linked to earlier in this section would also work for students who are struggling and at risk in your classes. Motivation many times is provided through inquiry as it allows them opportunities to create their own learning.

English Language Learners 

Herr, N. (2007). The sourcebook for teaching science.

This page contains strategies to help teachers better attend to the needs of their ELL learners. These strategies are grouped according to the following learning tasks: listening, visualization, interpersonal communication, laboratory, demonstrations, reading and writing, instruction and vocabulary.

Klentschy, M. (2010). Using science notebooks in middle school. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.


Front-loading: Teachers plan for words that ELL students will encounter as they do inquiry and within the particular content being studied.  They need to provide not only experience with vocabulary words (the "bricks"), but also the form and context in which they are used in spoken or written language ( the "mortar").

Word Wall: The teacher writes and discusses the needed vocabulary and posts the words on chart paper, sentence strips, or the board, making sure they remain in clear view for students to use as a resource when writing or speaking.

Kit Inventory:  Uses science materials from the current lesson, allowing students to question and discuss the scientific name of these items, their use, and description of the properties of those materials (made of plastic, cylinder-shaped, etc.) in their investigations.

Everyday Words and Science Words:  Purposely contrast the meaning of everyday words and science words (For example: "write down" versus "record").  These could be recorded on a chart for student reference.

Sentence Stems: Use abbreviated stems or scaffolds to help students begin writing in their science notebooks about their inquiry investigations:

  • I observed _____.
  • I wondered _____.
  • I thought _____ would happen.
  • Today I learned _____.
  • Questions I have now _____.
Extending the Learning 

G/T:  Students who are G/T may experience significant growth in learning as a result of  effective inquiry-based instruction. Inquiry often allows for deeper level investigations rather than focusing on fundamental ideas. Inquiry allows for the investigation of real world problems and for students to look at ways that science and society interact. Problem-based inquiry learning provides opportunities for students to think like scientists, fostering thinking skills of creativity, curiosity and skepticism. Computer simulations that incorporate inquiry allow G/T students to manipulate variables for phenomena not easily experienced in the classroom because of scale or safety. Technology may also be used to provide students with access to real-time data or to communicate directly with scientists via Skype with their questions.


Multicultural science education.  Official NSTA Position Statement.

Special Education 

Inquiry by its nature can self-differentiate for special education students.  Everyone can observe objects and phenomena in some way.  Students who cannot write well, can sketch or take a digital picture.  Students of all ages and abilities can come up with questions to investigate that are at their cognitive level.  Teachers may only need to facilitate a bit more in helping students tweak their questions into an investigative format.  Often, it is the special education students who shine at inquiry, as they are able to think "outside the box" or are much more adept at thinking and problem-solving in real-life scenarios, rather than  at reading about a topic from a textbook.


Classroom Observation 

Science fair competitions provide opportunities for inquiry-based science investigations to be done at home. It is important that these projects not be seen as a formulaic or trivial way of doing scientific investigations. With the wealth of "investigative" questions available online, it seems that quality projects would start with quality questions. Instruction about developing good questions needs to be provided to both students and parents.