How I Teach Science: A Veteran Teacher's Advice for Inquiry-Based Learning

Veteran teacher and TeacherVision Advisory Board member Tara shares her tips and strategies for honing your science teaching practice and delighting your students by using inquiry-based learning in the science classroom.

How I Teach Science: A Veteran Teacher's Advice

When I ask my students what their favorite subject is (and don’t let them choose recess, lunch, or gym), almost all of them say science. They love our inquiry-based approach, which is filled with hands-on learning, and they enjoy the creativity and engagement of the lessons.

Over the years, I’ve developed a passion for teaching inquiry-based science - it’s my favorite way to teach science, and I hope that these tips and strategies will help you and your students love it, too! These suggestions are helpful for elementary through middle grades.

Inquiry-Based Science

My school district uses the 5E model of inquiry-based science. This model breaks every science lesson down into 5 parts: Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Extension, and Evaluation. Let’s take a closer look at each part.

Engagement

The purpose of the engagement stage is to get your students interested in the topic. You can ask them questions to get them thinking, create a KWL chart, or show them a quick experiment and ask what they think the outcome will be. By the end of the engagement stage, your students will be excited to continue the lesson.

For example, in our plants unit, there is a lesson on seeds. For the engagement stage, I show my students all different types of seeds - from a tiny strawberry seed to a big coconut. The students try to predict what all of those very different seeds have in common. This gets them excited for the rest of the lesson.

Exploration

This is the hands-on part of the lesson. The students are given the materials for an experiment and work together with their teams to explore. The teacher is a facilitator and asks the students questions to help guide them through the exploration process. However, the questions aren’t answered during this stage of the lesson - they are solely used to further enhance the inquiries the groups are already making.

In my seed lesson, my students get to dissect a bean seed that has been soaked in water. They explore the different parts of the seed and make hypotheses with their groups about what the different parts do.

Explanation

The explanation stage of an inquiry-based lesson is the part during which you discuss the results of the experiment as a class. You go over new vocabulary words and answer the questions that came up during the investigation. This is where the students take notes and learn the lesson content.

During the explanation stage of the bean lesson, we label the parts of a bean seed. We also take notes about the functions of the parts of the seed.

Extension

Now that the students have the new information, the extension phase is where they apply it to what they already know. They make connections to past lessons and plan future investigations to learn more about the topic.

The seed lesson is one of the first lessons in our plants unit, so for extension, we talk about what else we want to learn about plants. Usually questions arise about how a seed turns into a plant and what plants need to flourish. This leads to a discussion about planting seeds, which is the next lesson in this unit.

Evaluation

This last part of the 5E model is where you evaluate your students’ understanding of the new concept. They can show what they know through writing or discussion. Some days, I give my students an exit ticket with a question about the day’s lesson. On other days, I have them turn and talk with their groups about what they learned.

To evaluate the seed lesson, I have my students fill out a quick exit ticket where they label the parts of the seed. This shows me whether they understood the lesson, and gives me a chance to review anything they might need help with.

If you want to learn more about the 5E Instructional Model, the BSCS Science Learning website has more information.

Tips for Teaching Inquiry-Based Science

While the 5E model gives you a framework for all of your science lessons, it doesn’t help you with classroom management during science investigations. Here are 4 tips to make sure your investigations run smoothly.

1) Set Rules and Expectations

Go over the rules and expectations at the beginning of the year. My very first science lesson of the year is all about how to be safe during science class. Students need to know what is expected of them during investigations. We create a Science Behavior Contract with all of our rules. The students sign it, and they take it home for their parents to sign, as well.

If a student breaks one of the rules, he or she has to sit out for the rest of the exploration that day. We discuss why the decision wasn’t safe, and the student gets to try again the next day.

I’ve found that my students hate sitting out of experiments so much that their behavior changes immediately.

2) Seat Students in Groups for Collaboration

It’s really important for your students to be able to talk and work together for the exploration. I’ve found that seating them in groups is the perfect way to allow for collaboration. That way, my students don’t have to move to find their groups each day at science time. When we move seats, they get a new science group, so they’re not always working with the same people.

3) Give Your Students Jobs

This will make investigations go much more smoothly! I number the students in each group from 1 through 4. Each person has a different job, and the jobs change weekly.

  • Supply Manager: This student gets supplies for the whole group and puts them away at the end of the lesson. This prevents all the students from being up and moving at the same time.
  • Captain: This student is responsible for making sure everyone stays on task and participates.
  • Recorder: If the group makes any observations or hypotheses during the exploration, the recorder is responsible for jotting them down on a piece of paper.
  • Speaker: This student shares the group’s ideas during the explanation stage when you’re discussing the results of the investigation.

Each Monday, I just renumber the jobs, so person 1 goes from being the supply manager to the captain. That way, everyone gets to have each job about once a month.

4) Set Up Materials Ahead of Time

For some experiments, your students are going to need a lot of supplies. Make sure you have everything you need, and set everything up before the science lesson. I either use time in the morning before school or during my special to get everything ready. I’ve found that my lessons go much better when I’m organized ahead of time.

Transform Your Science Classroom!

Using the 5E model can completely change the way you teach science. Your students will be more engaged, and they will be thinking more about the new science content.

Changing how you teach can seem overwhelming at first, but take it one lesson at a time.

Once you see how excited your students are about learning science, you’ll never want to go back to teaching any other way. Plus, I bet your students will say science is their favorite subject, too!

What's your advice for teaching science effectively? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Tara Dusko is a third grade teacher in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania. She's spent the past 14 years finding engaging ways to make her students love learning. When she's not planning lessons for her classroom, she is spending time with her husband and two children or trying out new recipes in the kitchen. Get some tips for reducing the stressfulness of teaching on her blog, Teach Without Tears.

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