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Steps to Create a Science Inquiry Environment in an NGSS Classroom

Posted by Francis Vigeant on Mar 30, 2016

lawrence_STEM.jpgEstablishing background knowledge requires nonfiction reading and Socratic dialogue, helping students connect new knowledge to their personal experiences and build important connections that will help them engage meaningfully with the content.

An NGSS classroom needs to effectively engage students in the three dimensions of NGSS – practices, crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas – by creating a next generation inquiry environment, where the role of the teacher is not sage on the stage, as it is in the traditional model of instruction, but instead to tune the inquiry environment so that students develop science and engineering practice skills and take intellectual risks.

So how does the teacher do this?

First, students establish background knowledge through nonfiction reading to help raise student awareness of those disciplinary core ideas. If students have no familiarity with the ideas at all, it will be hard for them to engage with these ideas as scientists and engineers.


Use Socratic dialogue to activate student learning. Socratic dialogue is an art of asking higher order questions that cause students to use higher order thinking skills to consider the connections between concepts and respond with creative, evaluative and analytical answers.

It’s important to note in Socratic dialogue the teacher is the moderator; students are considering and responding to each other's contributions to the class dialogue. As you transition from the reading to activating learning through Socratic dialogue, you are artfully questioning points that connect to the students’ experiences and push them beyond remembering, understanding and applying toward creating, evaluating and analyzing.

The way you as a teacher ask questions has an impact on those higher order thinking skills, either requiring a response where the student uses higher order thinking or not. By focusing on Socratic dialogue with higher order thinking, your classroom will move beyond the traditional model of science instruction and enter the next generation model.

Next, students must use the practices dimention of science and engineering to solve a problem or answer a question by planning their own investigations and using those plans to yield data, whether individually or in small groups, after which the students can make an evidence based claim about their hypothesis or prototype and use their own evidence and reasoning in conclusion.

If students are answering a question through experimentation then we know it’s science, which brings an additional set of important questions along with it:

  • How are students going to go about answering that question?
  • What do they know about it?
  • What’s the research, the facts relevant to the question?
  • What is their hypothesis?
  • How can they test it?
  • How can they structure a process to gather relevant data?
  • How can they reflect on the hypothesis and understand if it is supported or not supported as an answer to the question?

For elementary or middle school engineering there is a simmilar set of questions related to the engineering design process. In either case, the abstract thinking that takes place in this planning phase is very important, and reaches beyond merely creating a series of steps. Rather, it involves planning within the context of a process so that the plan is replicable, clear and contains logic.

The important point to note is that this plan must be authentic. Yes, younger students do need some structure in developing their plans, and in 3rd grade and below, we use a special structure accompanied by a gradual release of responsibility. This helps students authentically engage with the science and engineering practices in a more structured way, so they can develop the skills that will one day enable them to design their own experiments and achieve mastery.

A More Authentic Experience

However, starting in 4th grade students should be using blank lab notebooks or an electronic equivalent with version control. That's becuase students aren't merely taking notes or writing down a plan that was put on the board. Rather, they are undergoing a process in which they generate their own nonfiction text (plan). In so doing, they move from a question and work through what they know about it, what they think may be the answer and how they might go about setting up an experiment to gather data, what materials they might need, how they might carry out that procedure, and what it might look like. This planning process isn’t canned, and is crucial to the authentic science and engineering experience.

After making their plan, students then put it into action. Note again that this is not a teacher-oriented model. Instead, students implement their experiment and gather data; they have ownership over the process from the beginning to the end, and are actually operating as scientists and engineers. As a teacher, you can help guide the process by establishing checkpoints. This gives teachers an opportunity to ask questions, evaluate, differentiate and redirect each team or the entire class as they see fit.

That doesn’t mean that as a teacher you shouldn’t hold the expectations high or that you’re not creating checkpoints. You should. Nevertheless, we all start somewhere and students must be operating on a level that includes ownership over the process and full release of responsibility, a trust that they can actually make and carry out a plan. Only then can they apply their practice skills, carry out science and engineering and engage those higher order thinking skills that may help to make them true scientists and engineers, or useful members of other professions, in the long run.

KnowAtom_Classroom_STEM_in_Action.pngHere students are carrying out the plans they have made, learning to use their higher order thinking skills and actually think as scientists and engineers do.

We can see students carrying out the plans they have made as scientists and engineers. In other words, they are using their practice skills to access that STEM content.


In this kind of inquiry environment, students engage with materials, oftentimes in small teams or groups. What’s especially effective about the small team or small group learning environment is that what's most effective is not that the teams will have different results, but that all students are actively engaged in the process. The fact that teams get different results is beneficial because it provides great learning opportunities to analyze those differences, but that's not the goal of the small teams.

So while the data within a team will match, the plans and data between teams may be very different. That variation creates a lot of opportunity for higher order thinking when it comes time to debrief. That’s when students really have the opportunity to analyze and evaluate each other’s results, and think about whether or not an argument is holding up.

next-common-core-students.jpgHere students are analyzing data they have gathered through an experiment, forming conclusions and evaluating what it means about their initial hypothesis. As a result of the creative planning process and data gathering, students now have data that must be analyzed and turned into meaningful conclusions. They then present these conclusions, and other students evaluate their claims.

This is another opportunity to ask important questions, including: Why are one team’s results different from another’s? What might account for this difference: human error, a different approach, a different hypothesis or something else? How might these differences provide useful information for the next time students make a plan? … and so on.

This process is key, because the Next Generation Science Standards strongly emphasize engaging with the science and engineering practices and using higher order thinking skills.

This is not necessarily so that every student will become a scientist and engineer, but rather so that every student is equipped with higher order thinking skills and can understand science and engineering. That way, they’ll be able to participate in supporting those industries, and also be able to train for any college or career choice that they make. The bottom line is that higher order thinking skills turn students into future trainable employees, and that’s important for their opportunities later in life.

teachers-need-to-know-where-theyre-going.pngHere students present and evaluate claims, thinking critically about what other students’ findings mean both in the context of those findings and as they relate to their own. As such, the steps outlined above are not a one-time event or a culminating product.

In a true STEM inquiry environment, there are different phases teacher and students go through over and over again. The environment is structured to provide opportunities to practice these various skills multiple times, in different contexts.

Those skills should be required on a daily basis to intentionally nurture students and their mastery of K-12 science and engineering practices.

Topics: Next Generation Science Standards, Three-Dimensional Learning

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