Monday, July 8, 2013

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Fostering Inquiry with Science Notebooks
by Carol Wooten

A buzz of excitement fills the classroom as students prepare to work on their preferred content area.  Students eagerly take out their notebooks to show they are ready for the lesson. One student excitedly flips through the pages of her notebook locating her last investigation observation, a labeled illustration of her team’s model ecosystem.  Another student shuffles through his book bag to locate a clear plastic bag; he opens the bag, removes his green neon safety goggles, and grins. We are ready to investigate. This scenario may seem like one from a 30-minute sitcom; however, with science and the implementation of science notebooks, this situation can occur daily in classrooms.

From this scenario, we see that the days of a solitary instructor lecturing to numerous students from a textbook are long past.  Instead, the students are now the scientists conducting the investigations that set the stage for an array of content exploration.  From model cars for investigating basic physics concepts to soda bottle ecosystems, the implementation of inquiry science instruction with the integration of science notebooks has transformed classrooms into a laboratory of rich learning.  As teachers are required to do more with less, we are working with integration of the subject areas.  For example, writing is integrated throughout the entire science notebook and math is encompassed in the notebook with graphing, computations, and measurements. What easier and more effective way to integrate than with the thrilling hands-on, minds-on content area of science?

Inquiry Science Basics
With inquiry, students take on the role of scientists whereas the teacher becomes more of the facilitator and guide. Students pose inquiry questions, which are often guided by the teacher, and use hands-on materials to further explore this question. These investigations, which directly relate to the inquiry question, provide data and observations that students analyze to build a firm conceptual understanding. Therefore, inquiry is vital because it allows students to gain knowledge about content through manipulation of objects and illustration of real world connections. Through these investigations, students are able to articulate and support their findings with precise evidence from the data and observations. Also, the utilization of meaningful class discussions allows students to share ideas to further convey the content and enhance their knowledge base. According to the National Research Council, the implementation of an inquiry approach enables students to “develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world” (NRC, 2000, p. 1).

Science Notebooks Overview
As student scientists are diligently working to pose inquiry questions, develop predictions, collect data, and synthesize these results, they are also recording this information in their science notebook. The science notebook can take on several forms—it can be a spiral notebook, papers in a binder, or a marble composition book. No matter the type of format selected, the crucial element is that students are writing and working to improve their scientific reasoning skills. These notebooks, which can be implemented as early as kindergarten, provide students with a strong foundation of explanation and synthesis of information gained from each investigation.

Kindergarten notebooks could be a class notebook where students glue in their individual illustrations and write about their observations together. As students progress through elementary school, they are able to develop their own notebook. For instance, in first grade, students may use stickers for “Focus Question,” Prediction,” and so forth. Many teachers also use Realia walls where they post a photo or illustration with the vocabulary word listed below this picture. Modeling each of the components listed below is key to promoting a high quality science notebook.

Lesson Investigation Using Science Notebooks

Journeying into a classroom that implements inquiry-based instruction provides an opportunity to observe young scientists in action. The following description encapsulates an entire lesson; however, dependent upon the investigation, a lesson may sometimes include just one or a few of these components.

Keep in mind that science notebooks can be used in kindergarten. The lesson investigation outline below illustrates a third through fifth grade lesson entry. Students record these lesson components in their science notebook.

  • Focus Question
    Before students begin the investigation, they develop a focus question that directly relates to the investigation.  In many instances, this focus question is based on a fictional scenario that enables students to connect science to real world concepts. For example, an investigation on pollution incorporates a scenario concerning various materials deposited into local water systems.  After reading and analyzing the scenario, students work in cooperative teams to develop an inquiry question such as “How does pollution affect an ecosystem?”
  • Prediction
    Following the development of an inquiry focus question, students devise an educated guess about the outcome of the investigation.  This prediction also enlightens the teacher on the students’ thought processes and reasoning.  Students often connect their prediction to real life situations.  For example, when adding an abundance of fertilizer to the model ecosystem, one student formulated the following prediction: “I think that all of the plants will grow very tall because fertilizer helps plants grow.  When my parents use fertilizer, it helps the plants grow taller and healthier.”  Even though the prediction is inaccurate, it illustrates how the student associates the use of fertilizer and provides an excellent pre-assessment of scientific thought.  By conducting observations over a period of time, the student later learned about the harmful nature of an overabundance of fertilizer in an ecosystem.  Reassuring students that the prediction is an educated guess about the investigation outcome helps to alleviate their concern over developing an exact prediction.  
  • Data and Observations
    Additionally, students plan the data collection method in preparation for completing the investigation.  Then, students conduct the hands-on component of the inquiry investigation.  These hands-on investigations are not a one-time event—they are the core of each lesson and result in students becoming energized about science and interested in the content.   In the ecosystems unit, cooperative student groups used clear two-liter soda bottles to create model ecosystems.  The first set of ecosystems included both plants and animals; however, the second set, which was created for the pollution investigation, included only plants. The four models utilized for the pollution investigation were labeled as follows: control (no pollutant added), vinegar, salt, and fertilizer.  During each investigation, the teacher walks around the classroom carefully observing the students working and posing questions to each group.  The teacher does not provide the students with solutions; rather, he/she asks probing questions to expand the students’ scientific reasoning.  
  • Making Meaning Conference
    Cooperative science groups share the results of the investigation during a class discussion known as the Making Meaning Conference. During this conference, the teacher is able to effectively determine each student’s level of discernment about science concepts. Class discussion is essential to ensure that all students make meaning of the data and grasp the concepts from the lesson. During the discussion, students cite specific data from their data collection tool to clarify their findings, The teacher is also able to identify areas of misconception and provide clarification though questioning and content knowledge. For example, one cooperative team believed that the terrarium and aquarium portions of the unpolluted control ecosystem were two unrelated entities. Students accurately observed that roots from the terrarium were growing into the aquarium. The students overlooked the idea that the roots now have a direct water source; therefore, the plants in the terrarium were thriving. Through the Making Meaning Conference, the students discussed their findings and ultimately derived the correct result about the benefits of the roots extending into the aquarium. In the end, the class precisely determined the science concepts in the investigation: salt represented salt added to icy roads, vinegar symbolized acid rain, and fertilizer denoted over-fertilization. 
  • Claims and Evidence
    Another important component of inquiry is the dissemination and written communication of the collected data. This analysis is manifested in the claims and evidence section of the science notebook. Students develop explanations, which are referred to as claims, and then refer back to their data collection tool as evidence.  The following sample shows a student’s claim based on the aforementioned ecosystems investigation: “I claim that we added too much fertilizer because fertilizer is supposed to help plants, but if you add too much, the plants just die.” The student then justifies this claim with data-based evidence from her table. She begins her sentence with “My evidence is…” and uses specific results from her data table.  By citing evidence, science ideas are ingrained into the students’ conceptual understanding.
  • Conclusion
    Synthesizing the investigation into a few sentences allows students to summarize what they learned from the investigation.  Students may also refer back to their prediction statement and discuss whether the data collected supports the prediction.  Based on the ecosystems inquiry investigation, a student writes, “I learned that pollutants can destroy an ecosystem because the pollutant is put in the terrarium and the aquarium plants die too. I know this because I compared my data charts from before the pollutants and after the pollutants.  All of the plants were alive before the added the pollutants but were brown and withered after. ” Another student explains, “My prediction was almost correct.  I thought that the vinegar and salt would make the plants turn brown.  But I did not know that the vinegar would make the plants turn white and the fertilizer would not help the plants grow.”
  • Reflection 
    In the reflection, students can document new questions that are related to the investigation or next steps they would like to take in the investigation.  For instance, students wondered “What would happen if we used less fertilizer?”or “What would happen if we put more water in the solutions?”  If time allows, students can further explore these next steps and new questions in supplementary investigations.

With inquiry science, it is all about seeing, doing, and experimenting.  Science is going beyond the two-dimensional pages of a text—science is active learning. Inquiry science with the use of notebooking provides an area where all students can be successful.

Carol Wooten is a fifth grade math and science teacher at Hunter GT Magnet Elementary in Raleigh, NC. She is a Nationally Board certified teacher who earned her Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction: Development and Supervision from NCSU. Wooten is a former Kenan Fellow whose project was entitled “Science Inquiry and Assessment.”  She is a past recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching.  In 2013, she was named a top ten national semi-finalist for the K-12 Shell Science Teaching Award. Wooten serves on the NCAEE board as the Teacher Director at Large. Carol is also a member of the NC Association of Elementary Educators Board of Directors.


  1. Great article! I also write about inquiry based science notebooks on my blog Check it out!

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  3. Thanks for the information! You included a lot of great details and the notebooks sound like a great way to encourage inquiry in science. Your detailed explanation of each step was very beneficial. Inquiry is so important in science and I am very glad that I found this resource. I also think that these science notebooks would be a great way to keep students involved and make sure that they are learning something from the experiments. Thanks for this great resource!

  4. This is an awesome way to encourage inquiry in a science classroom. Inquiry is so important in science as it allows students to further their learning. These science notebooks would be a great way to keep students involved and make sure that they are learning something from the experiment and not just doing it for the fun of it. Great resource!