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Science Inquiry In The PreK Classroom

Teresa Albers's picture




What is scientific inquiry?

Scientific inquiry is the formal, educational process through which students learn to seek answers to questions they develop about the natural world.1 Inquiry is the through the act of asking for information or conducting an official investigation2 through which students learn more about the natural world and themselves.


Why scientific inquiry is important as the tool for scientific learning?

Students have a natural fascination and wonder about the natural world in which they live. Inquiry is an ongoing process that can occur anytime and anywhere. Children are inquisitive about their world; they are constantly making observations, performing investigations, making analyses, and drawing conclusions about the phenomena of their natural world.

Providing children with a context for hands-on, personal experience allows them to form mental representations of complex phenomena. Students need hands-on experiences to make brain connections and to learn; the senses are the medium for these experiences. As Aristotle wrote, “There is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” Providing opportunities for children to develop and refine the use of their sensory motor skills and investigatory skills ultimately allows children’s to answer their questions about nature.1


Overview of the Inquiry Process

In Inquiry Learning the sensory motor activities are coupled with thought provoking, open-ended questions about discoveries. “Inquiry learning is a process of continually generating new understandings, both individually and collective.”3 During this revolving process, children make observations, which provoke specific questions that require investigation7 (or problem solving) in a search for answers; the investigation yields more questions and dictates revisions of understandings.6 New understandings evoke new perspectives and thus new observations, which triggers the process anew.

Children’s thinking contains predictable errors. Given time and support, children can recognize their errors by working through the problems. Investigation and questioning are blended to enhance and enrich curiosity and inquiry skills.1 Questions and ensuing group discussion calls students to respond to questions with questions. This questioning and discussion builds students complex language skills and ability to communicate understanding of experience to other people.


Results of the Inquiry Process

The student’s experience with scientific inquiry consequently familiarizes students with their mental processes. The student “learns to predict, observe, collect and chart information and to make reasonable conclusions about questions they have about organisms and environmental processes.”1 The student also matures in the ability to formulate questions and propose explanations. Through process of scientific inquiry students develop their ability to observe, predict, assign meaning to observations, record data, communicate observations and conclusions, share findings, and reconstruct conclusions based upon those shared findings. Students can communicate observations and findings through journals, drawings, photos, and charts.

Inquiry offers students the opportunity to be authors of their learning process within a scaffolded environment of support. Students develop a sense of ownership of learning, because the process is student-centered and student-generated (above the basic foundation of the lesson). Therefore, students garner a greater breadth and depth of understanding of the subject than is feasible in teacher-directed, teacher-centered, or lecture format learning. Knowledge that is acquired through Inquiry may become more deeply embedded and retained for a longer period of time.4 Questions are often referred to as the best teacher and in the Inquiry process student’s questions direct the discovery process.


The process of scientific inquiry

Inquiry-based education utilizes created situations to position students to create, find, and construct knowledge about a given topic. Content is the fuel for inquiry; wonder and questioning are the vehicle by which content is assimilated. The process of scientific inquiry involves these steps 1:

  • Plan an investigative, hands-on process for student investigation and enquiry
  • Prepare the environment with the necessary materials and tools
  • Prepare open-ended, evocative questions to reveal students thoughts on the subject. Encourage students to recognize shared and discrepant understandings on the subject.
  • Query students for their questions on the subject
  • Build background knowledge and vocabulary as necessary for the procedure.
  • Demonstrate the use of the materials or procedure, as appropriate for students needs
  • Allow ample time for students to conduct the investigation. Provide support for procedures and learning. Encourage students to make new observations, ask questions during the process, and to make predictions and conclusions.
  • Allow time for questioning, understanding, revision, and new understandings to occur.
  • Encourage students to record results and data
  • Encourage students to examine the discoveries and results that surprised them and to the new and the new understandings (stories) they have from these findings.
  • Encourage students to discuss their findings and understandings with peers; ponder what accounts for any similarities and differences? Help students to identify conflicts in stories and to find a resolution or reason for the conflicts.
  • Encourage students to conceive new observations that have the potential to again alter their understandings/stories.
  • Relate their findings to existing, related knowledge on the subject
  • Repeat

What is the role of the teacher in scientific inquiry?

The role of the teacher is to facilitate the process of learning whereby students are able to follow a process of inquiry to construct meaning on a subject and construct the desired knowledge. The teacher prepares the environment for Inquiry learning by:

§ Designing the activity

§ Preparing the materials

§ Building background knowledge as appropriate

§ Constructing open-ended, evocative questions

§ Extracting students questions on the subject

§ Facilitating conversation between students

§ Modeling procedure as necessary

§ Guiding student inquiry by providing support for the procedure/investigation by asking questions, answering questions, making observations, and providing information, as necessary

§ Facilitating post-inquiry discussion to help students identify similarities and conflicts in understanding, revise understandings and relate their findings to existing knowledge bases


The process of scientific inquiry in the pre-k classroom

Scientific inquiry begins with the infant who is constantly exploring his/her environment. The Pre-K classroom is the place to introduce children to the formal process of scientific inquiry. The goals of this introduction to Scientific Inquiry for the Pre-K classroom, according to the Core Curriculum for the School District of Philadelphia, are for children to1:

  • Investigate new materials as they explore their world and environment
  • Ask and pose questions during group or individual times to further their understanding of the organisms and environmental phenomena of their world
  • Make predictions about what will happen next based on previous experience, reflections, and inquiry experiences
  • Develop listening skills
  • Communicate observations through pictures, journals, and dictation
  • Hone the use of the senses in the making of observation and to learn about objects, organisms and phenomena for a purpose
  • Use the senses for classifying, sorting, and ordering in terms of observable characteristics and properties
  • Record observation and findings through a variety of methods
  • Begin to interpret observations through pictures, conversations, dramatizations, etc.
  • Discuss and share findings
  • Describe and illustrate simple cause and effect relationships
  • Proposing explanations
  • Begin to explain some of the characteristics of the natural world, materials on earth, characteristics of living things and natural processes
  • Predict what will happen next based on previous experiences, reflection, and the planning of science experiments

The Work Sampling System for Preschool5 lists skills mastery by age and subject matter for Pre-K students. In regard to Scientific Thinking and Inquiry the achievable skills by age are:

Age Three (3) Age Four (4)

1-Uses senses to observe and explore 1-Ask questions and uses senses to observe and

classroom materials & explore materials and natural phenomena

natural phenomena

2-Begins to use simple tools and 2-Uses simple tools and equipment for investigation

equipment for investigation

3-Makes comparisons among objects 3-Makes comparisons among objects


According to the Core Curriculum of the School District of Philadelphia the five standards for Developing an Understanding about the Process of Scientific Inquiry are:

3.1.4A Show curiosity and inquiry about the natural world

3.1.4B Make hypotheses based observation and prior knowledge

3.1.4C Use active exploration and five senses to gather data

3.1.4D Analyze data, comparing expected outcomes to actual results

3.1.4E Make and communicate conclusions


Proposed Schedule for Building scientific inquiry skills in my pre-k classroom

Scientific inquiry begins with the infant who is constantly exploring his/her environment. The Pre-K classroom is the place to utilize the child’s natural inquiry and exploration tendencies to build the foundation for formal scientific inquiry. During the first two months of the year, I intend to introduce the following activities to build skills for inquiry activities to be offered during the remainder of the year. [The activities are listed along with the PA Science Standard which they support.]


  1. Introduce children to the Sensorial area of the classroom that provides activities in the use of the five senses (hones perception) and for sorting and ordering. Most specifically, the first activities introduced will be Mystery Bag (touch) Standard 3.1.4A, Grading exercises (Visual dimension), Color exercises (Visual chromatic), Rough & Smooth Boards (tactile, rough and smooth), Sorting exercises Standard 3.1.4D,

§ Activities to be added throughout the year: Sounds cylinders (sound), Smelling bottles (smell), Fabric Matching (tactile), Thermic Tablets (temperature), Baric Tablets (weight), Standard 3.1.4C

§ Associated Vocabulary for Sensorial Activities: long/short, wide/narrow, long/short, heavy/light, hot/cold/warm/tepid, rough/smooth, bright/dark, shiny/dull, large/small, geometric terms, sweet/sour/salty/bitter, odor/fragrant, strong/weak, etc.

  1. Sound Basket: Identify familiar objects by sound (bell, tearing paper, ballpoint pen, alarm clock, keys, soda opening, etc.) Listening Walk: Predict what we will hear outside and take a walk. Compare predictions with results. Standard 3.1.4A & C
  2. Provide tools for exploration including magnifying glasses, bug boxes, scales, shifters, eyedroppers, whisks, and/or microscope, etc. Standard 3.1.4A & B
  3. Description Basket: an assortment of three objects (changed regularly) to describe based on sensorial perception. Begin with simple descriptions such as color, shape (round, not round), size (large, small), temperature (hot, cold), hardness (soft, hard), noisiness (noisy, quiet). Standard 3.1.4D
  4. Dictated Stories: Children begin dictating stories about photographs and their illustrations. This process that words can be recorded and repeated verbatim and builds the ability to weave stories. Stories about their illustrations are easier for children as they are simply relating personal stories. The photographs are harder for children to tell stories about because many of the images present children with unfamiliar or non-personal content.
  5. Making Observations

§ Classification and Sorting Activities. Standard 3.1.4D

§ Making comparisons among objects. Children call attention to details and exploring how things are alike and different. Three year olds enjoy calling attention to details and exploring, with adult support. They can comment on what they see, but need to be given words to describe more accurately what they are observing. Four year olds enjoy finding things that are the same or different and readily make comparisons about observed objects when encouraged and guided; their comparative statements represent how very young children begin to draw conclusions from observations5. Standard 3.1.4B & D

ü Examine a shell collection and look for smooth or pink shells.

ü Notice change in speed of truck pushed over tile and carpet

ü Collect leaves/rocks/shells/pinecones, and look at differences in shape, edges, colors, and size

ü Compare handprints to classmates

ü Pour sand or water through tubes of varying diameters and compare travel times (a long time, not so long, etc.)

ü Observe photographs of animals or plants and note differences in appearance

ü Note differences in sounds of musical instruments or bird calls

ü Identify objects by smell and sound

  1. Making predictions:

§ Read a story and make predictions about what will happen. Make predictions using a picture walk. Record predictions and compare prediction to the story events. Standard 3.1.4B

§ Beginning science predictions: Record predictions by child using the child’s picture and sketches of events/predictions. Standard 3.1.4B & D

ü What happens when place rocks in a jar of water and add another rock?

ü What happens to a leaf when it is picked from a tree?

ü What happens when a flower is not watered?

ü What happens when a worm is placed in light?

ü What happens when an egg is placed in water? When salt is added?

ü How will substances change properties when mixed, frozen, cooked, shaken- add water to clay, melt ice cubes, etc.

ü What happens to cream when it is shaken?

  1. Answering open-ended, high level (analysis, synthesis, evaluation) questions

§ While at play and throughout the day, ask open-ended questions: Why did the blocks fall over? What was happening at the water table, why? What would happen if….? Why did…happen? Standard 3.1.4A & E

  1. Recording data and understandings:

§ Record data from the experiments above. Model by drawing a picture on storyboard and writing what I saw happened. Later in the year, model how to record using graphs (have children first act out the graphs, as stand in line before favorite drinks, before putting them on paper). Standard 3.1.4E

§ Children begin using science journals to draw a picture of what happened and dictate a story. Standard 3.1.4D

  1. Discuss results: Resolving conflicts & Constructing New Stories.

§ Read a story with a conflict in it (Corduroy, Swimmy, etc.) and help children resolve the conflict. Standard 3.1.4E

§ Read a story and stop at an appropriate point and have children create their own endings. Standard 3.1.4E

§ Show an ambiguous figure and ask what they see. Compare what other students perceived. Discuss why we all see something different. Standard 3.1.4E

§ Create a story chain where students build a story from a story seed. Standard 3.1.4C

  1. Initial Scientific Inquiry Activities: Standard 3.1.4B

ü Magnetism:

ü Sink/Float:

ü Ramps:


Proposal for Classroom Stipend:

Drum ($20), NSTA Book (Getting A Head Start: Encouraging A Sense of Wonder, $33), Caterpillars ($20), Ladybugs ($20), Worm Farm ($30), Science Journals ($20), CD Player ($50), Seeds & Soil ($10),



1 Core Curriculum: Grade Pre-K Science, School District Of Philadelphia, 2005


2 Oxford Dictionary Online


3 Dr. Paul Grobstein, Bryn Mawr College Online Forum, Summer Institute 2008: Science As Inquiry, /exchange/suminst/iii2008/inquiry, Posting 7/28/2008


4 Alan Bronstein, Bryn Mawr College Online Forum, Summer Institute 2008: Science As Inquiry, /exchange/suminst/iii2008/inquiry, Posting 7/21/08


5 The Work Sampling System, Preschool-3 and Preschool-4 Developmental Guidelines, 4th edition, Dichtelmiller, Margo, Jablon, Judy, Marsden, Dorothea, and Meisels, Samuel. 2004, Pearson Education, Inc.


6 Susan Dorfman, Bryn Mawr College Online Forum, Summer Institute 2008: Science As Inquiry, /exchange/suminst/iii2008/inquiry, Posting 7/21/08


7 Barbara Kauffman, Bryn Mawr College Online Forum, Summer Institute 2008: Science As Inquiry, /exchange/suminst/iii2008/inquiry, Posting 7/21/08