Science of Learning / Technology


This Scientist Learned By Doing Science and Your Students Can Too

The following article is the first of a two-part series on teaching authentic science inquiry.

Despite being a die-hard science geek my entire life, I often found the lab sections of my science classes to be painfully boring. I knew there had to be more to it than looking at dividing cells through a microscope and drawing pictures in my lab notebook.

Now, after years working in research labs and completing a Ph.D. in molecular biology, I understand why my adolescent self didn’t care for the simple inquiry activities commonly found in the classroom: They are a paltry representation of what “real” science looks like.

Authentic science inquiry refers to a set of complex activities that scientists undertake as part of “doing” science. It is not limited to the linear scientific method (i.e. hypothesis, experiment, conclusion) that we typically think of when considering how to “do” science.

The National Research Council’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education describes inquiry as comprising three spheres of activity: investigating, evaluating and developing explanations and solutions. This method of inquiry isn’t linear; instead, scientists dynamically engage in a variety of sub-activities within each sphere or work in multiple spheres of activity simultaneously to achieve their goals. The University of California Museum of Paleontology has a great interactive flow chart that illustrates these ideas. This way, students come to understand science as a body of knowledge that develops over time rather than as a set of static facts.


Authentic scientific inquiry contains three overlapping activities.

But time and resource constraints, in addition to safety concerns, make authentic science inquiry difficult to model in the classroom. As a result, simple inquiry tasks such as one-variable experiments, observations, and illustrations are commonplace. These simple inquiry activities are recipe-like, straightforward, and generally do not require the student to engage in problem solving or critical thinking and are poor models of authentic science inquiry. As a result, students leave school without the ability to reason scientifically and as Chinn and Malhotra say, students view science as “simple, certain, algorithmic and focused at a surface level of observation” – certainly not the way science works.

So, how can we create inquiry activities that model authentic science practices and can be implemented in a typical classroom? Here are a few strategies for implementing and supporting authentic inquiry in the classroom.


While interning at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium as a graduate student (I talk more about this in the second part of this series), I designed a class on the brain for Zoo U. students. I wanted to create a lesson in which I could use my background as a biologist to create an authentic inquiry experience for students while also teaching content. This led to the creation of the Science Classroom Inquiry (SCI) simulations. SCI is a web-based simulation that allows educators to teach content while simultaneously scaffolding authentic science inquiry. Scaffolding refers to tiered support given to a student by a peer or teacher that helps the learner achieve deeper understanding of the content material. Since authentic inquiry is a complicated task, scaffolding is essential to help students engage with and learn the material.

SCI simulations place the student in the role of a scientist trying to research possible solutions or causes to a problem. For example, in the Unusual Mortality Events simulation, students are trying to determine the cause(s) of the 2013 high death rates of manatees, brown pelicans, and bottlenose dolphins. The simulation guides their inquiry, but lets students choose a species to focus on, develop their own research questions and hypotheses, pursue their own testing strategy, and make independent final conclusions.

Virtual Labs

Other ways to use technology to facilitate authentic inquiry include the use of interactive animations such as genetics virtual labs that model techniques typically not performed in middle or high school classrooms. There are also many high-quality simulations available from NOVA Labs, PhET and sources that model phenomenon that are conceptually difficult or not feasible for the classroom.

Although animations and simulations can be embedded as part of larger authentic inquiry units, it is worth noting that even though students are using models of sophisticated technology this does not necessarily make their investigation authentic. Authenticity derives from engaging in non-linear inquiry that is unique to each learner.

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Youth participate in authentic inquiry through a virtual lab.

Real World Data

Publicly available datasets are useful because they allow students to ask their own research questions about real-world data. While working through the Unusual Mortality Events SCI simulation, one of the tests students can perform is to examine real-world water quality data available online. Looking for publicly available datasets relevant to your community is a great way to increase student motivation and interest in an authentic inquiry activity.   

Problem Based Learning 

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a student-centered instructional strategy in which students learn by proposing methods and solutions to a complex, driving problem. PBL shares several features with authentic science inquiry such as multiple strategies to approach the problem, multiple solutions, and clear connection to the “real” world. Instead of the teacher providing knowledge to the students, the teacher acts as a guide or facilitator, allowing students to solve problems independently. PBL is not only a research supported instructional method, but also teaches students 21st Century Skills.

The teacher plays a very important role in facilitating and scaffolding PBL. One strategy that I have found useful in my own practice is to provide students (especially young students) with lab notebooks that guide their inquiry across a variety of stations or activities. Another good strategy is to check in with students via attainable, pre-defined benchmarks within the unit. Looking at this example, which requires students to determine if a sick patient has food poisoning or a deadly disease, you can see that the unit is broken up into distinct modules where students could turn in materials for the teacher to check and for students to receive feedback.

When designing PBL (or other authentic inquiry activities), it is crucial to choose driving questions that students will find interesting and engaging. In the second part of this blog series, I highlight strategies for designing authentic inquiry experiences for teens that are also appropriate when creating PBL and authentic inquiry activities.