Your Science Classroom: Becoming on Elementary / Middle School Science Teacher


M. Jenice Goldston & Laura Downey

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright


    We would like to dedicate this book to our children, Ginny, Kristin, and Michael, for being our first students, and to all the students we have learned from and whom we have taught. They inspired us to be better science teachers than we ever thought we could be.


    When you think about teaching science in your classroom for the first time with twenty or more eager children looking at you ready to begin, how do you feel? Excited? Anxious? Happy? Expectant? Worried? Scared? Well, a great deal of how you feel about science and teaching science may be attributed to how you have experienced science in school and to some degree how you have been prepared to teach science. This book, designed for K–8 science methods instruction, is for teachers who desire to use inquiry in their classrooms. This textbook is written in a manner that invites you, the K–8 teacher, into science classrooms where inquiry experiences thrive while igniting student learning and science teacher enthusiasm.

    Your Science Classroom: Becoming an Elementary or Middle School Science Teacher represents what we, as teachers of science, have learned through many years of classroom experiences with elementary and middle school students in rural and urban, public and private settings. It also represents thirty years of our experiences and passion for teaching science to graduates and undergraduates at the university level. As such, our purpose is to provide a practical science methods textbook that contains essential knowledge and skills that teachers need to begin to teach science to K–8 students using hands-on, minds-on approaches. Conceptually, our book emphasizes the importance of teachers as reflective, knowledgeable facilitators of standards-based, inquiry-based, constructivist practices. Along these lines, it also provides a practical presentation of relevant knowledge in the field. What makes Your Science Classroom: Becoming an Elementary or Middle School Science Teacher different from other science methods textbooks is that the chapters are actually designed using an inquiry approach, often referred to as the 5E inquiry instructional model. The stages of the 5E inquiry model have been modified slightly from its original intent for use in a book; by using this modified version, we provide the reader with multiple exposures to each phase of the instructional model through reflections, readings, and authentic activities embedded within each chapter. Our aim is to uncover key areas of science methods content well, without trying to cover everything.

    It may be helpful to you to know a bit more about the 5E model used in the chapters. This model comprises five stages: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. The following are brief descriptions of these stages:

    • Engage: Focuses on eliciting what the learners already know about the topic and invites inquiry. A variety of approaches can be used to accomplish these goals. These may include simple questions and KWL charts, to questions, story prompts, discrepant events, or other activities that are more sophisticated.
    • Explore: Uses a variety of investigative and inquiry experiences that actively involve students with science concepts and processes of science.
    • Explain: Develops students’ understanding of scientific concepts and processes through teacher-facilitated questioning that draws on the inquiry activities. Labels and terminology associated with science concepts are introduced during this stage.
    • Elaborate: Applies the newly acquired science concepts and processes in new situations.
    • Evaluate: Examines through a purposefully designed task students’ learning of the objective(s) taught.

    Because the 5E inquiry instructional model is intended to be an interactive, dynamic model where students explore science phenomena firsthand, its use has been slightly adjusted here to fit the constraints of a textbook. In particular, the explain stage for each chapter is informational and has been modified from the 5E model simply because facilitating an interactive question-and-answer session about the explore activity and the associated science concepts is limited by the book format. However, if the explore activity becomes part of actual class instruction you may see the explain stage come to life as it is intended. Use of the 5E inquiry lesson model as a way of uncovering the information in this text will offer multiple opportunities for the reader to examine its format and the various strategies depicted in each of the stages. Each chapter invites the reader to participate in various tasks or activities as part of the 5E inquiry model. We encourage you to complete these active learning experiences to gain knowledge of each stage and thus experience firsthand a useful lesson plan model for inquiry in your science classroom. Each chapter gives you multiple opportunities to examine each phase of the 5E format, and to consider how it translates into science classroom inquiries with K–8 students.

    Organization of the Text
    Part I: The Nature of Science

    As part of becoming an effective science teacher, you must have knowledge of science, children as diverse learners, and pedagogical approaches for teaching science. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with the nature of science, its evolving status in society, and how the work of scientists can be reflected through inquiry in the K–8 science classroom. The chapter activities challenge teachers to rethink the scientific method as well as how scientists come to know “what they know.” Chapter 2 addresses the National Science Education Standards and scientific literacy as a goal for all students. The chapter also provides background knowledge of science as a contemporary enterprise that is closely interwoven with technology. Recognizing and understanding the relationship between science and technology in current society is important to all students as they develop scientific literacy.

    Part Ii: The Nature of the Learner

    When science content knowledge merges with a teacher's knowledge of the learner and the learning processes, effective teaching and substantial learning can take place. Chapters 3 and 4 examine current as well as emerging theories and findings on how students learn science. Chapter 3 considers the foundational work of cognitive and social psychologists, Piaget and Vygotsky, whose work contributed to the contemporary view of constructivism. Examination of constructivist classrooms is contrasted with objectivism in Chapter 3 as a way to foster reflection on personal experiences in learning science and to bring to the forefront the many variables that influence when and how students learn. Chapter 4 explores the learning of science concepts from the perspective of constructivism, metacognitive thinking, and conceptual change approaches. These perspectives delve into additional strategies that uncover students’ prior knowledge and sources of misconceptions while exploring science activities that actively challenge students’ thinking to align with scientifically acceptable explanations. Children's alternative frameworks or misconceptions about a variety of science topics are discussed and resources for locating common misconceptions are cited.

    Part III: The Nature of Science Teaching

    Part III of this book is about science teaching and its many complexities. Though the chapters are presented separately, each represents aspects of teaching that are highly interwoven into the practices of science teaching. Chapter 5 addresses teacher questioning—the essence of inquiry teaching. The chapter examines types of questions, characteristics of effective questions, and research associated with questions, such as wait time. Chapter 6 centers on pedagogical approaches associated with inquiry teaching and the process skills students must acquire to conduct inquiry. The chapter distinguishes the varying roles of the students and the teacher in inquiry by examining different types of inquiry approaches used within K–8 science classrooms. These approaches are described and discussed by key features represented in an inquiry continuum. As students acquire process skills, they become more competent and capable of doing scientific experimentation on their own and of understanding scientific experimentation. Effective teaching by means of inquiry is always underpinned by effective planning, which is discussed in Chapter 7. Chapter 7 explores planning inquiry lessons using the 5E instructional model by taking the reader through inquiry planning using examples of phases that make up full lesson plans. The development of effective assessments and evaluations as important skills for science teachers is addressed in Chapter 8, which distinguishes between assessments for learning and assessments of learning. This knowledge provides teachers a lens for closely considering how and when to use formative or summative assessments for making decisions pertinent to student learning. The chapter provides descriptions and examples of a large variety of alternative, performance, and authentic assessments.

    Part IV: The Nature of Diversity in Science Teaching and Learning

    Chapter 9 focuses on variables that influence how students learn and learning style preferences. Readers can examine their own learning style and explore other learning style inventories, including Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. Understanding learning styles can promote the practice of offering a wide range of science experiences for all types of learners, ensuring science for all. Given the national impetus of science for all, Chapter 10 concentrates on student diversity in science classrooms and the relevance of that diversity in preparing scientifically literate citizens. Engaging all students in relevant science learning increases opportunities for diverse populations to pursue careers in science, technology, mathematics, or engineering (STEM) fields. Viewing diversity broadly, this chapter addresses useful practices for teaching learners with disabilities and English language learners (ELLs), as well as strategies that foster equity across gender, ethnicity, race, and culture in teaching science. Chapter 11, the final chapter, brings to light the pros and cons of integrating curricula and takes the reader through an example of integrating science with other disciplines using a thematic approach.

    Key Features of the Text

    Your Science Classroom: Becoming an Elementary or Middle Science Teacher uses the symbolic and familiar features of the classroom to provide organization of key concepts, practices, research findings, and teaching tips. The choice of this approach is to assist K–8 teachers to envision themselves within their own classrooms using features common to K–8 classrooms. Though not all classroom features are found in every chapter, the features represent and highlight different types of pertinent materials or information. The features included in the text include the following listed below:

    • Learning Objectives are stated to inform teachers of the intended learning outcomes of each chapter.
    • National Science Education Standards are stated at the beginning to each chapter to provide the teachers with the specific science teaching standards that are address as part of the chapter.
    • Key terms are bolded and defined at their first use in the text.
    • Teacher's Desk Tip is a feature that highlights, in brief, a variety of teaching issues involved with planning, science materials, or special needs, diversity information, and so forth.
    • Bulletin Board highlights key ideas, skills, assessment, guidelines, examples, or research findings.
    • My Science Classroom features narratives of teachers talking to teachers about classroom, pedagogical, content, or learning issues.
    • Tech Connect provides examples and ideas for integrating technology in your K–8 science classroom.
    • Chapter Summary found at the end of each chapter highlights important concepts and key topics.
    • Annotated Resources provide brief descriptions of the useful resources for teachers.
    • Chapter References provide a complete list of resource citations used in the chapter.
    • A Glossary at the end of the book lists and defines all of the bolded key terms in the text.
    • Appendices provide detailed information on how to write an instructional objective, safety in the science classroom, and setting up science inquiry learning centers.
    Instructor Teaching Site

    A password-protected site, available at, features resources that have been designed to help instructors plan and teach their course. These resources include:

    • An extensive test bank with multiple-choice, true/false, short answer, and essay questions
    • Chapter-specific PowerPoint slide presentations which highlight essential concepts and figures from the text
    • Chapter overviews which may be used for lectures and/or student handouts
    • Class activities including handouts that relate to the activities presented in each chapter
    • Access to recent, relevant full-text SAGE journal articles and accompanying article review questions
    • A list of web resources including links to the annotated resources that appear in the text as well as state and national standards
    • Several video clips for each chapter that apply to chapter topics
    Student Study Site

    A web-based study site is available at This site provides access to several study tools including:

    • eFlashcards which reinforce students’ understanding of key terms and concepts presented in the text
    • Web quizzes for student self-review
    • A list of web resources including links to the annotated resources that appear in the text as well as state and national standards
    • Several video clips for each chapter that apply to chapter topics
    • Access to recent, relevant full-text SAGE journal articles and accompanying article review questions
    • Sample lesson plans for the lessons presented in chapter 7

    National Science Education Standards

    Science Teaching Standards

    The standards for science teaching are grounded in five assumptions.

    • The vision of science education described by the Standards requires changes throughout the entire system.
    • What students learn is greatly influenced by how they are taught.
    • The actions of teachers are deeply influenced by their perceptions of science as an enterprise and as a subject to be taught and learned.
    • Student understanding is actively constructed through individual and social processes.
    • Actions of teachers are deeply influenced by their understanding of and relationships with students.
    Teaching Standard A:Teachers of science plan an inquiry-based science program for their students. In doing this, teachers
    • Develop a framework of yearlong and short-term goals for students.
    • Select science content and adapt and design curricula to meet the interest, knowledge, understanding, abilities, and experiences of students.
    • Select teaching and assessment strategies that support the development of student understanding and nurture a community of science learners.
    • Work together as colleagues within and across disciplines and grade levels.
    Teaching Standard B:Teachers of science guide and facilitate learning. In doing this, teachers
    • Focus and support inquiries while interacting with students.
    • Orchestrate discourse among students about scientific ideas.
    • Challenge students to accept and share responsibility for their own learning.
    • Recognize and respond to student diversity and encourage all students to participate fully in science learning.
    • Encourage and model the skills of scientific inquiry, as well as the curiosity, openness to new ideas and data, and skepticism that characterize science.
    Teaching Standard C:Teachers of science engage in ongoing assessment of their teaching and of student learning. In doing this, teachers
    • Use multiple methods and systematically gather data about student understanding and ability.
    • Analyze assessment data to guide teaching.
    • Guide students in self-assessment.
    • Use student data, observations of teaching, and interactions with colleagues to reflect on and improve teaching practice.
    • Use student data, observations of teaching, and interactions with colleagues to report student achievement and opportunities to learn to students, teachers, parents, policy makers, and the general public.
    Teaching Standard D:Teachers of science design and manage learning environments that provide students with the time, space, and resources needed for learning science. In doing this, teachers
    • Structure the time available so that students are able to engage in extended investigations.
    • Create a setting for student work that is flexible and supportive of inquiry.
    • Ensure a safe working environment.
    • Make the available science tools, materials, media, and technological resources accessible to students.
    • Identify and use resources outside the school.
    • Engage students in designing the learning environment.
    Teaching Standard E:Teachers of science develop communities of science learners that reflect the intellectual rigor of scientific inquiry and the attitudes and social values conducive to science learning. In doing this, teachers
    • Display and demand respect for the diverse ideas, skills, and experiences of all students.
    • Enable students to have a significant voice in decisions about the content and context of their work and require students to take responsibility for the learning of all members of the community.
    • Nurture collaboration among students.
    • Structure and facilitate ongoing formal and informal discussion based on a shared understanding of rules of scientific discourse.
    • Model and emphasize the skills, attitudes, and values of scientific inquiry.
    Teaching Standard F:Teachers of science actively participate in the ongoing planning and development of the school science program. In doing this, teachers
    • Plan and develop the school science program.
    • Participate in decisions concerning the allocation of time and other resources to the science program.
    • Participate fully in planning and implementing professional growth and development strategies for themselves and their colleagues.

    Source: From the National Science Education Standards, National Research Council, 1996a, excerpted from pages 27–53.


    We have had great support for this book from our friends and colleagues across the country, many of whom asked us to write a K–8 science methods textbook. Our thanks go out to all of you—your encouragements made this book a reality. Special thanks to our families for their patience, understanding, and love during the writing of this book. Last, but certainly not least, we would like to thank the teachers who work with us, invite us into their classrooms, and help us to “keep it real.”

    We would like to thank our colleagues who reviewed our book and provided thoughtful, constructive feedback. You all contributed more than you know.

    Jeanne Andrioli, Marygrove College

    Caroline Beller, Oklahoma State University

    Jeanelle Bland-Day, Eastern Connecticut University

    John Ellis, Missouri Western State University

    Wendy Frazier, George Mason University

    Mary Harris, Athens State University

    Christy Heid, Chatham College

    Fiona McDonnell, Emmanuel College

    Margaret Ritson, Chatham College

    Christine Royce, Shippensburg College

    Paulette Shockey, Hood College

    Mary Stein, Oakland University

    Brenda Webb, University of North Alabama

    John Yang, Lakeland College

    And last, we'd like to thank SAGE Publications for their willingness to publish a science methods textbook that is different from the norm.

  • Appendix A: How do I Write an Instructional Objective?

    As a part of your teaching preparation and your work in K–8 science classrooms, you might have been asked to write lesson plans. How did you begin? A good place to start, though you can start in a number of ways, is to describe what students will be able to do or exhibit as result of the lesson or unit of study. Such statements are the focus of the instructional objectives for the lesson. According to Mager (1997, p. 4), instructional objectives are statements that include

    • specific learning outcomes (performance),
    • circumstances under which the learning occurs (condition), and
    • an element that specifies a level of proficiency (criterion).

    Perhaps the best way to tease out the components of effective instructional objectives is to look at them through examples. Let's start with an objective about the concept of energy.

    Objective 1A: The Students Will Understand the Key Types of Energy Transfer

    Does this objective tell you what students need to know or do? Not easy to answer, is it? Here is a suggestion. After writing an instructional objective, ask yourself if the objective provides enough information to assess it. Examine objective 1a: Is it clear enough for you to determine if your students achieved what it intends? What would your assessment look like for this objective? Would you require students to write down the ways energy is transferred? Would students describe energy transfer or would they label types of energy transfers? Do you see the problem? As written, the term “understand” lacks clarity and doesn't specify how students will show you what they know. Just try writing an assessment for the objective. It is near impossible because we don't have a clear idea of what student should know as a result of the lesson. Objective 1a does not clearly state an “action” or use an “action” verb that signifies what the students will do or know. Bloom's Taxonomy of educational objectives provides many action verbs that span Bloom's levels of cognition and that are useful in developing the performance element of an instructional objective. Take care, though: Some action verbs are far better than others (e.g., identify, analyze, examine). Avoid the terms “understand, know, appreciate, comprehend, learn, recognize,” and any others that lack an action. Without an action verb, the objective does not make clear what knowledge students will have or what they should be able do at the completion of the lesson or unit. This crucial element, the essence of an instructional objective, is called a performance element. The performance element should be a carefully thought-out learning outcome that can be assessed. Now let's modify and improve Objective 1a to include a clearer performance element. Consider the following revision with a performance element.

    Objective 1B: The Students will be Able to Label the Key Types of Energy Transfer

    Objective 1b gives detail to the expected student performance. Students will be labeling energy types, but is the objective as clear as it can be? Could a substitute teacher look at it and know exactly what the students should know or do at the end of the lesson? At this point, a question you should ask is whether the objective gives some direction for the activities and orchestration of the lesson. Does it give specific conditions under which the students will perform a skill or demonstrate their knowledge? For instance, are the students labeling a diagram, a set of pictures, or are they labeling the ways energy is transferred with actual examples set up in the classroom? We cannot be sure from the objective as written. What's missing is another element of an instructional objective, referred to as a condition element. This element deals with what students use to carry out the task, what materials they will have available, or where the task occurs. The condition element clarifies conditions so all students know what is expected. Look at the condition element added to the Objective 1c below. Is it clearer? Now could you develop an assessment to match the objective?

    Objective 1C: Given a Set of Pictures Depicting Types of Energy Transfer, the Students Will be Able to Label Key Types of Energy Transfer

    By now you probably think that this is a pretty good objective and it is, but there is more to consider. Take a minute to consider the types of energy transfer. What key types of energy transfer are intended in the objective? How would you revise the objective to clarify the key types of energy transfer? Without specifying the different types of energy transfer in the objective, how can one assess or evaluate students’ knowledge? So remember to specify exactly what the key types are for your lesson. So let's revise the objective once again.

    Objective 1D: Given a Set of Pictures Depicting Types of Energy Transfer, the Students Will be Able to Label Them as Convection, Conduction, Or Radiation

    This last revision describes the “key types” of energy transfers students should know as a result of the lesson. At this point, we have an effective objective. One last element of importance to discuss is known as the criterion element. It refers to an observable or measurable performance level expected of the students. In our example, it is assumed that convection, conduction, and radiation will be labeled correctly by all of students, so it is not stated. In fact, if a criterion element is not stated it is assumed that students will achieve at 100%. Whether instructional objectives have conditional or criterion elements, all objectives must have a clear performance element stating specifically what students must know or what they should be able to do. Examine the following objectives for the objective elements. Notice that many are still effective objectives even with some elements absent.

    • Students will be able to explain that mass is a measure of the amount of matter in an object. (The context and criterion elements are assumed and the students will correctly write or orally explain the description of mass).
    • Using a diagram, students will be able to label cinder cone, shield, and composite volcanoes and state a characteristic for each. (The criterion element is assumed: All students should label and state a characteristic of all three volcanoes correctly).
    • Using a specified distance scale and sentence strip, students will be able to measure and place each planet's name at the appropriate distance it is located from the sun. (The criterion element is assumed that all planets are measured and placed correctly).
    • Given ten items (variety of magnet and nonmagnetic), students will be able to sort the items into two categories with 80% accuracy. (All three elements are present).
    • Using everyday items provided, students will be able to identify each item as a lever, incline, wedge, pulley, or wheel and axle. (The criterion element is assumed at complete accuracy).
    Practice Your Skill in Identifying Effective Objectives for Each of the Pair Written Below.
    • Either in the form of drawings or digital photographs, students will identify four out of five everyday examples of simple machines: lever, incline, wedge, pulley, and wheel and axle.
    • Students will be able to present what they have learned to the class in order for the class to learn about their simple machines.
    • Students will be able to recognize objects that are and are not attracted by magnets.
    • Given a list of materials (paper, iron nail, rock, magnetite, plastic, wood, aluminum foil, penny, nickel, etc.), students will identify each material as magnetic or nonmagnetic.
    • Students will be able to state where a seed comes from.
    • Given a diagram of a bean seed, students will label the cotyledon, seed coat, and embryo.
    • Using a map, students will be able to locate areas of high volcanic activity (i.e., plate boundaries and the Ring of Fire).
    • Students will know how volcanoes and earthquakes are related.

    We imagine you're curious to know how well you did, so here are the most effective objectives from the paired examples: 1a (contains condition and performance elements), 2b (contains condition and performance elements), 3b (contains condition and performance elements), 4a (contains condition and performance element). You will notice that many of the weaker objectives in the pairs lack specificity or the performance element is missing or unclear. Remember, objectives do not have to have all three elements but they must have a performance element; in addition, they need to be detailed enough to ascertain whether students achieve the objective through assessment.


    Mager, R. (1997). Preparing instructional objectives: A critical tool in effective instruction. Atlanta, GA: CEP Press.

    Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives

    The following two webfiles contain useful action verbs for writing objectives:

    Appendix B: Safety in your Science Classroom

    Anytime you teach students, safety is paramount. It is especially important when teaching student-centered activities that promote student independence and that require students to manipulate equipment and materials. These materials may include live animals, plants, equipment, and chemicals. It is your responsibility to be knowledgeable about the safety guidelines for using these items and many others. Providing a safe working environment for teachers and students is an important responsibility for schools and school districts. Make sure you know your school's policies on safety and accidents. In addition, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) website has many practical and useful resources about classroom safety. One very useful resource compiled by the Council of State Science Supervisors, Science and Safety: It's Elementary, is a practical reference for teachers on safety in the science classroom. Other excellent safety websites for teacher can be found at the following:

    Excellent Safety Websites

    Until you know your students and gain knowledge of safety management yourself, it is best to start slowly. So, think carefully about what you bring or allow in your classroom. Before bringing animals or plants into the classroom, make sure to check state policies, as well as your school's rules regarding animals and plants. In addition, it is important to know if your students have any allergies to certain pets or plants. If students are working with chemicals, plants, or animals, provide students with appropriate protective wear (e.g., lab aprons, plastic gloves, safety goggles) and teach them that they should not touch their eyes, nose, mouth, ears, or faces after touching the organisms or chemicals. They should always wash their hands after working with chemicals or organisms.

    Despite taking the appropriate safety precautions, accidents may still occur, so be sure that you read and know about any school policies regarding accidents. Every teacher should request information on the following:

    • School and district policies and rules regarding animals and plants in the classroom
    • Protocols and procedures associated with accidents or injuries
    • Professional safety training
    • First aid and CPR training
    • Policies for purchasing, storage, and disposable of chemicals

    Know the protocol to follow in case of an accident. Report all accidents; depending on school policy, you may need to fill out an accident report. If an accident occurs and you need to remain with a student, send another student to get the school nurse or the assigned emergency person. Also, don't forget to teach students who to contact if you are the one who is injured. As a science teacher, part of your job is to provide instructions for safety and provide a safe learning environment. Begin by posting rules for students: Review them often and have students practice what to do during simulated accidents. Also teach students what is acceptable and unacceptable when using laboratory equipment and materials. This section is not intended to be comprehensive, but presents common, useful rules and tips for safety in science classroom. We highly encourage you to read safety reference materials cited in the references below. In addition, the following are general practices.

    Important safety practices often posted in K–8 science classrooms:

    • Wash hands before and after handling lab organisms or materials.
    • Keep hands away from face, eyes, nose, mouth, and ears when handling chemicals or organisms.
    • Wear goggles during laboratory activities.
    • Absolutely no playing around in the laboratory.
    • Follow the teacher's instructions.
    • Immediately report spills or injuries to the teacher.
    • No open-toed shoes in laboratory.
    • Tie hair back and remove any loose jewelry when conducting laboratory activities.

    Safety guidelines and tips for teachers:

    • Teach safety rules and conduct periodic tests on safety.
    • Use safety contracts with students and parents.
    • Include safety within your lesson plan.
    • Do not leave students unattended.
    • In case of emergency, have a plan to contact the school nurse or someone trained in first aid and CPR.
    • A first aid kit should be readily available.
    • Report accidents or injuries to proper authorities.

    These rules and tips are intended to make you aware of your responsibility to provide a safe environment for students, not deter you from conducting inquiries with students. Remember, safety refers to everyone. At times it may seem that attention to science safety makes it more difficult to include all students in laboratory or inquiry activities. This is not the case, nor the intent. What it means is that teachers need to pay careful attention to learners with special needs so that they, too, are included in the experiences. Even so, some alternatives may need to be made for those who are unable to fully participate in the hands-on experiences. With creative and thoughtful planning, accommodations for special needs students can often be made. Spending time considering alternative strategies as well as using technology can often provide safe equitable opportunities for all students to be part of science inquiry.


    National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). (2008). Safety in the elementary science classroom. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

    Roy, K. (2007). The NSTA Ready Reference Guide to Safer Science. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

    Appendix C: Science Inquiry Learning Centers

    Now that you are familiar with different types of science inquiry lessons ranging from teacher-directed inquiry to student-driven full inquiry, you may find that you want students to have more time for exploring the concepts. Science inquiry centers for K–8 classrooms are useful for this purpose and can promote learning in numerous ways. For instance, inquiry centers can evoke curiosity, generate questions, and provide firsthand experience with science processes and concepts for as long as you decide appropriate. Centers provide motivating moments for students because of their self-guided nature, giving students a chance to explore in ways they choose. They also help with classroom management because they provide opportunities to keep students engaged in science learning when they have finished with other classroom activities. Science centers may be used for enhancing students’ process skills development, investigating novel objects or phenomena, experimenting, problem solving, recording and collecting data, and researching by means of books and or computers.

    How do I Begin a Science Inquiry Center?

    One way to think about science inquiry centers is to view them as ways to complement or reinforce your science curriculum for the year. A starting point for selecting a center topic is to look at the units in your science textbooks or a grade-level curriculum guide to identify the main topics. Once you have selected the unit topics, choose the specific science content or skills to be enhanced or reinforced in a center. Centers should be interesting and draw students into the exploration phase. Start small, develop only a few centers, and design them with storage in mind. Store center materials in labeled plastic tubs or boxes for quick setup. Try to make them reusable and continue to modify them as needed to keep them current.

    What is Needed for a Science Inquiry Center?

    Teaching science by inquiry will require you to obtain some basic equipment and materials. Basic equipment for a K–8 classroom includes items such as a class set of magnifying glasses, a set of thermometers, a set of tape measures or rulers, and some balances, various measuring cups, spoons, and plastic tubs. You might also consider collecting items found in nature or around the house to be used with your inquiry lessons or in centers. Commonly collected items include a variety of shells and seeds (i.e., whirlybirds, dandelions, cockleburs, corn, sunflower seeds, marigolds, lima beans, peas, etc.), a honeycomb, small ant farm, acorns, pine cones, chicken or other animal bones (bleached), play sand, and a variety of rocks, to name a few. Consider multiple uses for typical throwaway materials (e.g., empty toilet tissue or paper towel rolls for making spectroscopes or movable arms that can support a plate of cookies). Start collecting a variety of magazines, science trade books, and nonfiction resource books. Also keep a list of interactive websites for use in appropriate centers. When you have the materials collected, you can set up directed, guided, or open-ended activities using laminated cards for instructions at the center.

    How are Science Inquiry Centers Managed in the Classroom?

    Consider how you might manage students at the centers set up to enhance their study of sound. One possibility is that you may designate Monday as science center day and have individuals or teams rotate to the center throughout the day. If you have two or three centers set up and labeled, you may have teams rotate through them within a given timeframe. Use a timer, bell, or timekeepers to signal teams to move to the next center. If you have teams at the centers, use small tables which are generally more conducive for teamwork activity. Another alternative is to leave centers up for student exploration for the entire unit and have a few students use the center each day until everyone has completed them. It is our experience that teachers generally leave centers up for two to four weeks. Because science centers, like science lessons, should be inquiry-based, create your centers around a key question. Why? Well, consider a center entitled “Sound” and another center entitled “Can You Change the Pitch?” Which one would you find more appealing? Besides inspiring interest, “Can You Change the Pitch?” poses a challenge and gives purpose to the activities. Finally, centers don't have to take up much space. They can set up in drawers, cabinets, and other areas in the room. Students often enjoy naming the centers such as Discovery Drawer, Curiosity Cabinet or Engineering, and Invention Table. Below are some brief descriptions of science inquiry centers.

    Sound Invention Center
    Can you Change the Pitch?
    • Students use center materials to demonstrate pitch by constructing a futuristic sound instrument to attract some runaway nanobots in the room. Nanobots are attracted to particular sounds. Students must create a combination of three pitches to attract the flawed nanobots so they can be caught and redesigned. Materials include straws, scissors, rulers, balloons, wide-mouth containers, assortments of rubber bands, small boxes, and a variety of other items.
    Can you Hear Me Now?
    • In the old days before the telephone and long before cell phones, children built their own phones. In this center, teams construct string phones using a variety of different types of cups, cans, string, fishing line, and wire to determine which phone is best by testing specified variables.

    Awesome Experiments in Light and Sound, by Michael DiSpezio. (2006). New York: Sterling Publishing.

    Hands-On Science: Light and Sound, by Sarah Angliss & Maggie Hewson. (2001). New York: Kingfisher.

    Secrets of Sound, by April Pulley Sayre. (2002). New York: Houghton Mifflin.

    Sound Waves, by Ian F. Mahaney. (2007). New York: PowerKids Press-Rosen Publishing.

    Insect Center
    What will It Look Like?
    • Students follow the life cycle of mealworms, which are the larvae of darkling beetles (other options are caterpillars/butterflies, tadpoles/frogs, or toads) by creating and sustaining its habitat. Students examine both young and adult organisms while learning the organism's characteristics and needs. Additional specimens are added to the center as appropriate and available for other arthropod investigations (i.e., pill bugs, grasshoppers, crickets, etc.).
    What Conditions are Preferred?
    • Conduct experiments with mealworms using different variables (flour or ground rice cereal; wet or dry; light or dark; etc.). Materials include boxes, petri dishes or small containers, black construction paper, paper towels, eyedroppers, flour, ground rice cereal, and small lamps. Students use digital photographs and videos to document behaviors.

    Children of Summer: Henri Fabre's Insects, by Margaret J. Anderson & Marie Le Glatin Keis. (1998). New York: Dover Publishing.

    Incredible Insects Q & A: Everything You Never Knew About Insects by DK Publishing. (2009). New York: DK Publishing.

    Geology Discovery Drawer
    What are My Characteristics?
    • Students make observations using a variety of rocks. Using a variety of rock identification guides students will sort the rocks into igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary.
    What are Earth Materials?
    • Students explore a variety of earth materials (clay, sand, silt, and pebbles). Center includes a set of materials for examining soil particles (sediment) using magnifying glasses and microscopes. They will make drawings in their science notebooks and will sort the types of particles by general size. Students will predict how different-sized sediment will settle in water by adding measured amounts of each into a clear plastic jar. Materials in the jar are shaken and allowed to settle. Students make observations and drawings of the jar after a period of time.

    A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals (Peterson Field Guides), by F. Pough, R. Peterson, & J. Scovil. (1998). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    A Handful of Dirt, by R. Bial. (2000). New York: Walker & Company.

    Great Science Adventure Series: Discovering Earth's Land Forms and Surface Features, by D. Zike & S. Simpson. (2003). Melrose, FL: Common Sense Press.

    National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals, by C. W. Chesterman. (1979). New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing.

    Soil, by C. Ditchfield. (2002). New York: Children's Press.

    Magnet Center
    Can Magnets Attract and Repel through Liquids?
    • Students explore with a variety of magnets to determine if they attract or repel through various liquids (honey, water, glycerin, etc.).
    How can We Find the Strongest Magnet?
    • Students design experiments to determine strengths of various magnets. Center includes a wide variety of magnets (include some strong small magnets) in shape and size, paper clips, graph paper, string, ring stands, and assorted materials.

    Magnetic Magic, by P. Doherty & J. Cassidy. (1994). Palo Alto, CA: Klutz.

    Mondo Magnets, by F. Jeffers. (2007). Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

    Science Projects About Electricity and Magnetism, by R. Gardner. (1994). Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishing.

    Light Center Cabinet
    What Happens to Light Passing through Different Materials?
    • Using the crystals from an old chandelier or prisms and penlights students explore refraction of light. A light ray box is a wonderful tool to explore refraction.
    • Students explore light refraction through various media (water, syrup, glycerin). Materials available include penlights, black construction paper, liquid materials, pencils, and a variety of clear containers.

    Experiments With Light and Mirrors, by R. Gardner. (2006). Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers.

    Eyewitness: Light, by D. Burnie. (1999). New York: DK Publishing.

    Great Science Adventures: The World of Light and Sound, by D. Zike & S. Simpson. (2002). Melrose, FL: Common Sense Press.

    Measurement Center
    How Much? how Tall? how Cold?
    • Students calculate various measurements using (a) thermometers (air temp/water temp with and without ice) to measure temperature, (b) balances to measure mass (wood blocks, metal blocks), (c) tape measures to measure distances (height of a chair, length of a pencil), (d) measuring cups to measure volume (sand, rocks), (e) graduated cylinders calibrated in the International System (SI) of units (metric) and the units of the American System for comparing volume in both systems. The center's materials include sand, water, ice cubes, rice, yarn, rocks, pencils, containers, tubs, and a large variety of items for measurement. Note: This center could be developed into separate centers focusing on different types of measurement.
    Are Measurements Important in the Kitchen?
    • Students measure ingredients in the SI system for no-bake peanut butter cookies. Center materials include flour, oil, salt, sugar, brown sugar, and peanut butter.

    How Tall, How Short, How Far Away? by D. A. Adler & N. Tobin. (2000). New York: Holiday House.

    Librarian Who Measured the Earth, by K. Lasky. (1994). New York: Little, Brown & Company.

    Twelve Snails to One Lizard: A Tale of Mischi, by S. Hightower & M. Novak. (1997). New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Micro Center
    What's under the Microscope?
    • Students view prepared slides and make slides themselves. Center materials include a microscope or digital microscope and computer setup. Using the microscopes, students begin with looking at the letter “e” under the microscope to examine how the lens reorients the item under the lens. Student can examine, draw, and label characteristics of insects, moth and butterfly antennae, pollen, flower parts, cloth fibers, and leaf cells. In addition, students can make slides for viewing pond water, Elodea (water plant) cells, and onion cells.

    Looking Through a Microscope (Rookie Read-About Science), by L. Bullock. (2004). New York: Children's Press.

    World of the Microscope (Science & Experiments Series), by C. Stockley & C. Oxlade. (1989). New York: Children's Press.


    5E inquiry instructional model:

    Inquiry lesson design based on sequential phases of Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate.


    The process of adaptation whereby the learner, according to Piagetian theory, changes the preexisting cognitive scheme to align with the new encounter.


    The ability to adjust to different environments.


    The term associated with emotions or emotional responses.

    Alternative assessment:

    Forms of assessment whereby students generate a response instead of selecting an answer.

    Alternative framework or misconception:

    Conceptual structure that is constructed by individuals to make sense of their world. In science, misconceptions are explanations that are at variance with scientific views.

    Analytic scoring rubrics:

    Separate measures based on criteria for several important dimensions of performance.


    The act of collecting and interpreting information about students’ learning.


    According to Piagetian theory, refers to the alignment of a new experience or knowledge with the preexisting cognitive scheme.

    Authentic assessment:

    Forms in which the learner demonstrates content knowledge and skill in ways that resemble real life as closely as possible.


    Plant hormones or enzymes that regulate growth and other processes.

    Backward planning:

    Lesson planning that begins with selecting the objectives, followed by designing the evaluation instrument. As appropriate, the evaluation instrument may be a rubric that reflects what the students should learn. Once the evaluation activity or task is developed, the rest of the lesson is completed.

    Basic science process skills:

    Skills that are used daily, but when used in science become skills necessary for investigations. Basic process skills include observing, inferring, classifying, measuring, estimating, predicting, and communicating.

    Bernoulli's principle:

    States that as the speed of a moving fluid (liquid or gas) increases, the pressure within the fluid decreases.

    Binary classification:

    The sorting of organisms based on a single trait that is present.


    System of grouping items or processes based on similarities and differences with the purpose of showing relationships.


    Mental processes or thinking to develop concepts, ideas, or processes.

    Cognitive disequilibrium:

    A mismatch between a preexisting cognitive scheme and new experiences or encounters, creating an imbalance.

    Cognitive schemes:

    Systematic patterns of thinking or behavior that make up the person's image of reality.

    Cognitive style:

    The way an individual processes, uses, and thinks about information.


    Takes any number of forms (verbal and nonverbal) used to convey information about processes, events, or objects.


    Ideas or notions derived from generalizations of facts and experiences.

    Conceptual change:

    Process of using instructional strategies that challenge students’ misconceptions while encouraging them to rethink their ideas in light of new evidences through inquiry activities that move them to acceptable understandings of the concept.


    An epistemology (origin of knowledge) whose premise is that all individuals actively construct or build their knowledge from their experiences as a way of making sense of the social and natural world around them.

    Convergent questions:

    Questions that are often called closed-ended and generally have one answer.

    Culturally responsive pedagogy:

    Teaching strategies that recognize and incorporate students’ culture and language into instruction, and that respect students’ personal and cultural identities.

    Dichotomous classification key:

    A key for identifying unknown organisms using pairs of statements that represent given characteristics. One statement from each pair that identifies the unknown organism's trait is selected, leading to the next pair of statements, until the statement ends with the name of the organism.

    Differentiated instruction:

    An approach to teaching that combines a variety of strategies to meet each individual student's needs.

    Directed or structured inquiry:

    An inquiry teaching approach that is teacher-centered with respect to all or most of the essential features of inquiry. Direct inquiry is often referred to as a cookbook activity.

    Discrepant event:

    An activity with an unexpected outcome or is contrary to what is predicted thereby challenging the conceptual framework of the individual.

    Divergent questions:

    Also known as open-ended questions. Those that have multiple responses or answers.

    Embedded assessment:

    Assessment that occurs within a unit that appears to be just another activity that students complete without teacher assistance.


    Refers to the origin of knowledge, where it comes from, and how it is created.


    Refers to the accommodation of disequilibrium until a balance is regained.


    Refers to a basic skill of judging an approximation of a quantity given a unit of reference.


    The result of plants growing in reduced or the absence of light characterized by an elongated stem and small sparse leaves of yellowish color.


    Passing a judgment on information (data) collected on student achievement.


    Asking a testable question, stating hypotheses, and conducting a fair test to answer it.


    Discrete information substantiated through evidences that are supported by sensory inspection.

    Fair test:

    Refers to an experiment in which all the variables are kept the same except for the variable being tested.

    Formative assessment:

    Gathering data on students used to adjust teaching and learning while students are involved in learning activities.


    A multidisciplinary approach that refers to developing relationships of content knowledge, skills, and other dispositions into a school-wide curriculum.

    Group processing:

    Strategy whereby team members debrief learning activities and each other's contributions to the goals.

    Guided inquiry:

    An inquiry teaching approach that offers students some choice with respect to essential features of inquiry.

    Holistic scoring rubric:

    An instrument providing a single measure of mastery related to the quality of the students’ work or performance as a whole.


    An “if-then” statement that is testable and falsifiable. As part of an experiment, hypotheses are accepted or rejected.

    Individualized education plan (IEP):

    Includes assessments of the student's current level of performance, a description of how the student's disability(ies) affects academic performance, type and frequency of services provided to the student, with specific accommodations and modifications.

    Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

    Law passed in 1975 that requires public schools to provide special education services to meet needs of disabled students from preschool through age twenty-one that prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.

    Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA):

    A modification in name of IDEA made in 2004.


    Explanations, generalizations, or conclusions a person makes based on his or her observations and experiences.


    Seeking knowledge and understanding by questioning, observations, inferring, predicting, estimating, measuring, classifying, investigating, collecting data, analyzing, and evaluating.

    Integrated approach:

    Teaching approaches that make connections with other content areas.

    Integrated process skills:

    Include skills used for experimentation hypothesizing, identifying variables, controlling variables, operationally defining objects or processes, designing procedures, testing, collecting data, organizing data, drawing conclusions, communicating findings (oral, graphical, pictorial), and even making models.

    Intellectual independence:

    The ability to judge the evidences and findings of research for one's self.

    Interdisciplinary approach:

    An approach that focuses on teaching skills and concepts that are common to two or more disciplines.

    Intradisciplinary approach:

    An integrated approach that connects subdisciplines within a given content area.

    Investigative activity:

    Involves a stated question, procedures, and a known outcome. Textbooks generally include many examples of investigative or directed inquiry.

    Learning accommodation:

    Changes in the ways that learning is facilitated with the student, not in the content he or she is expected to know.

    Learning cycle:

    Inquiry lesson design that includes the phase exploration, concept introduction, and concept application.

    Learning modalities:

    Channels whereby individuals give, receive, and store information (visual, auditory, kinesthetic/tactile).

    Learning modifications:

    Changes to what we expect a student to learn.

    Learning styles:

    Refers to an individual's learning condition preferences.

    Learning theory:

    Explanations of what occurs or what happens when learning takes place.


    Refers to quantifying the dimensions of an object, event, or process, and using appropriate units.


    Refers to thinking about thinking.


    Conceptual frameworks that are constructed by individuals to make sense of their world. In science, misconceptions are explanations that are at variance with scientific views.


    Refers to mental of physical conceptualizations of objects, ideas, or processes of phenomena.

    Multidisciplinary approach:

    Involves two or more content areas taught using a shared theme, topic, or guiding question (Travers, 1998). The purpose is to overtly make connections across the disciplines.

    Nature of science:

    A way of knowing, guided by commonly held principles that underpin the emergence scientific knowledge.


    A scientific discipline involving exploration of nervous system and the brain.

    Objectivistic approaches (Objectivism):

    refers to an epistemology that knowledge exists outside the individual. Knowledge is separate from the knower and in teaching encourages learners to examine the natural world with an objective mind—separate from imagination, intuition, emotion, beliefs, or values.


    Any information gathered through your senses or with instruments to extend the senses.

    Open or full inquiry:

    An inquiry teaching approach that is highly student-centered with students making the decisions with respect to the essential features of inquiry. The teacher's role is to guide and facilitate students’ experimentation.

    Operational definition:

    Defines variables, processes, or object in observable or measurable ways to determine its presence or quantity.


    Refers to teaching strategies or approaches.

    Performance assessment:

    Refers to direct, systematic observations of student performances and rating those performances according to preestablished criteria.

    Performance element:

    Refers to the element of instructional objectives that states what a learner is doing that demonstrates mastery.


    Refers to the body processes or functions of an organism.

    Positive interdependence:

    In cooperative learning, it refers to students needing each other to achieve a team goal.


    Statements of a future event based on a pattern or consistency of evidence seen in data.


    Ideas that describe the often multifaceted relationships among related concepts.

    Professional learning community:

    Teams created in a school (teachers, administrators, or relevant others) formed for any number of different purposes, all of which ultimately focus on student learning.


    Descriptive characteristics or attributes.


    Numerical or measurable characteristics.


    A tool that includes a set of criteria used in assessing or evaluating student work.


    A strategy whereby a student is supported by a teacher, strategies, or content as he or she builds knowledge of a specified goal.

    Scientific laws:

    Statements or descriptions of the relationships among observable phenomena.

    Scientific literacy:

    Knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity (National Research Council [NRC], 1996, p. 2).

    Scientific theories:

    Explanations for observable phenomena.

    Service learning:

    Involves community-based projects centered on providing assistance and service as part of the learning process while developing relationships and associations across two or more disciplines.

    Summative assessment:

    Assessment to determine whether the instructional objectives have been achieved by students.

    Tabula rasa:

    A Latin term that refers to the mind as a “blank slate,” a reference that individuals are born without innate ideas.

    Thematic approach:

    Is a multidisciplinary approach where different content area activities and associated concepts support learning in each discipline and students’ understanding of the theme.

    Transdisciplinary approach:

    Centered on students’ ideas, questions, and interests, as well as real-life issues; also embraces learning holistically stepping beyond the boundaries of the disciplines.

    Unifying concepts:

    Ideas or processes that connect scientific ideas across the disciplines.


    In an experiment, variables refer to independent (manipulated) or dependent (responding) which is the variable being measured or observed. Constants or controls are variable that are kept the same.

    Wait time:

    A questioning technique with five seconds or more of silence after a question has been asked. A second wait time should occur after a student has responded to a question.

    Zone of proximal development:

    Refers to what a learner can produce without assistance and what the learner can produce with assistance


    National Research Council (NRC). (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Travers, R. (1998, March). What is a good guiding question? Educational Leadership, 55(6), 70–73.

    About the Authors

    M. Jenice “Dee” Goldston Dr. Goldston, “Dee,” is a past president of the Council of Elementary Science International (CESI) and a professor of science education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The University of Alabama. Her passion over the last thirty years has been and still is teaching science to both K–8 students and preservice elementary and middle school teachers. She was the recipient of the Outstanding Undergraduate Educator at Kansas State University, Mortar Board's Outstanding University Educator, and the Kappa Delta Phi Outstanding Educator in the field. Most recently she received a commendation from the Alabama State Board of Education for Leadership and Service to elementary science education. Dr. Goldston has edited Stepping Up to Math and Science: Natural Connections, is the author of articles in Science Education, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Journal of Science Teacher Education, International Journal of Science and Mathematics, Science Teacher, Science and Children, and Physics Teacher, and in addition is the author of several book chapters. In addition, she is an author for an elementary science textbook series, Seeing Science: Learning in a Whole New Light. She conducts local, state, national, and international presentations and workshops on a variety of science topics for teachers and science educators. In addition, Dr. Goldston has been project investigator and codirector for numerous state and national grants fostering professional development of K–12 teachers of science. She is currently associate editor for the Journal of Science Teacher Education. She has served on the advisory board of Science and Children. Currently she serves on the review panel for Journal of College Science Teaching and Science and Children. She has served on various committees in state and national organizations such as the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Association for Science Teacher Education, American Educational Research Association, and National Science Teachers’ Association.

    Laura Downey Laura's first love is teaching. With a bachelor's degree in elementary education (minor in math and science) from Michigan State University, a master's in educational administration and supervision from Roosevelt University in Chicago, and a PhD from Kansas State University in curriculum and instruction, Laura has taught in Spain, the Chicago Public Schools, and in Manhattan, Kansas, at the elementary, middle, and preservice levels. During the ten years that Laura taught in the elementary or middle school classroom, her experiences included teaching middle school math and science and teaching elementary school as first-grade teacher. Laura has a diverse background working in several school settings with a wide variety of populations. Laura is currently the executive director for the Kansas Association for Environmental Education (KACEE). KACEE is a statewide nonprofit organization that provides professional development and support for both formal and nonformal educators in environmental education. She has been acknowledged for her leadership in the field of environmental education with a variety of honors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the North American Association for Environmental Education. Laura is also involved in the formal science education community, as a former board member and membership chair for the Council for Elementary Science International and a frequent presenter for the National Science Teacher's Association's conference. Laura knows what teaching and learning look like from a variety of perspectives through her distinctive combination of experiences teaching science, science methods, or environmental education to both children and formal and informal educators in diverse settings.

    • Loading...
Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website