Kids Becoming Scientists through Schoolyard Inquiry

Teaching science as inquiry can provide you with the opportunity to develop your students’ scientific and critical-thinking abilities and enrich their understanding of science. In fact, the National Science Education Standards state that students should learn science by conducting investigations into authentic, original questions generated from their own real-world experiences. This way, students gain skills they will need to become lifelong learners who can access, analyze, and synthesize information and apply it to a diverse range of new situations and problems, regardless of their chosen professions. As students focus on the active processes of doing investigations, they develop the ability to ask questions, critically investigate aspects of the world around them and use their observations to construct reasonable explanations for their questions – a skill set as useful to lawyers and businesspeople as it is to professional scientists.


As every parent or preschool teacher knows, kids excel at asking lots of questions! From an early age, children interact with their environment, get curious, and seek ways to answer their questions.

The National Science Education Standards advise that science teachers should employ varied strategies, using inquiry as a central approach. The Standards define inquiry as:

… a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations (p. 23).

Teachers might understandably find the process of helping their students to formulate their own questions, design an original experiment, represent data, and grapple with messy data or unexpected results a bit challenging. Though pedagogically risky, inquiry-based lessons inevitably provide rich opportunities for learning. In contrast to the traditional “cookbook lab” approach (in which the outcome of laboratory experiences is predetermined and unexpected results are viewed as failures), inquiry investigations bring science alive because the answers are unknown (at least to the questioner) and unexpected results are valuable and interesting scientific findings that can lead to further investigations.

But it’s not just about understanding the process of science; scientific inquiry provides a powerful way of understanding science content as well. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) position statement on scientific inquiry (2004) proclaims, “Understanding science content is significantly enhanced when ideas are anchored to inquiry experiences.” NSTA also recommends that all K-12 teachers make inquiry the centerpiece of the science classroom


While authentic inquiry might pose a unique set of challenges for classroom teachers, we’ve found that students of all ages have become successfully engaged in schoolyard inquiry through citizen-science projects. “Scientists can’t be everywhere,” one seventh grader told us. “So kids from all over can record data and send it in.”

For example, through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen-science program, people across the continent become scientists by collecting data about their local birds and sending the information to professional scientists who study bird populations and conservation. These scientists need data collected from a large geographic area to help them draw conclusions about such issues as the effects of global warming, habitat loss, and disease.

We’ve found that students are especially motivated by helping scientists and birds and the “real-world” implications of the data they collect.

Whether through bird-related projects or those focused on insects, stars, water quality, or plants, citizen science can provide an engaging tool for teaching natural history and science content through hands-on activities that often address critical questioning and analysis skills (Trumbull et al. 2000).


In a seventh-grade classroom in New Hampshire, Robin Ellwood routinely has her students do inquiry in her classroom using a Cornell Lab of Ornithology program called BirdSleuth. In the past, she’s asked groups of two to four students to work together, designing and implementing an experimental study on birds. For example, one group wondered whether playing different kinds of music (such as rap, classical, and pop) would have an effect on the behavior of the birds in their schoolyard. Ellwood required each group to complete a minimum of eight one-hour observation periods at home or at school. Most of her students finished their experimental observations within two to three weeks.

Each group of students wrote a paper, which was submitted to Classroom BirdScope, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s student research publication. Each group also prepared posters, which were displayed in the school’s entryway so that the entire community could admire the research. Finally, the students gave oral presentations in class as part of their assessment.

Peer review has been a critical component of the inquiry and paper-writing process. Students review the papers and posters for each other, using a Peer Review Sheet provided through the Lab’s BirdSleuth curriculum. Ellwood also provides a grading rubric to the students so they can self-evaluate their performance as they go along. Over the years, Ellwood found that it was best to require that students submit sections of their projects as they complete them, so she can give recommendations as the students progress. As she says, “Mini due dates help keep them on track.”

We’ve found that the chance for actual publication (just like real scientists!) also provides student and teacher motivation. In one recent publication, a fourth-grade student wondered whether a fake (stuffed animal) cat would scare birds away. Her question was based on observations she made in her backyard — when the neighbor’s cat was out, she thought she saw fewer birds. She measured the amount of seed eaten in a week with no fake cat. She then placed the stuffed cat in the tree near her feeder, and again measured the amount of seed eaten in a week. She concluded that the “cat” was an effective guard since there was much less seed eaten the second week. And just like a real scientist, she proposed ideas for further research. “Next year,” she said, “I want to see how long the cat is out there before the birds realize it is fake and start coming back.”

The fake cat experiment. Photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Data from the fake cat experiment shows that much less seed was eaten when the fake cat was present. Image courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


The National Research Council, publisher of the National Science Education Standards in 1996, published a separate volume focused on inquiry in the science classroom in 2000, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards.

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has published a series of books under the title NSTA Pathways to the Standards: Guidelines for Moving the Vision into Practice, with versions for elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. The books provide examples of the standards implemented in classrooms. You can read the NSTA position statement on inquiry and find more resources at the web site Membership in NSTA includes a subscription to one of its journals, such as The Science Teacher, which are filled with ideas on inquiry and national standards.

The following web sites provide information about inquiry:

BirdSleuth is a curriculum with modules that can be used as stand-alone units or completed sequentially. You can choose modules that match your teaching objectives and student interests. Visit the inquiry pages and download free inquiry lessons. This site also provides a growing number of resources, such as online courses, a reference list about inquiry, and a student research webzine.

Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS)
BSCS has developed a “5 E” model (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate) for implementing inquiry lessons.

The Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry
This museum web site includes the Institute for Inquiry, which is dedicated to promoting inquiry-based science learning. The Institute provides a variety of workshops, forums, and resources.

Citizen Science Toolkit
This site provides information about citizen science projects and a special list of projects for schools and young people.

Birdwatcher’s Delight: Birds and Inquiry Learning
In this month’s Beyond Penguins podcast, listen to author Jennifer Fee discuss using birds and citizen-science projects to promote inquiry learning.


National Research Council. 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. 2000. Inquiry and the national science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Science Teachers Association. 2004. NSTA position statement: inquiry. NSTA Board of Directors.

Trumbull, D.J., R. Bonney, D. Bascom, and A. Cabral. 2000. Thinking scientifically during participation in a citizen-science project. Science Education 84 (2): 265-275.

This article was written by Jennifer Fee. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright February 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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