Independent Experimentation for the Remote Classroom

Every teacher has heard the student plea—”Just give me the answer!” As practitioners, we often want to provide that answer and move on, since we know there’s content “to be covered.” Of course, we also want students to experience the joy of discovery for themselves. One of the first hurdles to “doing inquiry” in the classroom is overcoming the urge to focus on content over practice. In a strange twist of fate, it seems “the year of COVID,” which has restricted education—for instance, by keeping teachers and students physically separated—may be allowing teachers to reframe their curricula in entirely new ways and opening up more possibilities for student investigation.

The InquirySpace project seeks to couple the power of technology with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) focus on science and engineering practices. This year, our goal is to help teachers and students across the country design and run scientific investigations in classrooms, homes, and backyards. We focus in particular on the following NGSS practices: Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, and Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions. (The NGSS practices all work together, constituting a broad definition of “inquiry.”)

InquirySpace uses a set of design principles and technologies. The most important of these principles, and a hallmark of Project-Based Learning (PBL), is to first explore a system or phenomenon that is both a common everyday experience and also engaging and relevant to students. This phenomenon should create a “need to know.” Teachers are getting creative, considering phenomena accessible in everyday life (e.g., a paper car race, metal oxidation, cricket chirps, and more) and encouraging students to explore a driving question related to relevant, local content.

Explore your phenomenon

Our curriculum and experimental scaffolding model starts by adopting elements of an article in The Physics Teacher that introduces students to the concept of the Control of Variables (COV) strategy in experimentation.1 As students explore, they are asked to consider, 1) What do you observe?, 2) What can you change?, and 3) What can you measure? We have expanded these questions in every investigation to include development of an investigable question and a corresponding set of procedures that produce data proving or disproving a related prediction.

Students are asked to consider:

  1. What did you observe?
  2. What variables can be changed?
  3. What variables can be measured and how?
  4. Choose and write an investigable question. Write your question in the form: How does changing _____ affect _____ ?
  5. Make a prediction about the answer to your question.
  6. What data would you need to collect to answer your prediction? Consider sketching/building a data table to help answer this question.
  7. What variables will you make sure to keep constant during data collection?

Helping students get to the point of developing their own investigable questions takes time, thoughtful scaffolding, and practice. Typically high school students have little experience asking their own questions or independently developing and carrying out experiments to answer them. Teachers have found that doing science through physical and simulated experiments throughout the school year leads to increased teacher and student comfort with experimentation skills, especially when paired with questions around measurement and data collection.

Design and run your experiment

Once students have developed their first iteration of an idea for an investigable question, they design their experiment with the goal of collecting enough data to prove or disprove their prediction. The process of designing an experiment and then collecting and analyzing data is iterative. Persistence in experimentation is often a new skill for both teachers and students.

Students are encouraged to problem solve on their own as much as possible, and teachers are encouraged to provide just enough support to move students to the next level of comfort with independent experimentation. Given limited classroom time, especially during COVID teaching and learning, this process is made easier by reducing both the number of investigable questions and the time allowed to try to answer those questions. For example, we recommend focusing on how many trials “are enough” in an experiment before moving on to having students test multiple values of a variable or, ultimately, multiple variables.

Collect and analyze your data

InquirySpace emphasizes a combination of physical and simulated experiments and, when possible, automated data collection through either sensors (in classrooms) and/or simulations. Students use Concord Consortium’s Common Online Data Analysis Platform (CODAP) to collect, clean, organize, and analyze their data (Figure 1). Analyzing and interpreting data is a fundamental experimentation skill and NGSS practice that takes time and varied contexts to master.

Group data from students measuring the relationship between tree circumference and diameter as an introduction to both experimentation and CODAP data analysis.
Figure 1. Group data from students measuring the relationship between tree circumference and diameter as an introduction to both experimentation and CODAP data analysis.

Explain your findings

Constructing explanations and designing solutions is the “final” step in experimentation. In a classroom using PBL pedagogy, answering driving questions typically leads to the next content topic (and related phenomenon) in a curriculum sequence, reinforcing the nature of iteration in the scientific endeavor. For example, describing a falling object speeding up (acceleration due to gravity) naturally leads to questions such as “Why do (some) falling objects, like a parachute, stop speeding up?” (forces).

Students are encouraged to revisit their prediction prior to experimentation and use a Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) framework to explain their findings. We scaffold explanation by asking students to reflect on the following:

  1. Based on all of your observations so far, make a claim that answers your question.
  2. What evidence (observations, measurements, etc.) supports your claim?
  3. What is your reasoning? How does your evidence support your claim?
  4. How confident are you in your evidence? Did you collect enough data?
  5. Did your prediction match your claim? Explain.
  6. What are some things you might do differently next time to better answer your investigable question?
  7. What new question(s) might you investigate next?

The goal in asking and answering these questions is to practice the “art of science” as scientists—making observations, asking questions, designing experiments to test hypotheses, and sharing findings with scientific peers to review, argue, and possibly replicate or refute. While Inquiry-Space does not focus on argumentation per se, opportunities for practicing listening and speaking from the stage of initial ideas through explanation abound. We use grounded research in “talk science” from TERC2 and University of Washington’s Tools for Ambitious Science Teaching3 to get students to share ideas and engage in lively discussions, in effect externalizing and iterating their mental models of a phenomenon. From the start of the school year, teachers aim to build collaboration into their lessons and set a tone that all ideas are important. Over time, students deepen their listening and talking skills.

While classrooms in the 2020-21 school year have changed, teachers are more committed than ever to three-dimensional teaching and learning, using the NGSS disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and science and engineering practices. The InquirySpace project offers design principles to help teachers develop activities that support students doing science, wherever their “classroom” is located this year.

1. Blanton, P. (2009). Three questions can change your labs for the better. The Physics Teacher, 47, 248–249.
2. Michaels, S., & O’Connor, C. TERC Talk Science Project.
3. University of Washington, College of Education. Tools for Ambitious Science Teaching.

Tom Farmer ( is a curriculum developer.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant nos. IIS-1147621 and DRL-1621301. 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.