Developing Student Ability to Ask Scientific Questions

Kaatje Kraft, Whatcom Community College
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Initial Publication Date: August 8, 2014 | Reviewed: December 14, 2014


This activity is a two-part (three week) lab in which students initially develop a claim (non-scientific) and learn how to use evidence to support a claim. They then are provided with a scientific research question for which they need to make a claim supported with evidence from their own models (river/stream tables). Based on their results, they then ask a new research question, design the model, carry out their tests and report their results.

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This is used in an introductory natural hazards course, but could easily be adapted for any introductory geology/geography course that deals with river processes.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students require no special skills beyond basic proficiency of reading, writing and communicating.

How the activity is situated in the course

Sequence of exercises at the very beginning of the semester/term.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Lab 1: Using evidence to support a claim (Microsoft Word 40kB Aug5 14)

  • Make a claim based on a provided "research question" around a particular popular topic (e.g., which has better hamburgers, In & Out or 5 Guys?)
  • Use evidence to support your claim
  • Develop a working understanding of key terms like: Research Question, Claim, Data, Evidence, Explanation, Argument
  • Reflect on what you learned
Lab 2: Using scientific evidence to support a scientific claim (Microsoft Word 33kB Aug5 14)

  • Develop a model to test a claim about a given research question about river/streams
  • Support your claim using evidence from the tested model
  • Share results with your peers, get feedback to revise and develop a new test question
  • Develop a research question with a testable claim
  • Test your claim
  • Report out your results to your peers based on your findings/results
  • Reflect on how the peer review process enhances the scientific process

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Developing research questions based on prior findings

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Metacognition

Description and Teaching Materials

Lab 1:

  1. Students are presented with a series of possible research questions to answer, as a team, they must select one and do research on how to support a given claim
  2. Students will need computers and internet access (or access to research materials) and white boards to present their findings to the class
  3. Students participate in a "poster session" reporting on their findings and defending their stance.
  4. Post-activity discussion can include how emotions DO influence the scientific process and how peer review/going public can help to keep scientist accountable.
Lab 2:

  1. Students are presented with two basic research questions, of which they can choose one to answer: How does slope affect a river channel or how does ground material affect a river channel?
  2. Students work in small groups to select a research question, design a way to test the claim they decide to make based on their research question and determine if they may need to revise their claim and develop a new research question based on the outcomes of their initial trials (in addition, students start to appreciate the need to control variables as best as possible and the complexities of Earth as a system)
  3. Materials are listed in the lab, the key is that they aren't told what should go into their river system, they need to decide that for themselves. Instructor input may be needed as they're developing their models. Students generally want to jump right into testing, it requires some self-regulation to assure they have a well-thought out plan prior to engaging in the actual model testing.
  4. Based on their findings, students re-match up and share their results and learn from each other what different groups did. They then take this information back to their fellow group members and develop a new research question to test. These must be approved by the instructor.
  5. Once approved, students test new research questions, and report out on their results in a "poster session". Students receive feedback from their peers.
  6. If time allows, ask students to consider how their claims changed as they worked on new data and how the need to go public forces them to make their details clear.

Teaching Notes and Tips

In lieu of clay, I have used cornstarch, which is much cheaper.

These labs typically take three full lab weeks, but I find after, they are better primed to talk about the use of data in different analyses and have a better sense of the subtleties and complexities of the scientific process. In addition, they begin to appreciate the importance of clear lab notes.


I have both individual assessments and larger group assessments:

Content based:

  • Quiz question from a recent scientific blurb (re-digested, e.g., Science News) and ask them to identify the claim and the evidence.
  • I ask them to identify their own research question, claim and at least two lines of evidence that supported their claim
Group based:

  • Successful completion of project with results effectively reported out
  • Group compatibly support each other as they work through the process
  • Peer Review was helpful and thoughtful

  • I collect their metacognitive responses and provide feedback to help them think more deeply and more reflectively as the course continues. Students receive credit for thoughtfully completing the post-reflective responses.

References and Resources

  • Portions of these labs were made in collaboration with David Weaver (professor emeritus, Chandler-Gilbert Community College) and Merry Wilson (Scottsdale Community College) as a part of the Communication in Science Inquiry Project, NSF grant#: 0353469 CISIP