MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > Mystery Box Scientific Method Inquiry Lab

Mystery Box Scientific Method Inquiry Lab

Doug Androli
Waterville - Elysian - Morristown Junior High

expanded activity from Norm Peterson of Maple River High School
Author Profile


In this lab activity students will try to develop methods of collecting data, other than visual, by trying to determine the contents of several small boxes.

Learning Goals

The student(s) should be able to form hypotheses from observations.
The student(s) should be able to use multiple senses to make observations.
The student(s) should be able to differentiate between a hypothesis and a prediction.

  • Other senses are just as valuable as sight.
  • An organized plan is needed to solve a problem (scientific method).
Vocabulary: Scientific method, hypothesis, prediction

Context for Use

I believe this lab activity could be successfully used in grades 4-12. The number of students is not an issue as working in groups of two or three is preferred. Typically this lab activity can be completed in one 45 -50 class period. The only materials required are small boxes and common small junk items usually found in any junk drawer. No prior skills are needed and this lab activity can be used in a variety of settings and at any time of the year. I use it at the beginning of the year when we are learning about how to conduct investigations.

Subject: Biology
Resource Type: Activities:Classroom Activity
Grade Level: Middle (6-8)

Description and Teaching Materials

Collect one-two dozen small boxes similar to those found when buying graham crackers or pop tarts. Look through your junk drawers and find objects of various sizes, shapes and numbers. Be sure that you have more then what you intend to use. For instance I use tacks, paper clips, soybeans, corn, erasers, short pencils, "match box" type cars, stones, pebbles, a small bar of metal, etc. When putting the items in each box vary the number in each one. Also be sure that you have an example of each for later. Be sure that the boxes are firmly taped shut as kids are highly tempted to cheat during this activity. Number each box so that they may be identified. Talk about the difference between a hypothesis and a prediction and a flat out wild guess. Also plan to talk about the scientific method and how it was used during this activity. Each set of students is then asked to form a hypothesis about what is in each box and how many of them there are from any information they can collect. They are told that under no circumstances can they open a box, mistreat a box by rough shaking or squeezing and they are not allowed to talk to other people outside of their group. Students will have to come up with the idea that they can hear and "feel" what is in the box if they are quiet enough (it usually takes only a short while for it to get deathly quiet in the room). Students will need to record all relevant information. I penalize groups one point for each infraction of any classroom rule during this exercise. One point is awarded to each group for each box that is attempted. One bonus point is awarded for each correctly named item and one bonus point for getting the number of items correct as well. I also give out bonus points for the top scoring groups as well. Now for the surprise. Before the lab activity started I purposefully slightly messed up my teaching desk where all the boxes are located. In the mix are all the duplicate items that were initially collected. I have repeatedly told that if they are paying attention they should be able to figure out what is in the boxes. Afterward when I have told them that all the items were in plain view the entire time, the kids usually howl with disgust if they haven't caught on. It can be quite funny!

Teaching Notes and Tips

Be sure that students don't take more then one box back to their table. Keeping track of all the boxes can be a pain. Many students feel frustrated that they can't figure things out but normal encouragement suffices, plus the fact they are not losing points for "getting the wrong hypothesis". In the past before my "inquiry education" I told them exactly how to collect information and what to specifically record and all the details needed. Important! Be sure to keep a list of what is in each box so that you don't have to repeatedly open and re-tape each one.


The "official' results of the lab activity are given during class and scored as previously mentioned. Whether or not the concepts were learned are determined usually by a quiz or standard test at a later date. I collect their data that they recorded and we will now have to discuss the mot efficient method of recording such data.


6.I.A.1 scientific evidence
6.I.A.2 repeating investigations
6.I.A.4 facts, laws, theories
6.I.B.2 observations, predictions
6.I.C.2 work in teams
7.I.A.1 knowledge subject to change
7.I.B.1 form hypothesis
8.I.B.1 elements of scientific investigations
9.I.A.1 distinguish among hypothesis

References and Resources