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Emily Boyle
Emily Boyle
(Bear Creek - United States)

What is inquiry vs. the scientific method?

Many of us remember dutifully reciting the steps to the scientific method / lab report.  C'mon, now, say them with me:

  • Title
  • Purpose
  • Hypothesis
  • Procedure
  • Results
  • Conclusion

Your version may have differed slightly, but I bet it was all pretty much the same.

But now there is  new buzz word in science town, and that is "inquiry."  NSTA, in The National Science Education Standards (NSES p. 23) defines scientific inquiry as "the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Scientific inquiry also refers to the activities through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world."

NSTA also recommends that teachers help their students understand that "there is no fixed sequence of steps that all scientific investigations follow. Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations."  In fact, all of the recommendations are exciting!

The Scientific Method is essential for lab reports, Inquiry is essential for scientific thinking. This chart below illustrates some of the differences in these two terms.  Feel free to modify or add your own!

 Scientific Method
 Scientific Inquiry
Linear / defined order
Non-Linear / fluid
Answers a single posed questionMay end up generating more questions
Results may be communicated at the conclusion of the experimentCommunication is a key component throughout
  
These illustrations are helpful in visualizing the (sometimes messy) process of scientific inquiry.
scientific1.png

IMAGE SOURCE: TBD

This illustration is a bit more kid-friendly:
scientific2.png
IMAGE SOURCE: Prentice Hall Science Explorer, The Nature of Science and Technology

However, there is a time and a place for the formal lab write-up, and many science fairs require such a report at the conclusion of the investigation.  Some hints:
 
Title
Purpose
Hypothesis (specific and supported)
Materials list
Procedure (written in specific steps)
Results (any observations, data tables, graphs)
Conclusion
    Do you accept or reject your hypothesis?
    Tell your results (use numbers)
    Any errors or things you could not control?
    Future questions or investigations?
    Connections to the real-world?