Mentor Roadmaps - Explore

Questions Come from Explorations and Experiences

Like a rabbit pulled from a hat, student science projects can appear pulled out of thin air. To ground a project in biological realities, students first need tangible experiences with the phenomena. Students need time to:

  • observe carefully
  • explore how the object or organism behaves
  • consider what variables are important in a system

Initial engagement sets the stage for what follows in the inquiry cycle. Removing the success or failure stress students often feel can provide freedom to have a rich experience with phenomena. Such an experience opens the door to students posing questions that are authentic to them and starting points to develop. Generating questions is the purpose of an exploratory or immersion experience.

Biologically meaningful and interesting research questions seem obvious to seasoned researchers. It is easy to forget how the many years of training have built understandings and developed our skills. As Shunryu Suzuki noted in reference to Zen Buddhism practice, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.“

Education research documents the difficulties novice learners face in organizing information into meaningful patterns and the ease expert learners have in retrieving and applying knowledge to new situations. Novices often don’t see or notice features or relationships that experts do. Experts tap into a context for their observations and link their understandings around big concepts. Initial experiences are an important phase for building background knowledge and allowing, sometimes unanticipated, ideas to surface and connect.

To weave a strong fabric of experiential and factual knowledge, we suggest initial explorations with time to:

  • Muck around with it: Get a feel for the organism or system by observing in a playful, low-risk learning setting.
  • Think like a plant: Explore what you know: Consider what variables might be important from a plant’s perspective.
  • Brainstorm as a team: Share ideas and questions to stimulate even more questions. Make sense of the topic: Describe or diagram how you think things work.
  • Make notes on things to research: Connect starting questions and ideas to what is already known about the topic.


See the Student Explore - Getting Started and Teacher Explore - Getting Started resources for more details on this stage.

Tips for Mentors

  • Ask students about what they’re doing in class to prepare for their projects.
  • Ask students about their science background, and if they have covered certain topics before (but be aware that they may not remember concepts that they were introduced to in the past).
  • Ask students about their experiences with plants, outside of school as well as in class. You could ask, for example, “What do you see with plants everyday? How might this relate to your initial observations?”
  • Encourage students to observe and wonder about plants in their surroundings so that they begin to connect what they see and think to questions they could ask. You could ask, for example, “Does your observation present anything that confuses you? The point of confusion may be a good focus for your research.”
  • Ask students what information they would like to gather or have gathered to find out more about the topic.
  • Suggest grade-level appropriate background information and provide links when possible for your teams as you learn more about their research interests. Accessible and scientifically accurate research materials are scarce resources in secondary schools, particularly middle schools.