Planting Science - Teacher Roadmap - Explore
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Teacher Roadmap - 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 meaningful, tangible experiences with the phenomena. Students need time to:

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

The biologically meaningful and interesting research questions seem obvious to seasoned researchers and teachers. 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."

Novice learners face difficulties in organizing information into meaningful patterns, whereas expert learners can retrieve and apply knowledge to new situations with relative ease. Novices often don't see or notice features or relationships that experts do. They can't –not until a context exists and connections between understandings can be built. Initial experiences and the investigation(s) that follow are part of the fabric weaving together a foundation of factual and experiential knowledge.

This initial experience sets the stage for what follows in the inquiry. As you plan how to layer experiences and sequence activities, include in the exploration phase opportunities for your students 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.


This mucking-around time offers students time to get to know the organism and the components of the system in order to begin to form mental models about how things work. A rich experience with phenomena outside of the success or failure stress students often feel opens the door to students posing questions that are authentic to them. The questions that students generate and brainstorm together are starting points of prior knowledge, experiences, and preconceptions to build on during the inquiry project.

Because plants and animals differ in some striking ways and students tend to see the world from their personal view, explicitly discuss with students what variables and conditions are in a plant's environment.

Having students diagram or describe their initial mental model of the research topic provides a concrete example of students thinking that will be immensely valuable to you, the student, and their mentor.

See also the Explore - Getting Started Resources for Students and Mentors.

Explore Resources and References

Understanding Science

BSCS 5E Instructional Model

Cothron, J.H., R.N. Giese, and R.J. Rezba. 2000. Students and research: Practical strategies for science classrooms and competitions. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Michaels et al. 2007. Ready, Set, Science: Putting research to work in K-8 science classrooms. Washington, D.C., National Academies Press.

Schneider, B., J. Wallace, P. Blikstein, and R. Pea. 2013. Preparing for future learning with a tangible user interface: The case of neuroscience. IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies 6(2): 117-129.


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NSF_Logo.jpg This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #2010556 and #1502892. 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.

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