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4.3: Scientific Inquiry

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    Course Competency 4. Examine strategies that teach early science skills.

    Criteria: 4.3. incorporate the scientific method into learning experiences.

    Organization of Science Learning

    Preschool learning foundations for science can be organized into four broad categories or strands.

    • Scientific Inquiry (Process--How to "do" science)
    • Physical Sciences (Content--What children learn)
    • Life Sciences (Content--What children learn)
    • Earth Sciences[1](Content--What children learn)

    The four categories above are divided into process standards and content standards. Process standards refer to how to think about science or "do" science while content standards refer to the science content or the things children will learn. Some states, such as Wisconsin, incorporate only process standards or scientific inquiry into their early learning standards and only focus on scientific inquiry. Other states, such as California organize their early learning standards into the 4 categories and incorporate both process and content standards. In Section 4.3 we will explore the process standard of scientific inquiry. You will learn more about the content standards in Section 4.5

    Supporting Scientific Inquiry

    Young children’s experience of science is an interplay between content knowledge (what children learn about) and inquiry skills (the skills and processes they apply to explore and develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas). Children build knowledge and understanding of concepts through active participation in the process of scientific inquiry. Like scientists, children have a natural desire to inquire, but they need guidance in developing the skills of scientific inquiry.

    • Observation and investigation skills involve ways to observe, compare, measure, classify, predict, and to check and investigate objects and events.
    • Documentation and communication skills are employed to record information and to communicate findings and explanations with others.

    Skills of scientific inquiry provide children with the tools for investigating and learning about science topics. Such experiences build habits of questioning, critical thinking, innovative problem solving, communication, collaboration, and decision making.

    Scientific inquiry skills are integral to children’s ongoing play and explorations and are not taught in isolation. Children develop their abilities to make observations, ask questions, and gather information, as part of meaningful exploration and investigation experiences. Teachers can establish an environment with a culture of inquiry and facilitate children’s use of scientific skills and language through everyday explorations and planned experiences of scientific inquiry.

    The table below shows the developmental progression of observation and investigation skills.


    Figure 4.2: Image by Ian Joslin is licensed by CC-BY-4.0

    Scientific Inquiry in WMELS

    The Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards have 4 standards for scientific inquiry.

    C. EL.1 Uses observation to gather information.

    C. EL. 2 Uses tools to gather information, compare observed objects, and seek answers to questions through active investigation.

    C. EL. 3 Hypothesizes and makes predictions.

    C. EL. 4 Forms explanations based on trial and error, observations, and explorations.

    See the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards to view the progression of scientific inquiry skills from the earliest developing skills to later developing skills. WMELS doesn't assign an age range as all children develop at different times and rates. You may find the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards for Scientific Thinking on page 96 of the WMELS publication. There you will see the Developmental Continuum which is a sequence of accomplishments in the order in which they emerge. There will also be Sample Behaviors of children which will provide examples of what children might do if they are developing or learning the skill in the developmental continuum. The Sample Strategies for Adults will show examples of what adults might do to help children develop the skill in the developmental continuum.

    Other states have chosen to connect age ranges to their standards. The examples below are taken from the California Preschool Curriculum Framework and show how scientific inquiry skills develop and change from 48 months to 60 months of age. The information from California is included as a reference to see when these skills might occur. Please keep in mind that all children develop at their own rate and time.

    At around 48 months of age

    At around 60 months of age

    1.1 Demonstrate curiosity and raise simple questions about objects and events in their environment.

    1.1 Demonstrate curiosity and an increased ability to raise questions about objects and events in their environment.

    1.2 Observe1 objects and events in the environment and describe them.

    1.2 Observe objects and events in the environment and describe them in greater detail.

    1.3 Begin to identify and use, with adult support, some observation and measurement tools.

    1.3 Identify and use a greater variety of observation and measurement tools. May spontaneously use an appropriate tool, though may still need adult support.

    1.4 Compare and contrast objects and events and begin to describe similarities and differences.

    1.4 Compare and contrast objects and events and describe similarities and differences in greater detail.

    1.5 Make predictions and check them, with adult support, through concrete experiences.

    1.5 Demonstrate an increased ability to make predictions and check them (e.g., may make more complex predictions, offer ways to test predictions, and discuss why predictions were correct or incorrect.

    1.6 Make inferences and form generalizations based on evidence.

    1.6 Demonstrate an increased ability to make inferences and form generalizations based on evidence.


    [1] The California Preschool Curriculum Framework, Volume 3 by the California Department of Education is used with permission

    4.3: Scientific Inquiry is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vicki Tanck (Northeast Wisconsin Technical College).