Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup


Workshop 2

Building Investigations from Questions

About the Workshop

In a student-centered classroom, students are expected to answer questions by designing their own investigations. The questions may be suggested by the teacher, or they may be determined by the students. Once there is a focus for an investigation, how should students proceed? And, as students investigate, how can they learn some general strategies for answering math and science questions? In this workshop, we'll explore some ways students build understandings of how to "do" math and science.

The Great Bean Bag Adventure

In this workshop, we demonstrate the use of bean baggies—the basic design for the six experiments. We invite you to use our design, or to come up with your own method for sprouting the seeds. We also encourage you to choose the variables which interest you, and design your own experiments based on these variables.

Getting Ready (15 min. each)

  1. Working in groups of three or four, share the results of your "teacher-on-the-street" interviews. As you do so, compile a list of the teaching metaphors your group collected. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each metaphor. Take some time to think about each metaphor with regard to the workshop topic--does the metaphor work in situations where students are designing their own investigations? You may wish to consider metaphors not on your list.
  2. Not all investigations are created equal. Some lend themselves to highly productive work, both in terms of finding answers and learning about the process along the way. Others are not as productive. This seems to be, in part, a function of the nature of the questions being asked. What are the characteristics of a "good question" in science, or a "good problem" in math? Discuss.

Site Conversation 1 (5 min.)

In the Wheel Problem videoclip, Kristen's students came up with a variety of solutions to the problem, and used a variety of different materials and methods to illustrate their solutions. What are some strategies you have used after an open-ended activity such as this one to give students an opportunity to share their methods and their results, and to learn from the solutions of others? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of these strategies?

Site Conversation 2 (5 min.)

When students formulate their own questions and design investigations to answer these questions, they are involved in a scientific process. How can you (without being too directive) help students infer some general "strategies of process" and "habits of mind" from a specific hands-on math or science investigation, strategies that students can use to answer other questions in math and science?

Going Further (15 min. each)

  1. In the Wheel Problem clip, students worked on a problem posed by the teacher. In the Decomposition clip, the students came up with their own questions and investigations. What are some of the advantages of teacher- versus student-directed investigations? What are the challenges each method poses? How might you address these challenges? Discuss.
  2. Last week, you were asked to decide how your site will be participating in The Great Bean Bag Adventure. Now, on your own or in your groups (depending on how you've chosen to proceed), discuss how you will set up the experiment and what materials you will need. Will you use baggies, as Becky and Heather do, or will you use some other method? Divvy up responsibility for obtaining the materials.

Homework for Workshop 3

Select a math or science activity to use in your class in the upcoming week. Using a tape recorder, record yourself administering the activity. (We suggest wearing a fanny pack or carpenter apron allowing you to move around the classroom.) Later, listen to the recording and focus on the questions you asked. Select a 5-minute segment from the beginning, middle, and end of the activity and make a list of the questions you asked during each segment. Bring your list of questions with you to Workshop 3.



Classroom Landfill

Suggested Grade Level: K-5

Students set up a small classroom landfill to observe how different materials decompose over time.


What You Need

Large cardboard box
Plastic garbage bag
Soil (not sterilized potting soil)
Craft sticks
Different types of "trash" paper (e.g., newspaper, notebook paper, paper towel, toilet paper, egg crates)


What To Do

Ask students to think about where trash goes after it is picked up by the garbage truck. Explain that much of our garbage goes to landfills. A landfill is a place where trash is compacted and then covered with dirt. Landfills are made up of alternating layers of trash and dirt.

Use the following directions to help students build their own landfills.

  1. Line a cardboard box with a plastic garbage bag. Fill the box halfway with soil.
  2. Place an equal amount of each type of trash paper in its own spot in the landfill.
  3. Have students write a description of each sample in their science journals.
  4. Cover each piece of trash with a mound of soil and then make a label for each mound using a craft stick.
  5. Place the landfill in a sunny, warm place (e.g., near a window). Keep the soil moist (not wet).
  6. Every two weeks have students dig up the trash samples and examine them.
  7. Each time they dig up the samples, ask them to write a description of each sample in their science journals.

Use questions such as the following to help students' investigations when they check their samples:

  • Are there any paper samples that have changed? How have they changed?
  • Are there any paper samples that have stayed the same?
  • What does this tell you about trash?

Over time, your students will observe that different types of paper decompose at different rates, and landfills under certain conditions allow paper to decompose faster.


What Next

Students can observe what happens to the same type of trash when it is left in other conditions, such as different types of soil (e.g., sand, clay, gravel) or even water. To see what happens to trash when it is placed in water, repeat the directions listed above, but place the trash in pans of water rather in the classroom landfills made with soil.

Adapted from Bosak, Susan V. 1991, Science Is . . . Ontario, Canada: Scholastic Canada Ltd.

One Connection to the Standards

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives, Content Standard F:

As a result of activities in grades K-4, all students should develop understanding of

  • Personal health
  • Characteristics and changes in populations
  • Types of resources
  • Changes in environments
  • Science and technology in local challenges.

"Students in elementary school should have a variety of experiences that provide initial understandings for various science-related personal and societal challenges."

National Research Council, (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. (pg. 138)


Series Overview
Workshop Synopses
About the Contributors
Workshop Components
More Workshop Components
Helpful Hints for Successful Site Investigations
The Great Bean Bag Adventure
Invitation to Interact
Featured Teachers:
–  Classroom Clips
–  Conversations
Workshop 1
Workshop 2
Workshop 3
Workshop 4
Workshop 5
Workshop 6
Workshop 7
Workshop 8
Suggested Teaching Resources


Workshop Materials Home | Next Move Home


© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy