Dyan Branstetter | May 2019

What Does Effective Inquiry Look Like?

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach a STEAM lesson on sustainable energy and wave power to a 6th-grade science class. The students were used to traditional science instruction so it was interesting to see how their reactions to the inquiry-based nature of not getting answers. When they asked questions, I responded with more probing questions.

Some of the students seemed to enjoy the chance to wonder, experiment, and explore. However, some found this strategy to be very frustrating at first because they couldn’t quickly identify a “right” answer. As the lesson progressed, these students warmed up to the idea that I was not critiquing them or even looking for the right answers. As a result, they started to become learners.

If we want students to understand content in a deep way, inquiry-based instruction is one of the most powerful and effective strategies for learning. Inquiry can drive any subject area. After all, it is the foundation of STEAM.

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Instant Strategies to Add Inquiry

Additionally, there are many quick strategies for adding more inquiry to your classroom. If you’re just starting out, you may want to consider incorporating a wonder wall to get your feet wet. This resource from Edutopia has four great strategies for adding inquiry to any lesson. Another quick way to increase the level of inquiry is to frame any type of research with questions. Reading Rockets has a great printable inquiry chart for students to use when reading, and Discovery School Education has another version of this chart for students to use when exploring any kind of media.

What Does Inquiry Look Like Within a STEAM unit?

Combining STEAM with Project-Based Learning creates a powerhouse for deeper understanding, which means retention and mastery for more students. In addition, this type of research-based, inquiry learning helps students meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) goals and processes. The 6th grade STEAM unit that I taught on Wave Power was an example of this. So let’s break it down and take a look at the components that made it successful.

Summary of the Wave Power unit:

During this unit, students will be exploring the advantages and disadvantages of using wave energy. After their research, they will use the engineering design process to design a prototype  to convert wave power into electricity.

One of the reasons why wave energy has not taken off is due to aesthetics. Tourism could be affected if beaches, known for their beauty, have large and unsightly energy harnessing machines. As part of the creation step in this unit, students would need to factor this into their design. Instead of simply creating a prototype to harness wave energy, they would need to create it in a way that is visually or acoustically appealing so that it can double as an art installation. After iterations based on feedback and collaboration, and if possible a virtual Q&A with a wave engineer, students will present their models through a video explanation or a blog post with pictures and explanations.

Pillars of STEAM

According to the Carnegie Science Museum’s Carnegie STEM Excellence Pathway®, every exemplary STEM project should include the Four Pillars of STEM. I have changed this to the Five Pillars of STEAM, based on EducationCloset’s definition of this approach. Notice that they include Inquiry-Based Education.

Here, you’ll find a description of each of the pillars. You will also find an explanation of how this STEAM project incorporates all of them.

Pillar 1

  • Inquiry-Based Education: Integrating the most effective, research-based teaching strategies that use curiosity and inquiry as guiding principles.
    • How can we involve Inquiry-Based Learning with the Harnessing the Waves Project?
      • Inquiry is built into the research phase and further involved during the creation process. The initial task is designed to garner curiosity. Students discover what they need to know and seek to explore it through research or through mini-lessons based on need. Additionally, the unit is framed with the Engineering Design Process, which structures the inquiry process to help students reach success.

Pillar 2

  • Integrated Curriculum: presenting curriculum across content areas in an integrated fashion. The real world is not siloed by subject content. Education should not be either.
    • How the Harnessing the Waves Project Integrated Curriculum?
      • Subject areas are naturally integrated and blend into one project. Students have foundational science skills from units on Energy & Matter, Waves, Electricity, and Magnetism, and connects to the concept of kinetic and potential energy from the Motion and Forces. Art standards are woven into the task, as students must draw upon their knowledge of the elements of art and creation of kinetic art. Likewise, technology and engineering are embedded in the task. The math needed to measure waves and wave energy is beyond 6th grade, however, students will use math practices while justifying choices, critiquing others, and drawing scaled models for their project. Incorporating measurement and a budget for materials will add more to the math component.

Pillar 3

  • Project-Based Group Learning: engaging students in solving real-world problems, which encourage them to use skills critical for 21st-century success, such as teamwork, communication, creativity, innovation, problem-solving, and critical thinking.
    • How can involve Project-Based Learning with the Harnessing the Waves Project?
      • Learning happens through the project, not after it. Students work in collaborative groups, and groups will also collaboration across the classroom. The project is based on a real-world problem and has a public audience. Additionally, the process will be assessed.

Pillar 4

  • Career Awareness: exposing students to an array of STEM-related jobs through interaction with STEM professionals. Students learn how concepts and essential STEM competencies apply to the work environment.
    • How is Career Awareness involved with the Harnessing the Waves Project?
      • STEAM is indeed a natural place to give students authentic career exploration. A number of research resources involve videos of real engineers and artists explaining how they are working to solve the challenge of harnessing wave energy. Teachers could virtually connect with a wave engineer so that students could ask questions of one of the experts or get feedback in order to iterate. In addition, Land Art Generators has an open-call competition for artwork that can capture energy from nature, cleanly convert it into electricity, and transform and transmit the electrical power to a grid connection point to be supplied by the city. This could also be incorporated as part of the project.

Pillar 5

  • Integrity of the Arts: Utilizing and leveraging the integrity of the arts and naturally fitting arts standards are essential.
    • How are the arts integrated with integrity through the Harnessing the Waves Project?
      • This project is so much more than just making something look “pretty”. Instead, students will research and explore how art installations could collect power. Students will analyze kinetic art and structures that have already been created and use their knowledge to design something new.

In addition to, or as an alternative to these Pillars of STEAM, EducationCloset has created a wonderful STEAM “Look For’s” Printable, available to Accelerator members. You will notice a significant overlap of the Pillars and these “Look Fors”.

What Does Inquiry Look Like?

In the Harnessing the Waves unit, the inquiry is embedded throughout the lessons. However, it is very heavy in the first few lessons. While following the Engineering Design Process, the first step is “Ask”. I presented the students with the challenge, and I didn’t give them any information. Instead, I asked them to brainstorm a list of questions they needed to find in order to complete the project.

The reoccurring questions from students ranged from “how do you get power from waves?” to “how does it even work?” Some found themselves wondering “How can I turn it into art?”

Then, students grouped together to share their questions and develop even more. This resulted in deeper questions like…

  • How can art be permanent in salt water?
  • Will the art create the energy or will the waves create the energy with the art being a decorative part?  

To be sure, these questions powered student research. I provided two Padlets filled with resources to help students find their answers. The first had the basics of Wave Power with text and video examples. (Find this Padlet here.) The second Padlet was filled with resources related to Art Powered by (or creating) Sustainable Energy/Kinetic Sculptures.

Wow! – They tore into these resources! Despite their original frustrations, they were devouring everything they could find to discover how we could collect power from waves. Can you guess what students found especially captivating? The diverse works of art that have already been created, powered by air, sun, or water. After this initial research, they were ready to refine their questions and, of course, move on to the Imagine step of the Engineering Design Process.

Why Inquiry is Essential

As a result of the inquiry at the beginning of this STEAM challenge, this unit would not be nearly as engaging or as effective. It is important to realize that the students were guiding their own research based on their curiosity. The entire project was based on integrated standards. In fact, far more standards than could be addressed through a traditional lesson. This is the type of learning students need to be future-ready and I can’t wait to see what they create.

Would you like this unit?

Find the original STEM unit here.

Find my STEM to STEAM version of it here.


Inquiry resources:

Inquiry Chart for any type of media

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.