When it comes to students exploring their own curiosity, I have found that it comes much easier to the younger generations. There’s still a lot that they do not know about the world, and they still believe that they don’t know much and find that incredibly exciting. As students get older, it is generally harder for them to find questions that they find worth truly investigating. Most of what they don’t know they think they can google, or they aren’t sure what they don’t know, or they just don’t care enough to pursue it.
The one thing that all ages tend to need help with is how to investigate their own questions. This is where scaffolding comes in. Instructors might start students off with a “cookie-cutter” lab—a lab where everything is given to them, and the only part students need to do is follow the instructions. This gives them an idea of what goes into an investigation, what components their thoughts and actions need to be broken down to. As the year progresses, the teacher can remove more and more of the training wheels, until finally students have to design their own questions and procedure. Having students investigate their own question is usually the last step.
Creating investigable questions is often the last step in fully releasing a student into the world of inquiry because everything else follows it and because it can be difficult. Students need to learn how to separate “google questions” from testable questions. Questions that start with “why” are usually too vague to start an investigation. Example: “why do giraffes have long necks?” “Why” questions need to be transformed into questions that have clear variables that are going to be tested. The question could be transformed into: “Is there evidence that giraffes use their long necks for fighting?”. That’s more testable. Even more testable, would be an “if, then” statement. If this happens or is true, then will this happen?
If students have trouble coming up with any questions at all, it may be helpful to have a brain dump session. Have them list as many questions as they can in a short period of time, without thinking about whether they are “good” or “bad”. I’ve found that giving them a phenomenon, a place, or model to focus on helps. I’ve even done it just where we walk around the outside of the school and think of questions we have about what we see. It doesn’t have to be spectacular to generate questions, but it should be something that students have some interest in.
It also helps when students know what they have to work with because this can help give them ideas. Make sure it is clear what supplies they have or can get, and where they can go. I greatly enjoy ecology because very little equipment/supplies are necessary to start an investigation. You just need a decent place.
Finally, and most importantly, it should be emphasized that this is what scientists do. They seek out the answers to their own questions. Too often, people do not really understand what it is that scientists do. The idea that their work is just them trying to answer their questions about the world around them is a very approachable angle to enter the world of science.