Dr. Richard E. Shope III, Director

World Space Foundation, Education Division




            It is widely known that the so-called  scientific method” does not tell the whole inquiry story (McComas, 1998).  Many classrooms and science fairs still send the message that there is a single step-by-step way to do science as inquiry. In reality, scientific inquiry is a collection of ever-evolving practices of doing science that has grown over many centuries. For expert scientists it is a matter of selecting from a repertoire of inquiry strategies based on the phase of research they are involved in. For science learners and, alas, often for science teachers, scientific inquiry can seem mysterious and complicated. They wonder: “Where do we begin?”  “What do we do next?”  “How do we test out our ideas?” “How do we know when we are really doing science?” Building upon Rebecca Reiff’s (2002) study describing how scientists really think about and do science, the Scientific Inquiry Wheel Game brings research results into the theatre of the science learning environment. Teachers who play the Scientific Inquiry Wheel Game experience a new approach to help students build conceptual understanding about science as inquiry (NRC, 1996). Students gain a practical understanding of the repertoire of inquiry strategies that scientists really use.



            “The notion that a common series of steps is followed by all research scientists must be among the most pervasive myths of science” (McComas, 1998, p. 57). Glance at the opening chapters of many precollege science books and you will likely find a list that, with minor variations, includes steps such as: a) define the problem; b) gather information; c) form a hypothesis; d) make observations; e) test the hypothesis; f) draw conclusions; and g) report results. Walk into a typical K-12 classroom where science is taught and somewhere on the wall will be a poster that displays the five to seven steps of “The Scientific Method.” Google the phrase “the scientific method” and you will find entry after entry that conveys the impression that science is a universally linear and methodical procedure. Many teachers would be shocked to hear that scientists don’t really work that way.  In reality, research shows that “scientists approach and solve problems with imagination, creativity, prior knowledge, and perseverance” (McComas, 1998, p. 58).  A more accurate view is to discuss various methods of science.

One of the compelling discussions of how scientists really do science resulted from interviewing 52 science faculty members who described how they practiced science (Reiff, 2002). Rebecca Reiff displayed her results as a dynamic inquiry wheel, a theoretical construct that emerged from a grounded theory-based research project examining scientists’ conceptions of scientific inquiry.  Because of the strong research basis, the inquiry wheel provides a more sophisticated and more authentic model of the process of scientific inquiry.  While textbooks typically provide a set of five or six steps as the scientific method with little or no indication of any opportunity to return to earlier steps, the inquiry wheel allows unlimited opportunities to go back and forth among several iterative stages as often as necessary. 


Figure 1. Rebecca Reiff’s proposed method of inquiry













Teaching science as inquiry aims at having students emulate what scientists do: to develop the abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and understandings about scientific inquiry. The National Science Education Standards advocate looking at science as inquiry (NRC, 1996, p. 23):

Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.


Specifically, this refers to the diverse ways that: a) scientists do science; b) students learn about science; c) students learn about doing science; and d) students do science. Reiff’s inquiry wheel displays a spectrum of methods that expert scientists draw from, seemingly intuitively. One implication is that both teachers and students need effective ways to understand the real world of scientific inquiry, even as the myth of the scientific method remain ubiquitous. The elements of the conventionally understood as the scientific method can be found within the inquiry wheel, but presented in the broader and more diverse context of what it really means to do science as inquiry. So, in effect, this does not discount the information communicated by the conventional myth, but extends and enhances understanding toward a more advanced and accurate view of how scientists actually work and to practice science as inquiry.

For novice learners and teachers who do not practice science regularly, the meaning of each strategy and the basis of a decision to select one at a given moment, are opaque to understanding. In an effort to communicate this more accurate view of the creative synthesis involved in selecting and applying scientific methods, plural, we have built upon Reiff’s study to devise an experiential Scientific Inquiry Wheel Game. Keeping the research-base of Reiff’s work intact, the scientific inquiry wheel game expands the stepwise description into a vibrant spectrum of scientific inquiry strategies that expert scientists draw upon, arranged on a game spinner. The graphic is designed to guide both teachers and students toward a more dynamic view of scientific inquiry. The act of playing the inquiry wheel game can provide a robust organizing structure that carries over into other aspects of science instruction, especially in the context of exploratory encounters with science phenomena.

Scientific inquiry begins with the creative act of generating questions, for which we have no satisfying answer, about a natural phenomenon that piques our curiosity. Thus, at the center of the inquiry wheel is the phrase generate questions. Generally speaking, a cycle of inquiry tends to move from activating curiosity, to creating a great question, to conducting an investigation, and then telling the world about significant results. But inquiry does not necessarily move step by step by step in order. Scientists select what seems to make most sense in the midst of their work. They often backtrack and jump around. Often, the unexpected causes scientists to select a different strategy.

Object of the Game: To create new understandings about the nature of scientific inquiry.

Science Leader Tasks:

·  Create several Exploratory Zones, where students have an opportunity to explore an interesting phenomenon, along with science notebook materials for students to record Questions, Explanations, Observations, Results…et cetera.

·  If spinners are already made, assign a spinner to each student.

·  Modify rules as needed to optimize learning for the students.

·  When about twenty minutes are left, call the Science Plenary Session to order.

Student Tasks:

·  Form several active inquiry teams of 2, 3, 4, or 5.

·  If spinners are not already made, make spinners, assembling the arrow and graphic with a small paper clip and cellophane tape.

·  As a team, select and group around an Exploratory Zone-- with pencils in hand.

Playing the Game:

·  Generate Questions: for the first few minutes, ask as many interesting questions about the phenomenon in the exploratory zone, and write them down.

·  Agree on a Quest: as a group, select which of the generated questions hold the most interest and play the game with those selected questions in mind.

·  Spin the Spinner:  in turn, each player spins the spinner. Once the arrow points to an inquiry method (if it lands in between, pick either one), lead a brief discussion to agree on what it means, and then DO or plan what you COULD DO based on what it means in relation to one of the selected questions. 

·  Keep Track of Each Move: each player keeps a science notebook record of each move, in order to be ready to describe the moves to the whole group.

·  Tell the World: when the Science Leader calls the Science Plenary Session to order, stop play, take a few minutes to prepare a sharing of what happened, and then share the scientific inquiry adventure with the whole group.


            So spin the spinner and let the scientific inquiry wheel guide your quest! When students and teachers play the scientific inquiry wheel game, they construct new knowledge and conceptual understanding about doing science, modeling the process of conceptual change as a selectional system of scientific inquiry.



Figure 1. The Scientific Inquiry Wheel Game Spinner

Figure 2. Scientific Inquiry Wheel Game Glossary

Scientific Inquiry Wheel Strategy

What does it mean in your own words?

What does it look like?

Experience Wonder

& Express Curiosity





& Explore




Select a Focus of Interest or Define an Interesting Problem



Form a

Researchable Question



Investigate the Known



Create Several

Alternative Explanations



Propose a Testable 




Design an Investigation




Carry Out the




Interpret the Results




Reflect on the Implications




Communicate Significant Results




Figure 3. Keeping Track of Scientific Inquiry Wheel Game Moves

Scientific Inquiry

Wheel Move

What does the phrase mean in your own words?

What did you 

decide to do or plan to do?
















Figure 4. Scientific Inquiry Wheel Diagnostic Assessment Guide

Scientific Inquiry Diagnostic Assessment Guide

Inquiry Strategy

Guiding Question:

What evidence exists to show that learners:

Generate Questions


Ask personally meaningful questions related to the science phenomenon?


Act on Your Curiosity

Experience Wonder

& Express Curiosity


Express their own sense of curiosity about the science phenomenon?


Observe & Explore



Experience the topic in multisensory ways to form their own impressions and record meaningful data?


Select of Focus of Interest or Define an Interesting Problem



Identify and articulate a problem to solve or purpose inquire related to the science phenomenon?


Create a Great Question

Form a




Formulate a set of testable questions and explicit measurement parameters?



the Known  

Search out ways to find out what others already know about the topic?


Create Several Alternative Explanations

Propose multiple explanations? Examine assumptions and remain openminded?


Conduct an Investigation

Propose a Testable Explanation

Propose a way to test the viability of an alternative explanation?


Design the Investigation

Design a way to validate or eliminate proposed explanations?


Carry Out the


Carry out an investigation individually or with a collaborative team?


Tell the World

Interpret the Results


Interpret meaning of measurements taken and margins of error?


Reflect on the Implications



Reflect on the meaning of the inquiry in a broader context?



Significant Results

Discuss ideas with and communicate findings to various audiences?





McComas, W.F. (1998). The principal elements of the nature of science: Dispelling the myths. In McComas, W. F. (Ed.) The nature of science in science education: Rationales and strategies. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.


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


Reiff, R. (2002). Scientists’ conceptions of scientific inquiry: Voices from the front. Paper presented at the 2002 National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST), New Orleans, Louisiana.