Scaffolding NGSS Inquiry: Investigating The Body As A System (MS-LS1-3)

The Next Generation Science Standards are all about discovery-centered instruction. (I may have made up that term, but it’s how I think about the NGSS). In discovery-centered instruction, students engage in activities that help them “figure out” the big content ideas themselves.  For it to truly align with the NGSS, this “figuring out” is typically done by using the Science and Engineering Practices like analyzing and interpreting data or carrying out an investigation.  


(That said, sometimes it’s OK for activities to focus more heavily on the Crosscutting Concepts – like identifying patterns in examples – to discover the Disciplinary Core Ideas. Overall, the three dimensions should be balanced across a unit but will not necessarily be balanced within a SINGLE activity.)


The inquiry is one aspect of NGSS-aligned, discovery-centered instruction.  Inquiry-based instruction, at least as defined by Edutopia, isn’t always the same as discovery-centered instruction, though. Inquiry-based instruction involves students asking questions and doing something to find out the answer.  Here is where the disconnect can happen. If students are simply watching a video or reading a text to find out the answer, they aren’t DISCOVERING the ideas they are just Googling. They aren’t “puzzling them out” they are being told the facts.  That is why I avoid the term “inquiry” and instead focus on “discovery.”  


That said, discovery and inquiry can obviously go hand-in-hand.  When paired with a discovery-approach, inquiry can take students farther providing an opportunity to investigate deeper content of interest to them that is still relevant to the learning goals of the unit. 


Inquiry In Elaborate Tasks

I often use inquiry in my Elaborate tasks ((if you’re not sure what I mean, check out this post on the 5E Model).  Students have already discovered the content I have identified as key to the standard through exploration and meaning-making (the explain phase), and now they have the opportunity to practice and review what was learned while also taking it farther. 


Investigating The Body As A System is a perfect example of this.  In my Body Invaders unit, students have already addressed MS-LS1-1 and MS-LS1-2 on cells. They have also begun work toward MS-LS1-3 on body systems.  They have developed an understanding that cells work together and form tissues, that tissues have specific functions and work together to form organs, and that organs work together to carry out more complex tasks as organ systems. Wooh! That was a lot. 


To fully address the standard, though, students need to understand that organ systems work together, too.  I use the Science and Engineering Practice of Designing and Carrying Out Investigations to address this idea.


Understanding The Science and Engineering Practices

Now, one thing that took me a LONG time to understand this Science and Engineering Practice is that simply doing a lab is NOT the same as Planning and Carrying Out Investigations.  The key difference here is the PLANNING part. The ultimate goal is for students to have some role in the design of the investigation.  They are developing the question or identifying what evidence they should collect or outlining the methods to carry out the investigation.  Students don’t always have to do ALL of those parts, but it is important for students to do more than simply follow a “cookbook recipe lab” with a predefined end result.  


On the other hand, students simply DON’T know how to do all of those things.  To say, “Hey, go design an experiment!” on the first day of school is going to lead to a lot of headaches and frustration – and very likely anger or apathy.  We want to set our students up for success. So while we need to incorporate the idea that “making mistakes is OK and is a part of science” we also need to balance it with “I can support you through this.”


There are a number of ways you can provide this support, such as incorporating group work or providing elements of the investigation plan while asking students to identify others, I like modeling the skill and then releasing students to try it on their own. Investigating The Body As A System uses this approach. 

In this activity, students first carry out an investigation that is largely designed for them.  In fact, I wouldn’t really characterize this as a true Planning and Carrying Out Investigations practice at the middle school level.  In this first activity, the real Science and Engineering Practice comes in through the analysis of the data collected.  


Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

The next activity is where you can see NGSS-aligned incorporation of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations.  In the second activity, students read a short text to provide some background information and review of the circulatory and respiratory systems.  Then, they actually PLAN an investigation. A target is provided their job is to investigate the relationship between the fitness of the respiratory and circulatory systems and activity/physical factors.  But they are asked to craft their question, determine how they will carry out their investigation, identify the evidence they will collect, and then actually carry it out.  While this may not be completely “free” inquiry – a no strings attached kind of thing – it does give students a LOT of rein to run with. 


That said, this activity could easily be modified by working as a class to identify a question, choose variables, and discuss how to carry out the investigation.  If your students need more support, give it to them! 


As we transition to the NGSS, our students are being asked to do much more in their science classes than they have been expected to do in the past. We need to recognize that and when necessary, give them the hand-holding they need.  As they become more confident in their OWN abilities, you will absolutely see them need YOU less!