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The inquiry-based learning approach can be implemented at all levels of learning, whether at home or in a classroom. It is easily adapted for any age group and for any type of learner. After exploring different IBL activities, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most creative and effective.
What follows are 5 solid inquiry-based learning examples of activities students will enjoy exploring and learning with. As mentioned before, these are activities that are scalable to different year levels, and even have cross-curricular applications.
As you explore these activities, we encourage you to continue to observe them through the lens of the Wabisabi Inquiry Cycle. It’s the simplest most effective method for teaching with the inquiry-based learning approach. You can learn more about it from this complete breakdown of the process, and also a handy infographic for quick reference.
5 Inquiry-Based Learning Examples Students Will Love
1. Pollution Solutions
This IBL activity provides students with information and statistics regarding global pollution issues. Students review the information then create a unique approach to managing or eliminating a certain type of pollution. This activity is great because it can be adapted to meet the needs of many different grades and can even be used in a college setting.
After reviewing the general pollution information you provide, have your students research the different types of pollution (air, water, soil, etc.). Have your students select one of these types and create a new and plausible approach to improve or eliminate them. For example, students should avoid suggestions such as the complete cessation of plastic production because it is not truly attainable at this time. Instead, encourage them to find ways to deal appropriately with the plastic waste we do have.
You can add another level to this activity by also having your students explore the costs associated with their ideas. They will need to find a balance of effectiveness and affordability to create a plausible pollution solution.
2. The Boat Float
The difficulty of this activity can be modified depending on the grade level. Provide students with basic information regarding the physics of floatation and buoyancy. Have them explore how boats the size of luxury cruise liners and container ships can stay afloat even with the extra weight. Then have students use their knowledge to create a boat that can remain afloat in a plastic tub of water.
They should experiment with different types of materials and designs while following the scientific concepts they’ve learned. Once students have found a way to keep their boat afloat, have them add items such as paperclips or thumbtacks to see if the weight causes their boat to sink. They can also simulate storms and ocean waves by causing disruptions to the water in the tank. Do their ships still stay afloat?
Have them observe how the boats that successfully remain afloat also follow the requirements for buoyancy and how this allows shipbuilders to create boats of all sizes that will stay afloat in many different conditions.
3. Flower Factors
There are a variety of factors that promote plant growth. When these are altered or absent, growth will slow or stop. This activity will allow students to investigate which factors are essential for plant growth and in what amounts.
Begin by providing basic information regarding photosynthesis (carbon dioxide, sunlight, water, oxygen and glucose) and what inorganic elements are required for it to take place. Also give your class information on how soil nutrient levels, shade, and the presence of other vegetation can play a role in plant growth.
Split your class into small groups (3-4 students each) and give them seeds for their experiment (vegetable and flower seeds often work the best because soil conditions affect how they grow). Then have your students use their knowledge to create the perfect growing conditions for their plant or flower. You should provide a variety of different containers, soil types, and lighting conditions so they can try combinations they think will work best.
For older classes, this should be turned into an activity where each group plans a controlled experiment that tests what effect each different factor has on a plant when those factors are manipulated.
4. Decomposition Demonstrations
Most students understand that when you leave food out on the counter for a few days, it will begin to get brown, slimy, and yucky. However, most students don’t know what really causes this to happen. This inquiry-based learning activity will give students an opportunity to explore how the decomposition of organic matter is affected by factors such as temperature, humidity, storage, time, and type of food.
For this activity, teach your students the science behind decomposition and how organic matter gets broken down into simpler chemicals and molecules. Then discuss the factors listed above and how they can affect the rate of decomposition. To allow students to explore this for themselves, provide them with a variety of fruits and vegetables (they tend to be less stinky than protein- or dairy-based foods).
Have students experiment with leaving fruit whole, cutting it into pieces, taking the skin off of it, and leaving it in a variety of different conditions. These conditions can include open containers, sitting on the countertop, sealed containers, on the countertop with foil over it, etc. Have students record their observations along with a theory regarding which factors most affect the rate of decomposition and why.
5. Bird Feeder Leaders
This inquiry-based learning activity is both fun and interesting and can be adapted depending on the grade level. Provide your students with a variety of different bird feeds and have them place each one in a different bird feeder or container. If possible, place all of the bird feeders in the same general location with the same accessibility for the birds.
Make sure your students record which type of feed is placed in each container. Then have your students monitor each feeder to see if they attract the same species of bird or if each feeder draws a different species. Is there one type of feed that attracts more birds? Is there one type that attracts very few birds? What ingredients are present in the feed that attracts the most birds? Have your students use this information to create a list of bird feeder leaders when it comes to which ones the birds like best.
You can also do a variation of this activity where the same type of feed is used in each feeder, but the feeders are placed in different locations. Locations can include different heights and branches within the same tree or different places around the school grounds. Have students observe the feeders each day to see which ones run out of feed the fastest and are therefore the most accessible to the birds.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Jun 11, 2019, updated September 19, 2021