STEM Lesson Planning

Alissa Lange - Laura Robertson - Jamie Price and Annie Craven

Inquiry is related to what the Framework and the NGSS now call “practices.” We can think of practices as “unpacking” inquiry. The practices are an attempt to more specifically identify the activities that scientists and engineers actually engage in, like asking questions, or creating and testing prototypes. We use inquiry to refer to the ways in which we want children to engage with content – even outside of STEM – to construct their own meaning about the world (see Constructivism below). Here is one definition of inquiry as it relates to science teaching from the Exploratorium (see more here):

“Good science education requires both learning scientific concepts and developing scientific thinking skills. Inquiry is an approach to learning that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world, and that leads to asking questions, making discoveries, and testing those discoveries in the search for new understanding. Inquiry, as it relates to science education, should mirror as closely as possible the enterprise of doing real science.”

Teachers need to have at least a grade-level knowledge of the phenomena kids are investigating, the concepts they are trying to teach, and how the two connect to facilitate inquiry effectively. Teachers should also be immersed in their own facilitated inquiry as a prerequisite to being able to teach in this way. Regarding inquiry when teaching STEM, Banchi and Bell (2008) describe four levels of inquiry, ranging from the most teacher-directed, in which the teacher has total control over the questions, methods, and outcomes of the experience, to the least teacher-directed, in which the students have control over all of these aspects of an activity. Often, we want our learners to have hands-on, minds-on opportunities with materials, so that they are manipulating them, and coming to conclusions on their own.

“Hands-on science has not always been minds-on science. The opportunity to ask questions, manipulate materials, and conduct investigations—a major emphasis of inquiry-based science—has not always resulted in deeper conceptual learning. That is because the learning is not in the materials or investigations themselves, but in the sense children make out of their experiences as they use the materials to perform investigations, make observations, and construct explanations.” (Keely, 2013, p. 27)

Our approach is that there is room for all of these types of inquiry to different extents, in different early and elementary school classroom contexts. One is not necessarily better than the other. As a teacher, you will need to decide which approach is best for a lesson by considering the content being covered, the abilities of your students, and their prior knowledge. Sometimes, it is valuable to start with a more open exploration (e.g., students explore light by playing with flashlights, mirrors, and other materials) and move to a more focused investigation (e.g., students are challenged to use materials to reflect light on a specific target). At other times, the level of inquiry might move from more teacher-directed to more open. For example, a teacher might provide a specific question for students to address and then allow students to generate their own questions for the next round of testing. However, in science teaching, we do want to make sure that students have some input over their science experiences, regardless of the level of inquiry being used. This is in line with current thinking in science teaching. But it may also feel like a very different approach that you have been learning in your other courses.

Inquiry-based teaching is often challenging for many in-service and pre-service teachers. Therefore, we want to make sure readers get a chance to think about what these types of learning experiences look like, and the inherent challenges in them (e.g., potential stress as a teacher that you do not know the outcome of an experiment that students design). Barriers to facilitating these types of learning experiences may include the following: 1) fear of a mess, 2) concern that the teacher may not know the answer to unplanned student questions, 3) lack of resources or feasibility of testing a student question, 4) worries about time considering on demands or requirements, and 5) lack of control. Other barriers can be teachers’ own misunderstanding of the nature of science—viewing science as a static body of knowledge (in which answers are always right or wrong) vs. as a continuous process of collecting data and refining understanding based on new evidence. Many of us do not view science learning on a developmental continuum, like we do with literacy. We would never give a first grader Romeo and Juliet but in science we continually present young kids with information that is beyond them because we don’t ground it in observable phenomena or consider how their developmental levels come into play. By paying attention to children’s levels of development, we can better meet them where they are at.

These barriers are very real, and they may feel debilitating, even when only allowing for minimal inquiry in one’s classroom. If this happens, know that you are not alone. And this approach is different than many early or elementary school teachers or pre-service teachers have experienced or even than they have been taught in other courses.

The approaches we discuss are based on sound research about how kids learn and how science is best taught and learned. Our advice is that you will ultimately need to find your own comfort level, but you have to trust us that going through an experience with young children in which you push yourself to be open to their responses, and to follow their lead (as much as is feasible in your context), will be a great source of professional growth. You will see what it is like, and then you will find your own way. Learning by doing it will, at minimum, give you a chance to see the strengths and limitations of this way of teaching science and integrated STEM, and to find your own path.

The “how” of teaching science in elementary school classrooms

The teachers’ role is critical in supporting students’ science learning, with an emphasis on supporting students’ thinking versus a focus on correct answers. There are many frameworks that have been developed for teachers to help organize students’ inquiry-based/practices-based experiences. Below, we discuss two of them: the 5Es and the CER. There are examples of projects that use the 5Es in Units 5-9.

The 5E Model of Instruction

One of the ways to help in planning more hands-on, interactive science and STEM learning experiences is the 5E lesson-planning model, developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) (Bybee et al., 2006). The 5Es are engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. Science learning experiences should follow each of these Es in order, and should not rush each stage. The approach is a valuable tool for current and future teachers to understand and use when designing science and STEM learning experiences that occur over time. The framework has been evaluated in research studies and the authors have published many articles and resources to support teaching that uses this framework. Some of the articles published in the Science and Children periodical follow this 5Es framework, including some papers that our collaboration team members, researchers, teachers, and pre-service teachers, have published. As noted above, this is not the only way to frame early/elementary science and integrated STEM experiences, but research suggests that it can be effective.

5E Module of Inquiry Based Instruction

Fromt the San Diego County Office of Education- Science Resource Center- 5E Modiel of Instruction

Claims, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) Framework

The claims, evidence, reasoning framework, published by Zembal-Saul and coauthors (2013) is another tool that teachers can use when designing science and STEM experiences for learners. This framework suggests that teachers organize students’ experiences around claims, evidence, and their reasoning. The claim is a summary statement that describes the relationship between the factors or variables that were investigated; it is based on the analysis of the evidence. The evidence is the data that support the claim. An example for grade one might be a claim (light can’t pass through a piece of cardboard); evidence (when I put the cardboard in front of a flashlight I see a dark shadow in the shape on the wall); reasoning (the cardboard blocks the light and makes a shadow).

Students may collect multiple types of data that can be cited as evidence. Math skills and analysis are essential to this step. The reasoning links the claim and evidence to a scientific principle (e.g., light interacts differently with different materials). From our experience, the reasoning is typically the most challenging piece of the CER for students to write (or to orally explain, for younger students); however, it is also very important. It connects the investigative work of the student to the key science learning. Note that the sophistication of students’ claims, evidence, and especially their reasoning is dependent on age/developmental level/ and experience with the phenomenon/concept at hand. In addition, the focus is not on correct claims/evidence/reasoning but on supporting kids to back up their claims with evidence and explain their reasoning. Learners will become more adept at doing this over time and across many experiences. See the figures below for an example of a CER from a fifth-grade investigation of apparent brightness in stars.

There are a variety of ways for teachers to support their students in defining and describing their own CER for scientific phenomenon. These include prompts, target responses, sentence stems, and peer-to-peer interactions. Prompts should be provided for students to guide their thinking and writing about the phenomenon (or big idea) that is being studied. As a teacher, it is important to draft target responses before implementation, so that you are clear on what students should be able to communicate and can best scaffold their work. The strategies below can support learners who need additional support:

  • sentence stems can be provided to help students organize their thinking and writing
  • while thinking through CERs, students benefit from opportunities to discuss their thoughts with peers.
  • one teacher in our collaboration has students draft responses to each section of the CER in small groups on post-it notes. She then shares the work of small groups with the whole class and together they come to a consensus on the final version of content. Each student then records the final version in their science notebook.
  • Zembal-Saul et. al. (2013) include rubrics for assessing CER responses, videos of teachers using the CER framework in elementary classrooms, and other helpful resources


Constructivism is a learning theory focused on allowing the learner to build their knowledge of a subject through their own experiences and often hands-on explorations. The learner may draw upon prior knowledge of a subject and then work to integrate new information that they learned through investigation. This idea is supported by theorists such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget, who believed that young students build their knowledge by experiencing the world around them (Mooney, 2013).

The teacher’s role is especially important in this theory. Teachers must be facilitators of learning, rather than only a source of facts. This means that teachers should ensure that each unique student is being appropriately challenged in their learning while also providing social learning opportunities with peers. Although constructivism as a theory of learning has been around for a while, taking a more dominant role in science education is a shift from what STEM education looked like in the past (or even science and math education separately), as we noted above, when teachers were expected to provide students with information that the students should then memorize.

Teachers can utilize the 5Es framework or similar frameworks to incorporate constructivism in science or integrated STEM education. The frameworks discussed here (and others that are similarly research-based) provide students with ample opportunities to build their knowledge and understanding of scientific phenomena through experience and work with peers, which are core aspects of constructivism. Teachers can also find inspiration in writings about the role of inquiry in science and STEM.

Constructivim as a Referent for Science Teaching

Lorsback, A,.and Tobin, K. (1992) Constructivim as a Referent for Science Teaching, NARST,


Lange, Alissa A.; Robertson, Laura; Price, Jamie; and Craven, Amie. 2021. Teaching Early and Elementary STEM. Johnson City: East Tennessee State University.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License



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Elementary Science Methods Copyright © 2023 by Alissa Lange - Laura Robertson - Jamie Price and Annie Craven is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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