Planning and Carrying Out Investigations for Upper Elementary

July 13, 2019 No Comments

One major shift in an NGSS aligned classroom is that students no longer do confirmation style labs.  During confirmation style labs, the teacher has already taught students what they need to know and then students perform a lab to confirm what they have already learned. 

Instead, students are required to begin planning their own investigations in order to make sense of content for themselves.  Students will begin learning about the investigative design process starting in kindergarten.  This practice is scaffolded in grade level bands to meet student’s appropriate developmental ability.  However, this practice must be highly scaffolded.

The third through fifth grade band for Planning and Carrying Out Investigations focuses on two major components.  Students must understand the basics of using observations to collect evidence and they should understand the role of variables in investigations.  

Using Observations to Collect Data

Prior to third grade, students are using measurements and other observations to make comparisons.  Students in third through fifth grade take these skills to the next level. Upper elementary students should be able to choose appropriate tools for collecting data and evaluate different methods of data collection.  

Many of the Science and Engineering Practices have components that overlap and Planning and Carrying Out Investigations is no exception.  Students will need to analyze and interpret their data (SEP: Analyzing and Interpreting Data) and use the data that they have gathered at evidence for an explanation (SEP: Engaging in an Argument from Evidence). 

Students must also make sure that the data that they collect is valid by making sure that the results are repeatable.  They should conduct more than one trial to make sure that they get the same results more than once.  They should discuss how many trials are necessary to show that their results are valid.

Students will also start writing their own procedures in order to explain how the data will be collected.  (More on this component coming soon!)

Tips and Tricks

  • Start using “tool talks”.  Students will be overwhelmed with learning how to use all of the classroom equipment at once.  It is best to introduce one piece of equipment at a time rather than all at once at the start of the year.  For more information about starting the school year in an NGSS aligned classroom click here.   
  • Once a piece of equipment has been introduced to your students, they should have open access to that piece of equipment.  If students are expected to choose their own tools, they should have access to the tools. Ideally, the tools that have been introduced should be kept in labeled cabinets, drawers or containers so that the students can access them and put them away at the end of an investigation.

The Role of Variables in Investigations

The term variable appears for the first time in the third to fifth grade.  Variables are at the heart of the investigative process.   In upper elementary, I define variables as anything that can affect the outcome of an investigation. 

Students should begin the investigative design process by listing everything that could affect the results of their investigation.  All but one of these variables should be controlled in their experiment.  One variable should be chosen to vary during the investigation to determine how it affects the outcome.  

Students must understand the concept of a fair test.  A fair test is an investigation in which only one variable is changed in order to understand it’s true effect on the outcome.  If more than one variable is changed, the students will be unable to tell which variable affected the result.

For example, in 3rd grade, 3-PS2-1 states that students should conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.  Students may use spring scales to create unbalanced forces on an object such as a toy car.   (These are the spring scales that I like to use.  The link provided is an affiliate link which means that I earn a small amount if you choose to purchase this item using the link provided.) The amount of force applied to the spring scale would be the variable that is investigated in their experiment.

Everything else must be controlled, including but not limited to the table that the car was placed on (which should be level), the material that the car is being pulled over and the car itself. All of the things that are controlled are known as controlled variables. (These are also sometimes called constant variables.)Designing a Fair Test Thumbnail.pptx

I have created this resource to teach students about the concept of variables. It introduces students to the concept of variables, data, and investigative trials.  It is written at two different levels to help you differentiate your instruction. It is available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.  Click here to check it out.

Note: Students in upper elementary are not required to distinguish between the independent and dependent variables.  However, I do use this as an extension piece for students who are showing mastery of the concept of variables.  I have also seen reference to independent and dependent variables on the released test questions for the California Science Test (CAST).

Crosscutting Concept an Common Core Connection

The Science and Engineering Practice Planning and Carrying Out Investigations pairs naturally with the Crosscutting Concept Cause and Effect.  The variable being investigated is the cause and the resulting outcome would be the effect.  This provides a strong link to the following Common Core Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.3.3. Describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.5  and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.

Associated Performance Expectations

The following performance expectations are associated with the Science and Engineering Practice Planning and Carrying Out Investigations.  

  • 3-PS2-1. Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence of the effects of balanced and unbalanced forces on the motion of an object.
  • 3-PS2-2. Make observations and/or measurements of an object’s motion to provide evidence that a pattern can be used to predict future motion.
  • 4-PS3-2. Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents.
  • 4-ESS2-1. Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation.
  • 5-PS1-3. Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.
  • 5-PS1-4. Conduct an investigation to determine whether the mixing of two or more substances results in new substances.
  • 3-5-ETS1-3. Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

To learn more about the Science and Engineering Practices, click here to read more of my blog posts about them.

How do you use the Science and Engineering Practice Planning and Carrying Out Investigations in your NGSS aligned classroom?





Erin Sadler

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