About the Afterschool Training Toolkit and Related Resources
The Afterschool Training Toolkit is available online free of charge.

The following resources can be used with the online Afterschool Training Toolkit to give you the resources you need to build fun, innovative, and academically enriching afterschool activities.

Practice: Investigating Science Through Inquiry

The key goal of Investigating Science Through Inquiry is to help students learn science through doing science. Inquiry combines the process of discovery with scientific knowledge. Students use what they know to design and conduct investigations in order to understand science better.
Investigating Science Through Inquiry: Exploring Trebuchets (10:20)

Watch as first through sixth graders at the Brighton-Allston Afterschool Enrichment Program (BASE) in Boston, Massachusetts, use inquiry skills to construct trebuchets.

More About the Video

Afterschool Program
Brighton-Allston Afterschool Enrichment Program (B.A.S.E.), part of the South Cove Community Health Center, and is affiliated with Harvard Graduate School of Education's Program in Afterschool and Research.

Allston, Massachusetts


  • Kenneth Lee, Head Teacher
  • Madeline Wan, Site Coordinator

Time Allotted
90 minutes per week for 4 weeks

About the Lesson
The objectives of this series of lessons are to build and refine a working model of a small machine or toy (in this case, to create a trebuchet like the one used in the movie Lord of the Rings), to work together to problem solve, and to see how different variables affected the outcome of the trebuchet. In the videotaped lesson, students:

  • recall and share what they knew about trebuchets with others;
  • are challenged to construct a working trebuchet to launch a ball of paper;
  • work collaboratively to problem solve how to construct a working trebuchet;
  • record data and begin to analyze how weight was related to distance;
  • begin to think about variables in the working trebuchet such as its weight, length and flexibility, the position of its fulcrum, and the distance that the paper was thrown;
  • demonstrate their working model by launching a paper ball a known distance;
  • reflect on their experiences and shared what they learned; and
  • begin to plan future variations in the experiment and control variables.

Materials (for one trebuchet)

  • Several yardsticks
  • 2 chairs
  • 2 one-gallon jugs of water
  • Styrofoam cup
  • Rubber bands
  • Wooden dowels
  • Nails or washers (for measuring weight)
  • Storage space

About the Curriculum
The Design It! curriculum was developed by the Center for Science Education (CSE) and the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, in collaboration with science centers and children's museums across the country. Design It! features extended design engineering activities for students ages 7-12. Design It! is published by CSE. It is a standards-based science curriculum designed specifically for afterschool.

Related Resources
Center for Science Education, Design It!

Practice in Action

What Is It?

Inquiry is both an approach to teaching and a way of learning. It involves a process of exploring through asking questions and looking for answers. It includes making observations, planning and conducting investigations, using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data, and learning more about the world by proposing explanations that lead to new understandings.

What Do I Do?

Begin by connecting with the school-day science teacher to find out what science concepts, skills, activities, and grade-level standards students are working on and what kinds of activities lend themselves to investigating science through inquiry in afterschool. You will want to start with a question. For example, what factors affect plant growth? What makes a good bubble-blower? Why are the trees on the playground dying? Do energy-saving light bulbs really last longer? Then, consider an experiment that will let students discover the answer by investigating, observing, collecting and analyzing data, and communicating the results. Inquiry is grounded in asking questions, making predictions, and testing those predictions. Many initial investigations will be more instructor-directed (guided inquiry). As students learn the process, they can be more self-directed.

Why Does It Work?

Investigating Science Through Inquiry works because students are directly involved in their own learning-questioning, observing, recording and analyzing data, reflecting on their findings, and sharing those findings with others. They develop cognitive abilities-critical thinking and reasoning skills-as well as science understanding.

For more information about guided inquiry and student-directed inquiry, see Essential Features of Classroom Inquiry and Their Variations (PDF) from the National Science Education Standards.

Planning Your Lesson

Great afterschool lessons start with having a clear intention about who your students are, what they are learning or need to work on, and crafting activities that engage students while supporting their academic growth. Great afterschool lessons also require planning and preparation, as there is a lot of work involved in successfully managing kids, materials, and time.

Below are suggested questions to consider while preparing your afterschool lessons. The questions are grouped into topics that correspond to the Lesson Planning Template. You can print out the template and use it as a worksheet to plan and refine your afterschool lessons, to share lesson ideas with colleagues, or to help in professional development sessions with staff.

Lesson Planning Template (PDF)

Lesson Planning Template (Word document)

Lesson Planning Template Questions

Grade Level
What grade level(s) is this lesson geared to?

How long will it take to complete the lesson? One hour? One and a half hours? Will it be divided into two or more parts, over a week, or over several weeks?

Learning Goals
What do you want students to learn or be able to do after completing this activity? What skills do you want students to develop or hone? What tasks do they need to accomplish?

Materials Needed
List all of the materials needed that will be needed to complete the activity. Include materials that each student will need, as well as materials that students may need to share (such as books or a computer). Also include any materials that students or instructors will need for record keeping or evaluation. Will you need to store materials for future sessions? If so, how will you do this?

What do you need to do to prepare for this activity? Will you need to gather materials? Will the materials need to be sorted for students or will you assign students to be "materials managers"? Are there any books or instructions that you need to read in order to prepare? Do you need a refresher in a content area? Are there questions you need to develop to help students explore or discuss the activity? Are there props that you need to have assembled in advance of the activity? Do you need to enlist another adult to help run the activity?

Think about how you might divide up groups―who works well together? Which students could assist other peers? What roles will you assign to different members of the group so that each student participates?

Now, think about the Practice that you are basing your lesson on. Reread the Practice. Are there ways in which you need to amend your lesson plan to better address the key goal(s) of the Practice? If this is your first time doing the activity, consider doing a "run through" with friends or colleagues to see what works and what you may need to change. Alternatively, you could ask a colleague to read over your lesson plan and give you feedback and suggestions for revisions.

What to Do
Think about the progression of the activity from start to finish. One model that might be useful—and which was originally developed for science education—is the 5E's instructional model. Each phrase of the learning sequence can be described using five words that begin with "E": engage, explore, explain, extend, and evaluate. For more information, see the 5E's Instructional Model.

Outcomes to Look For
How will you know that students learned what you intended them to learn through this activity? What will be your signs or benchmarks of learning? What questions might you ask to assess their understanding? What, if any, product will they produce?

After you conduct the activity, take a few minutes to reflect on what took place. How do you think the lesson went? Are there things that you wish you had done differently? What will you change next time? Would you do this activity again?

Sample Lessons

Festival of Bubbles (3-5)
view lesson

Students explore soap bubbles, what makes good bubble-blowers, and the properties of bubble-making substances.

Festival of Bubbles (3-5)

Duration: 45-60 minutes

Learning Goals
  • Understand scientific inquiry through questioning, predicting, observing, recording and interpreting data, and communicating results
  • Use science and math tools—rulers, tape measurers, graduated cylinders—to measure and collect data
  • Develop group work skills such as working together and listening to others

Materials Needed
  • 3 one-gallon jugs of water
  • Different colored bubble solution (Dawn, Palmolive, Sunlight)
  • Glycerin with eye dropper (available at most pharmacies)
  • Pint containers, plastic (3 per team—1 container of each brand of detergent)
  • Black plastic bags or plastic table cloths to cover the tables
  • Vinegar (for cleanup)
  • Sponges (for cleanup, 1 per team)
  • Squeegees (for cleanup, 1 per team)
  • Straws (at least 1 per person)
  • Clear rulers and/or plastic tape measurers (centimeter)
  • Bucket with water (for cleanup)
  • Basket or tray for materials (1 per team)
  • Journals or learning logs
  • KWL Chart (PDF, 56K)

One or More Days Before Investigation
  1. Prepare soap solutions. Remove 1 cup of water from each of the 3 one-gallon jugs of bottled water; add 1 cup of a liquid bubble solution and 60 drops of glycerin to each jug; shake gently. Label each solution. Note that this recipe makes enough soap solution for weeks of activities; about 1 cup for each group is used in this lesson.
  2. Cut large pieces of plastic to cover the tables.
  3. Review the lesson, print and make copies of all printouts, and assemble all materials.
Day of Investigation
  1. Pour solutions into labeled pint containers.
  2. Organize materials in plastic tubs, trays, or baskets—one for each table per team—1 cup of solution, 4 to 5 straws (1 per person), plastic cover, rulers, tape measure, pencils or pens, learning logs (if used, 1 per person), sponges.
  3. Have vinegar, squeegees, and buckets on hand for cleanup. First squeegee the area to remove as much soap solution as possible, and then sprinkle vinegar over the area and squeegee again or wipe with a sponge.

Safety Considerations
  • Students should wear safety goggles to protect their eyes.
  • Students should wear smocks, oversized T-shirts, or aprons to protect their clothing.
  • If solution gets in a student's eyes, instructors should wash his or her eyes with clear water.
  • Instructors should have a bottle of vinegar and a mop or towel handy to clean up any spills on the floor. Newspapers can also be used for cleanup.
  • After the investigations, students should wash their hands to remove any soap solution.

What to Do
  • Engage students by asking where they have seen or blown bubbles, and if they have ever used anything unusual to create a bubble. Record students' answers on the KWL Chart (PDF, 56K).
    • Divide students into small groups of four, and hand out Learning Logs (PDF) and Data Sheets (PDF) for each group.
    • Designate one student in each group to gather and return materials, one student as the chief investigator to direct the investigation, one student to record the data, and one student to be the safety inspector to make sure students are wearing goggles and keeping the area clear.
  • Explore bubbles in small groups. Ask students to create large bubbles by spreading a thin layer of bubble solution about the size of a large pizza over a flat surface. Next, students blow a bubble by wetting a straw and gently blowing just above the surface of the wet area. After the bubble pops, students measure the diameter of the bubble "footprint" to the nearest 0.1 cm using a clear ruler or a tape measure. Students should record their answers in their learning logs.
    • After all students have an opportunity to blow three bubbles each with one solution, they can clean up their area and rotate to another table with a different solution. They will need about 15 minutes per solution.
  • Explain the results. Ask students to complete their data sheets and find their own and their team's average bubble size for each solution. Each team will report their results. Record each team's results on the Class Data Sheet (PDF). To see one example of a completed data chart, see the Sample Class Data Chart (PDF). Note that the results in this chart will be different from students' results.
    • Have students compare their data, their team's data, and the class data as they complete their learning logs. Discuss the results and have students write a conclusion. Which liquid detergent makes the largest bubble?
  • Extend students' learning if you have extra time. Read the poem "Blowing Soap Bubbles" by Gerard Manley Hopkins and ask students to write and illustrate their own bubble poem. You may want to research and study how liquid detergent is made, test several more liquid detergents, or vary the amount of glycerin used in one brand of detergent to see if that variable makes a difference in the size of the bubbles. Create a bar graph to record the average class data.
  • Evaluate (Outcomes to Look For)
    • Student participation and engagement
    • Students collaborate and work together
    • Answers that reflect an understanding of how to observe and measure bubbles, and how to find the average bubble size
    • Answers that reflect an understanding of how to collect, record, and interpret data

Learn more about the 5Es.

Festival of Bubbles is adapted from the Lawrence Hall of Science Great Explorations in Science and Mathematics (GEMS) curriculum series, Bubble-Ology and Bubble Festival. For more information and ideas, see the Resources page.

My Pyramid (9-12)
view lesson

Students work with the US Department of Agriculture Food Pyramid recommendations, forming questions, and investigating whether the food offered at their school meets the guidelines.

My Pyramid (9-12)

Duration: 6-8 weeks for this lesson (45-60 minutes weekly); length variable if extensions used.

Learning Goals
  • Practice scientific inquiry-question, hypothesize, observe, record, analyze, communicate results, and plan further investigations
  • Measure using scientific tools, such as scales and various measuring devices
  • Keep journals or records of measurement
  • Communicate results
  • Compare results from multiple groups and draw conclusions

Materials/Technology Needed
  • USDA Food Pyramid (PDF)
  • My Pyramid Data Sheet (PDF)
  • School/district school breakfast and lunch menus
  • School vending-machine snacks
  • Data/statistics about health and weight for local area
  • Food scales
  • Measuring cups
  • Clear rulers and/or plastic tape measurers (centimeter)
  • Journals or learning logs


In this lesson, students assess the availability of food provided by their school to support eating healthy. This is a good lesson to emphasize research skills. Instructors who are not already familiar with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Pyramid should spend some time reviewing it. (One way to do this is to review the handouts for this example lesson.)

Here are some specific steps to take as you are preparing for this activity:

  • Inform school cafeteria staff and/or school/district nutritionist of planned actives.
  • Obtain current research and articles in the media about nutrition, the impact of food intake on health and weight, and foods/ingredients recommended for health (reasons provided should vary).
  • Develop pointers to give to each team on how to develop research questions.
  • Organize materials in team folders (one per team). Folders should include learning logs, calculators, scales, metric conversion charts, USDA Food Pyramid handout, (PDF) My Pyramid Data Sheet, (PDF) and any other materials that will be useful. Establish a location and system for storing the folders.
  • Consider connections! As this topic is relevant to the larger community, this activity can also be used for community or family science nights.
Safety Considerations
Students should be reminded that this research and the findings created should not be used for judgment or criticism of peers.
What to Do
  • Engage students by having them review newspaper and magazine articles related to health, weight, and wellness. Ask if they or their peers consider the nutritional value of what they eat or select food based on its calories or ingredients. Consider using a KWL chart to record what students know about the food pyramid and food group quantities.
  • Explore through creating defined roles and responsibilities. Create two or more teams, with these duties for students. (Roles may be assigned or chosen by students within the group.)

    The Materials Gatherer brings materials and folders to the group and returns the materials to the designated central location at the end of each session. The Chief Investigator directs the investigation and coordinates the development of the research questions and hypotheses. Determination is made for procedure and methods to be used for collecting information from/on:

    • School/district food services
    • The establishment and purpose of the Food Pyramid
    • Recommended daily allowances
    • Types of food available in school vending machines and snack bars
    • Data on percentage of students that participate in student lunch program

    The Chief Investigator, with appropriate guidance from the teacher and in concert with his or her group, should frame the questions and hypotheses that the research will explore.

    The Recorder filters and records the data collected weekly, My Pyramid Data Sheet. (PDF)

    The Reporter is responsible for generating an output of all findings and facilitating the group presentation on the findings.

  • Explain that students will complete their data charts and respond to the research questions identified at the start of the research. Each team will report its results. Instructors may consider having students use a large chart or a computer spreadsheet to record and graph class data.

    After the data on the questions has been collected (and reported out by the reporter), have students compare their team's data with data from other teams. Discuss the results and have students write a conclusion. You might ask them whether their research answers such questions as, "To what extent does our school's food program align with the recommendations of the USDA Pyramid?"

  • Extend ideas for this activity. Here are a few suggestions:
    1. A technology extension: Extend the study to include an Internet search to obtain, assess, and compare school menus from different regions in the country. Teams can work together and present their findings to the whole group.
    2. An analysis and representation extension: Have students create a pyramid graphic that represents the percentage of school food offerings by the Pyramid food categories.
    3. A historical extension: Have students investigate past versions of the Pyramid recommendations and analyze current school food offerings against the previous recommendations, then record and report changes. Students might consider the question, "Why has the USDA Food Pyramid changed?"
  • Evaluate (Outcomes to Look For)
    • Students' written work, including learning logs with completed data tables and charts, shows signs of increased content understanding and engagement with the inquiry process
    • Students are engaged in the activity
    • Students collect data objectively and accurately
    • Students record data with the proper units (for instance, ounces, serving size)
    • Students compare and contrast their data with the class data and complete the data chart accurately
    • Students assume responsibility, and perform their assigned roles and tasks
    • Students work collaboratively

Learn more about the 5Es.

For more information and ideas to support this lesson, see the Resources page.

Sink or Float? (K-2)
view lesson

Students use everyday objects to make and test predictions about what sinks and what floats, charting their results on a graphic organizer.

Sink or Float? (K-2)

Duration: 45-60 minutes

Learning Goals
  • Understand scientific inquiry through questioning, predicting, observing, recording and interpreting data, and communicating results
  • Keep records of scientific investigations using graphic organizers
  • Develop group work skills, such as working together and listening

Materials Needed
  • Floating and sinking objects such as a rubber band, small bottles of shampoo, an orange, apple, carrot, leaf, twig, marble, nail, paperclip, pencil, rock, pumice stone, fishing sinkers, penny, crayon, floating toys (various boats, rubber duck), cans of cola (sugar-free and regular), bar of soap, sponge, tennis ball, golf ball, ping pong ball, or ice cube
  • Large aquarium or clear plastic container (students need to see inside the container)
  • Copy of Sink or Float? by Lisa Trumbauer, Who Sank the Boat by Pamela Allen or other age-appropriate books about sinking and floating

  1. Collect or ask students to bring in a variety of objects to test.
  2. Make copies of the Graphic Organizer (PDF). If students use objects other than those pictured in the graphic organizer provided, make drawings or cut out illustrations to represent the items to be tested
  3. Collect books on sinking and floating.
  4. Collect pictures of large boats and other things that float, such as animals and people in water, sunken treasure, etc.
Safety Considerations
  • If a glass aquarium is used, care should be taken to ensure that there are no cracks or leaks.
What to Do
  • Engage students. Introduce the study of sinking and floating by asking students what they know about things that sink and float, and why some things sink and other things float. Record their statements on a large KWL chart.
    • Read aloud the story Sink or Float? by Lisa Trumbauer, Who Sank the Boat by Pamela Allen, or a similar age-appropriate book. Ask questions about the illustrations to keep students engaged and to see what they know about why things sink or float.
  • Explore which items sink and which objects float. In a large group, hold up an item so students can see it, pass it around for students to feel it, and ask them to predict if the item will sink or float. Ask older students to draw a picture or label the item and write their prediction. Have one student experimenter (rotate role) place the object into the water.
  • Explain the results. As each item is tested, ask students to complete their graphic organizers. After several items have been tested, ask students to think about what makes some things sink and others float.
  • Extend learning if time allows. Incorporate technology, literature, art, and writing by asking students to write a short story or create a drawing about sinking and floating. Use a large plastic children's pool and test larger objects, such as balls of different sizes. For older students, make boats out of clay or aluminum foil and test how much they hold before they sink. Consider extending the study of sinking and floating for students ages 9 to 11 by including buoyancy and density studies.
Evaluate (Outcomes to Look For)
  • Student participation and engagement
  • Students' ability to make and test predictions
  • Answers that reflect an understanding of which objects sink and which float, including putting the object in the right place on the graphic organizer
  • An understanding of why some objects float while others sink

Learn more about the 5 Es.


Explore these resources to assist in implementing the Investigating Science Through Inquiry practice in your program.

Technology Tip for this practice
A digital microscope, a relatively inexpensive (less than $100) technology tool, enables students to go beyond understanding scientific processes such as photosynthesis and respiration to actually seeing such processes. The output of the digital microscope attached to a desktop computer is seen on the computer screen and can be recorded, saved, and projected so that students can record their investigations and share them with other students.

For educators working with pre-K through fifth grade students, the George Lucas Educational Foundation offers an online learning module, 'Exploratory Learning with a Digital Microscope." It includes an introduction to the digital microscope as well as activities for classroom use. http://www.edutopia.org/teachingmodules/EL/index.php
Molecular Expressions offers an interactive Java tutorial on the working of digital microscopes as part of "Science, Optics & You," an interdisciplinary optics, light, and microscopy curriculum for elementary grade students.

For more information about guided inquiry and student-directed inquiry, see Essential Features of Classroom Inquiry and Their Variations (PDF) from the National Science Education Standards.

Resources for Sample Lessons associated with this practice:
Festival of Bubbles
Lawrence Hall of Science online Bubble-ology video for teachers


Exploratorium Bubbles

Miami Museum of Science, The Atoms Family, Matter

Professor Bubbles

The Art and Science of Bubbles

Print Resources:
Barber, J., and C. Willard. Bubble Festival Teacher's Guide. Lawrence Hall of Science. University of California Berkeley. Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS). Berkeley, CA: University of California Berkeley, 1992. Available at

Barber, J. Bubble-ology Teacher's Guide. Lawrence Hall of Science. University of California Berkeley. Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS). Berkeley, CA: University of California Berkeley, 2001. Available at

Sink or Float?
Who Sank the Boat?

Print Resources:
Allen, P. Who Sank the Boat? New York: Putnam, 1985. [ISBN 0808563564]

Trumbauer, L. Sink or Float? New York: Newbridge Communications, Inc., 1997. [ISBN 1-56784-322-0]


| Share