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Ever Wondered?

Written by Anne Tweed and Whitney Cobb, McREL

Have you ever wondered why we have “super” moons? Or what conditions result in the birth of a star? Have you wondered how all of those unique moons of Saturn evolved? Since 1958, NASA scientists have been conducting space missions to answer questions about the Earth, our sun and solar system, and the celestial objects in our universe and beyond.

As scientists and engineers, educators, citizen scientists and outreach providers—as human beings!—we revel in scientific explorations that help answer the “how and why” questions. And, more often than you might think, it is rarely just one question that is being investigated. Yet educators and outreach providers are often expected to teach “the answers.”

Instead, let’s help learners understand what questions were being asked in the first place. Ask students to pick a NASA discovery (supermoon, ice jets on Enceladus, the discovery of planets around other stars). Invite them to trace the unpredictable pathway scientists followed to ask the right questions that began the quest for answers. What would students discover?

Some questions are open-ended and may not lead to a factual answer. Thought provoking, these often spark discussion and debate, what we call “essential questions.” Examples could include:

• What is a scientific theory (compared to “theory” in day-to-day lingo)?
• How have scientific theories about the origins of the universe changed—and why?
     o How can we investigate what we cannot directly see?
• How do we decide when there is enough evidence to support a scientific claim about global climate change?

Naturally, these raise additional questions and more: the need for supporting claims, evidence and reasoning to address thoughtfully (McTighe, 2013). Ah ha! The scientific process.

On a practical level, we can start by teaching a procedure to help develop scientific questions. Begin by asking learners to observe a phenomenon, like a supermoon. Ask them to write as many questions as they can in five minutes, individually or in teams. The list will reflect what they are wondering about and may include questions like:

• What is a supermoon?
• What causes a supermoon?
• What is the difference between a supermoon and a regular full moon?
• Why do they occur rarely?
• Does a supermoon affect the Earth more than a regular full moon? Why or why not?
     o What are those effects?
         • Tides?
         • Werewolves?

It’s a guarantee that some of the questions will leave learners in the lurch (or laughing). Remind students: for a question to be considered a “scientific question,” we expect it to satisfy a number of conditions:

1. There must be a way to test the question.
2. It should be a question about which you can make predictions.
3. There should be an objective way to measure whether or not the prediction was met.
4. Knowing the answer should contribute useful information to our understanding of scientific ideas.

Using this guide, have students identify which of the questions they asked that met the criteria for a scientific question. Could any be rewritten as a scientific question?

Focusing on important scientific questions can engage students and the public in the very kind of thinking that is required to truly understand science ideas (concepts). To move beyond general knowledge (often superficial or definitional) to expert knowledge (conceptual understanding) is the result of questions that lead to inquiries, argumentation and challenging of ideas that arise from differences in opinion and interpretation.

Using our supermoon example, finding answers to those questions leads to opportunities to explore the Earth-Moon relationship. A search for hands-on activities in NASA Wavelength turns up a variety of investigations that help learners conceptualize the science behind the moon in general, and offer context to understand the phenomena of supermoons, including:

Penny Moon
Dance of the Moon and Oceans
Moon Mythbusters
Lunar Phases: A Dance under the Sun

And for support in presenting those concepts, Wavelength also shares an educator resource: Teaching Planetary Sciences—Phases of the Moon.

NASA has always been about the “wonder and awe” of our Earth and space. Invite leaners of all ages to wonder. Start by asking questions!

McTighe, J. and G. Wiggins. 2013. Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.