Professional Development Tools for Inquiry-Based Science

Evaluating and Adapting Activities Towards Investigations

©1998 The Exploratorium

(Materials developed through a collaboration of the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry and Wynne Harlen.)  

In this activity teachers and professional developers transform a structured activity into a series of open-ended investigations that draw upon children's questions. Participants learn about:

  • how to think about and identify many of the characteristics of an inquiry experience
  • how to help develop criteria by which they can judge when, how, and whether it makes sense to adapt existing materials
  • how to begin to think about using this activity for a template for examining and adapting any materials used in their professional development workshops or their elementary classrooms


The current science education reform movement, along with most state science frameworks and the National Science Education Standards, encourages movement toward inquiry-based teaching. This approach to learning encourages students to pose their own questions, use scientific tools to analyze and interpret data, and "develop the capacity to conduct complete inquiries." 1 "Inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experience is the central strategy for teaching science". 2 Many districts engaged in reform have recently adopted high-quality hands-on instructional materials that assist teachers in teaching science more effectively. However, because hands-on science is not always inquiry-oriented, there is growing interest in further developing existing materials to enable teachers and learners to experience inquiry-based science. This activity helps teachers and curriculum developers to take existing materials and adapt them into more open-ended investigations based on student questions.  

One of the keys to successful adaptation is the establishment of a set of mutually agreed-upon criteria that can be used to indicate opportunities for increased learner development. (Criteria might include, for example: Does an activity allow learners to use and develop their own ideas? Is it interesting and engaging?) By establishing and using standard criteria we can:

  • make explicit the desirable characteristics of open-ended investigations,
  • prioritize the relative importance of these characteristics, and
  • create a reference point against which to judge and compare the effectiveness of classroom activities.

We have included a list of possible criteria (Figure 1) -- but such lists are generally more useful if they are developed by the participants/implementers, who will inevitably identify additional criteria as they proceed with their work.  

The Activities in outline  

Step 1: As a group all participants help establish criteria for evaluating and adapting activities. (30 minutes)  

Step 2: Working in teams of four participants do the preliminary parachute activity. (15 minutes)

Step 3: Working in teams of four participants evaluate the activity according to the criteria. (30 minutes)

Break (15 min)  

Step 4: Working in teams of four participants adapt the parachute activity according to the criteria list. (one hour)  

Step 5: As a group all participants re-evaluate the criteria and adaptations, share information and discuss how they might extend and use the adapting process in their work in school districts and classrooms. (30 minutes)  

Time 3 hours  

Materials for making a parachute (per person)

  • a 14"x 14" sheet of sturdy plastic material
  • several other large sheets of plastic to be cut into various sizes
  • a pre-cut set of four 14-inch strings
  • plenty of additional (un-cut) string for the adaptations
  • masking tape
  • various weights (such as a set of standard sized washers, paper clips, pens)
  • a copy of Figure 1, Criteria for evaluating learner's activities and Figure 2, Directions for Making the Parachute



Pre-cut the materials needed for Step Two, and have plenty of additional materials on-hand for the adaptation activities in Step Four.

Step 1 Establishing criteria for evaluating and adapting activities (30 minutes)

There are various approaches to developing the Criteria for evaluating activities. The goal is to encourage the group to begin to generate criteria, including aspects that are necessary and those that are necessary but not sufficient that:

(a) advance children's understanding of science concepts, and

(b) help them move towards investigating their own questions.

One way to accomplish this is to ask the group to project a mental image of an activity they consider excellent and then to isolate its characteristics. After this has been done distribute copies of Criteria for Evaluating Learner's Activities (Figure 1).

As a group, discuss what is on the list and why, and see what else people have to added to it. It is important to emphasize that the list should be useful for a variety of needs -- it should be generative and flexible rather than rigidly adhered to. You want to create a set of criteria that is maximally useful for many different purposes.

The additional criteria, generated by the group, can be written on the chalkboard, or participants can be asked to add them to their copies of Figure 1. The final list can be edited and compiled at the end of the activity so that the participants can use it in future evaluation and adaptation efforts.

Step 2 Doing the preliminary parachute activity (15 minutes)  

Divide the group into teams of four, and have them do the activity just as it is outlined in Figure 2, with each person making a separate parachute. Do the activity exactly as specified, and do nothing more -- then stop.

Step 3 Evaluating the activity according to the criteria (30 minutes)

Ask each team to systematically evaluate the parachute activity using the group's agreed-upon list of criteria. Ask them to consider: Which criteria were met, which were not, and why The discrepancy between the criteria and the activity's ability to meet them

The exact number of met criteria will depend on the context. Because the list is meant to be useful across many different kinds of activities, there may be certain criteria that are relevant and others that are less relevant to a particular activity. Ask teachers to identify when this is the case.  

If only a few criteria were met, ask the teams to consider why this activity seems lacking in certain opportunities. At what point does the activity become less rich?  

Ask participants to keep a running list of what needs to be changed and why, and what is missing and why. The intent of the criteria list is not to pass judgment on an activity but to diagnose what inquiry aspects are present and what needs to be changed and/or developed to meet more of the criteria.  

Break (15 min)  

Step 4 Adapting the parachute activity according to the criteria list (one hour)   Ask each team to redesign and adapt the parachute activity so that it will meet more of the criteria on the list.  

In this part of the activity, participants will want to move back and forth between planning ways to adapt the parachute activity and testing out the possibilities through actual experiments. They will need to have time to move back and forth between these two states in an iterative fashion. Because this adaptation process is the heart of this activity, the more time devoted to it, the better -- we recommend at least an hour.  

In the original activity, because of the nature of the task, there was little opportunity to move beyond the prescribed "exploration" of air resistance. But besides air resistance, there were many other possible starting points for exploration leading to 'big ideas' relating to topics such as gravity, balanced and unbalanced forces, speed, acceleration, and material properties. To help teachers begin to approach some of these ideas, ask them to consider these questions:  

  • How would you re-design this activity to meet more of the criteria?
  • Is it necessary to make the 'basic' parachute before moving into other investigations?
  • What are the 'big ideas' you want to be moving towards?
  • Where are the appropriate jumping off points for learners to begin to ask their own questions and to design individual investigations in order to answer some of these questions?

Leaders of the activity need to give clear guidance that both planning and experimenting are necessary elements of the adapting process. The job of each team is to question, to plan, to try out new ideas, and to keep using the criteria iteratively so that more and more are met each time. It is important that participants have adequate opportunity to work out their ideas and to test as many as possible. Ask participants to keep a running list of what changed and why.  

Step 5 Re-evaluating the criteria and adaptations as a group (30 minutes)  

The last step of this activity is for participants to have an opportunity to share their re-designs with others, to reflect upon the adapting process and to discuss how this activity might be useful in their own professional development work or in their classrooms.  

You can do this as a large group or sub-divided into two smaller groups. Dividing a larger group in half makes it more likely that each team will have an opportunity to share their adaptations in an open dialogue. The intent is to have a rich discussion of the participants' experiences -- including the rationale for new designs -- as well as to have time for critiques of useful and not so useful aspects of the original and adapted activities. Tips for guiding discussions follow these Step 5 directions.  

Begin by having each team present and explain their adaptations. The other teams should then comment upon and evaluate the re-designs. Participants should feel free to compare their adaptations, and to present alternative ways for opening up the activity. Ideally there will be many different approaches to adapting the activity, so that participants can become more engaged and active in questioning, designing and carrying out investigations.  

You can also try to have participants reflect upon how the criteria they've developed can be used for adapting other activities such as portions of their district's kits. A suggested follow-up activity includes taking a learner-selected kit activity and adapting it in a similar fashion.  

Finally, as a group, revise and add to the criteria list developed in Step 1 and present this list back to participants for future work.  

Discussion Points In the group discussion at the end of the activity there are many directions the dialogue might take. While it is best for the topics to arise from within the group itself, the areas explored below are likely to surface. Facilitators may want to emphasize them during the discussion.  

The Adapting Process This activity provides a starting point for adapting and re-designing activities. While there are many different ways to approach adapting activities, some of the central notions include:

  • identifying criteria for evaluating activities
  • evaluating activities in relation to these criteria
  • making adaptations based on these evaluations and on student questions
  • taking steps (planning and testing) towards opening up the activity in multiple ways towards investigation
  • beginning to re-design other existing curriculum&emdash;parts of kits, activity guides, etc.

The 'Adapting and Improving Children's Activities' Handout  

Many different kinds of adaptations of the parachute activity are possible and these adaptations can serve many different purposes. Figure 3 offers some possible directions that the parachute activity might take. It also indicates the broader purpose these adaptations would serve. For example, the parachute activity might be an excellent opportunity to help develop a learner's questioning ability as well as to stimulate attitudes and curiosity about science. This page also offers several other categories that can act as appropriate jumping off places for future investigations.    

The Role of Questioning The parachute adapting activity can be a wonderful opportunity for teachers to highlight the role of student questioning in advancing long-term investigations in the classroom.

  Students may have a variety of questions regarding the parachute -- perhaps about its shape, weight and size and its ability to float in the air. A student might observe that parachutes fall at different rates depending on their sizes. Teachers can use student questions such as "what would happen if I made a parachute double the size of the original one -- would it drop more slowly?" or "how can I make a really slow parachute?" as focal points for longer term student investigations. Or they can ask students: "does everyone's parachute do the same thing? What is the same? What is different? Why do you think that is?; or If you throw up a weight not attached to a parachute, does it fall as quickly as the one attached to the parachute?" This is one way to take a more structured activity, such as the beginning activity in this exercise, and open it up toward inquiry via a variety of student questions.  

One practical way in which questioning was highlighted in a sixth grade classroom is shown in a sample work page of a student who was given the challenge to make the slowest possible parachute (Figure 4). The teacher who had already worked with the parachutes as part of a teacher workshop adapted the activity into a challenge for her students. This first step toward adaptation in the classroom was very successful.  

Figure 4 indicates the level of observation and questioning that accompanied student work. Later, the same teacher decided that there might be even greater success if the students were given the opportunity to devise their own questions for investigation. This would be the next step in her path of adapting the parachute for the classroom.  





1. Involves learning through direct interaction with materials  

2. Investigations start from learner's ideas or questions  

3. Requires the use of process skills

  • Observing (collecting, measuring, and comparing evidence )
  • Hypothesizing
  • Planning (including prediction)
  • Interpreting
  • Communicating

4. Requires discussion with others, working cooperatively and sharing ideas  

5. Allows multiple points of access  

6. Facilitates development of 'big ideas' 

7. Level of understanding is appropriate to the learner's development  

8. Leads to further investigations  

9. Requires learner to reflect critically  

Necessary but not sufficient  

10. An appropriate variety of materials in sufficient quantity  

11. Simple and safe equipment that the children can use themselves  

12. Relevant to children's experience, of all cultural backgrounds  

13. Interesting and intriguing to children  

14. Time to allow messing about before more ordered investigations  

15. Directions for getting started are clear  


Materials developed through a collaboration of the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry and Wynne Harlen.




  • Cut a 1 4-inch square from sturdy plastic
  • Cut 4 pieces of string 14 inches long
  • Securely tape or tie a string to each corner of the plastic
  • Tie the free ends of the 4 strings together in a knot. Be sure the strings length
  • Tie a single string about 6 inches long to the knot
  • Add a weight, such as a washer to the free end of the string
  • Pull the parachute up in the centre. Squeeze the plastic to make it as flat as possible
  • Fold the parachute twice
  • Wrap the string loosely around the plastic
  • Throw the parachute up into the air

Results. The parachute opens and slowly carries the weight to the ground

Why? The weight falls first, unwinding the string because the parachute being larger, is held back by the air. The air fills the plastic slowing down the rate of descent if the weight falls quickly a smaller object needs to be used.












(taken from Wynne Harlen's book The Teaching of Science in Primary Schools)


There are many ways that activities can be changed. Look at the Parachute activity for example:

Encouraging attitudes - stimulating curiosity - The parachute activity might begin with the experience of throwing several parachutes, of different sizes and even shapes, and noticing how they fall. The question as to why the differences would inevitably be raised.

Opportunity for skill development - Opportunities for children to develop their process skills are limited by the lack of any investigation once the parachute is constructed. There are variables which affect the fall of the parachute, such as shape, area and length of strings, which children should explore in a controlled way as they test out various ideas about why there are differences between one and another.

Working cooperatively and combining ideas - There could be instructions for pooling ideas within a group, planning how find out 'what happens if...' and preparing a group report to others. At intervals in the work, the children should meet together as a class to listen to reports of each others' progress and share ideas.

Opportunity for scientific concept development - A main point of this activity is to enable children to recognize the role of air in slowing down the fall of the parachute. With this in mind it would, therefore, be useful for children to observe how quickly the parachute falls when it is not allowed to open. Exploration of larger and smaller parachutes might further children's idea about the effect of the air. The question of why the parachute falls at all could also be discussed leading to a recognition of the main forces acting on the parachute when it is falling. Giving the 'answer' to why the parachute moves slowly is not allowing the children to use and explore their own ideas; so this part should be omitted.

Relating to real life and everyday experience - The uses of air resistance are many and not restricted to parachute descents from aircraft. They can relate to everyday events, such as riding a bicycle in strong wind and the 'helicopter' wings of sycamore seeds seen drifting gently to the ground.

Modifying this activity will undoubtedly take up more time. This has to be balanced by the much greater learning which takes place.



Materials developed through a collaboration of the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry and Wynne Harlen.


1. National Science Education Sandards, 1996, p. 23.  

2. National Science Education Standards, 1996, p. 7.  


Harlen, W., Primary Science: Taking the Plunge. Heinemann, 1985, 116pp.  

Harlen, W., Environmental Science in the Primary Curriculum (with J. Elstgeest) 1990 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 80pp.  

Harlen, W., Progress in Primary Science: Workshop Materials for Teacher Education (with C. Macro, D. Malvern, K. Reed and M. Schilling) 1990, Routledge 200pp.  

Harlen, W., Assessing Science in the Primary Classroom : Observing Activities (with S.Cavendish, M. Galton and L. Hargreaves) 1990 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 144pp.  

Harlen, W., Assessing Science in the Primary Classroom: Written Tasks (with L. Hargreaves and M. Schilling) 1990 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 144pp.  

Harlen, W., Assessing Science in the Primary Classroom: Practical Tasks (with T. Russell) 1990 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 144pp.  

Harlen, W., UNESCO Source Book for Science in the Primary School (with Elstgeest) 1992; Paris: UNESCO 272 pp.  

Harlen, W., Teaching and Learning Primary Science. Second revised edition. 1993 London: Paul Chapman Publishing 209pp.  

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