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Asking Questions Like a Scientist: An Ice Balloon Exploration

By Alycia Zimmerman on January 16, 2013
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, "So? Did you learn anything today?" But not my mother. "Izzy," she would say, "did you ask a good question today?"  That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.

 —Isidor Isaac Rabi, physicist

“How curious are you feeling today?” I ask my class. By now, my students clamor to prove that they’re curious — they know that question is usually followed by a chance to make a mess, feel something “squishy,” or explore something that slithers. Learning to embrace their scientific curiosity was a process that began with a Wonder Station, frozen water balloons, and a question-sorting activity. Read on for ideas about how to nurture scientific questioning in your class.


Did Curiosity REALLY Kill the Cat?

When I first asked my students what they thought about curiosity, I was surprised by their responses. “Curiosity killed the cat,” rolled off one boy’s tongue, while other students giggled. “Curious George,” a girl called out in free association. “George always gets into trouble being curious. That’s like ‘killed the cat,’” another girl explained.

By the advanced age of eight, my students had already absorbed negative associations about curiosity? Oh gosh, how could this be?! And more to the point, how could I rescue curiosity and reassert it as a virtue in my students’ consciousness?


Stretching Our Curiosity Muscles

Over the next week, I created a Wonder Station in my classroom, which was simply a bookshelf stocked with sticky notes, magnifying glasses, cardboard “viewfinders,” and an object of the day. One day it was a honeycomb; the next, a piece of moldy bread, which was followed by a Picasso print.

I invited my students to visit the Wonder Station when they had time, to observe deeply and then to wonder, wonder, and wonder some more. They jotted their questions onto sticky notes and stuck their notes onto charts, and we papered an entire wall with their questions — a celebration of curiosity.

For more ideas about creating a “wonder world” with your students, check out Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough’s A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades.

Students use "viewfinders" to hone in on objects they are closely observing.

Turning Curiosity Into Science With Ice Balloons

Collecting piles of wonderings is a start, but how do we channel that curiosity into science? I needed to teach my students about different types of questions and show them how to frame their questions into investigations. And what better way to get the questions flowing than with spheres of ice?

Step 1: Prepare Ice Balloons

Three days before our planned ice balloon exploration, I stuffed the freezer in the teachers’ lounge full of five-inch water balloons. Regular balloons work great for this! I froze enough balloons to have one for each team of three students, plus some “just in case” extras.


Step 2: Prepare “Explorers' Kits”

The morning before the exploration, I filled a container for each team with materials to use to explore the properties of ice balloons. The materials included:

  • Toothpicks
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Paper clips
  • Food coloring
  • Coarse salt
  • Hand lenses
  • Flashlights
  • Post-it Notes


Step 3: Explore, Observe, Question, Repeat!

When science time arrived, I gave each team a frozen water balloon in a plastic bin. The students cut off the balloons, and the questions began! They used each of the supplies in their kits to further explore, manipulate, and observe the ice spheres. And throughout their observations, the students wrote down piles and piles of questions!

I emphasized that the students shouldn’t judge their questions, try to answer them, or worry about asking good questions. “Go for quantity,” I urged. “Curiosity is a great way to give your brain a good workout, and I know you all love to do that!”


Step 4: Question Sorting

The following morning, with the ice and other supplies long gone, I asked the students to take out their questions to share with the class. I explained that as curious learners, we ask a wide variety of questions in the context of science. Today we would sort their questions and determine which questions could best be tested with an experiment.

As students shared their questions, I asked the class to come up with categories to define their questions. They came up with the following categories. (Yes, there are certainly other types of questions, but these are the four that came up through their ice balloon wonderings, so we focused on these.)

  • “Why does ice seem sad?” = Philosophical question
  • “How long does it take for ice to melt?” = Observational question
  • “Why does salt melt ice?” = Research question
  • “Does the color of the food dye change how quickly the ice melts?” = Experimental question

The students soon noticed that all of their experimental questions had something they would change in order to test two or more scenarios. I let them know that the “thing they would change” is called an independent variable.

Toward the end of our sorting activity, one boy asked, “Which type of question is the best?” Uh oh, I wasn’t prepared for this question! “Hmm, what do you all think?” I asked the class. After a few seconds, one girl proposed, “Probably the question you want to know the answer to the most badly.” And I was saved by the wisdom of 8-year-olds!


Additional Resources About Questioning and the Scientific Method

To learn more about the three kinds of variables in kid-friendly language, check out this article from Science Buddies. BrainPOP and StudyJams! also have movies about the scientific method.

Download this ice balloons activity guide that presents a similar activity for using ice balloons to lead students through the inquiry process. I adapted my lesson from this plan from Exploratorium, the museum of science, art, and human perception in San Francisco.

If you’re interested in learning more about fostering curiosity among students and the psychology of curiosity in general, I highly recommend the book Developing More Curious Minds by John Barell.

Download these posters that explain the scientific method, step-by-step, from Instructor magazine, in color or black and white.


Of course, learning to ask investigable questions is only a start — albeit a very important one. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, scientist and science educator Carl Sagan wrote, “Both skepticism and wonder are skills that need honing and practice. Their harmonious marriage within the mind of every school child ought to be a principal goal of public education” (p. 306). How do you promote curiosity in your classroom?

For updates on my future blog posts and more science project ideas, you can follow me on Facebook or Twitter!

Comments (2)

I love it and I love those posters. I need to get some colored ink...

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