The Spark Behind the Spark

By Tracy Kirsten and Kathryn Bolton

The St. Mary’s Physical Science department has been intentional over the years in trying to use the Inquiry-Based Learning approach more, and in bringing CURIOSITY back to our Science classrooms. We believe that science teaching should be driven by student inquiry – when students take ownership of their learning when they play a role in the learning process and the construction of their knowledge, confidence will grow.

The vision

The vision

We use the 5E Model of Instruction for inquiry-based science education, developed by American STEM education experts. It provides a carefully planned sequence of instruction that attempts to place students at the centre of the learning process rather than the teacher.

Learning journey

The vision

We start each section with a fun exploration task, wherein each student is fully engaged in a common experience. We let them generate their own ideas first, using their own vocabulary and terminology. Often, we tend to do this process in reverse. We explain first, using vocabulary that the pupils can’t relate to or understand, and only afterwards do we let the students engage and explore. When we introduce new concepts wherein the students can see the real-life value in what they are studying, we’ve found the students to be more willing to invest time and effort in their learning. Furthermore, we have learnt that you don’t have to do ‘wow’ experiments to engage students and get them curious and excited about science. Applying a simple inquiry-based task, with just enough guidance facilitated by well-framed questions often brings about that lightbulb moment, and a very real sense of accomplishment to even notoriously mundane learning areas.


Curriculum standards

The vision
Curriculum standards

We follow the IEB curriculum. The activities are designed for learners to develop their skills in synthesising their knowledge of a range of concepts, and to use this to evaluate some scenarios.

Teacher Feature

The vision

Student Activities in the 5E Learning Journey

The vision

Grade 8: Investigating temperature change 

For our Grade 8s, we introduce energy transfer by instructing the students to drop blocks of dry ice into beakers of coloured water. The discussion that ensues about why the water becomes cold, and what the ‘smoke’ is above the beaker, is animated, indicating a high level of student interest and engagement. We also prepared weakly basic solutions, with indicators, so that the carbonic acid formed when the dry ice was added produced some wonderful colour changes. 

We used a really fun, microscale activity to investigate how salt affects the freezing point of water. This was such an effective way to visualise and explain to South African learners the use of salt on icy roads in the Northern Hemisphere winter.

Grade 9: Applying the scientific method

With our Grade 9s, we revised the scientific method with a ‘murder mystery’. The students came into the lab to find the outline of a body, with a mysterious white powder next to it. Solubility, melting and pH analysis of the powder using the correct steps in the investigation process helped students solve the crime!

For teaching Electricity, we use PhET simulations so the learners can build the circuits physically as well as virtually and explore relationships between series and parallel circuits.

Grade 10: Electrolytes


The buzz this year was about the drink Prime - this was a great platform on which to engage the learners about conductivity and the use of energy drinks and electrolytes using Pasco’s wireless conductivity meter. They also explored the concept of ionically bonded compounds as conductors and covalently bonded compounds as non-conductors.

Grade 11: Newton’s Law 


Our Grade 11s basically figured out each of Newton’s Laws for themselves with fun activities to start with. Our favourite is to introduce Newton 1 and the concept of inertia with water races, where students can clearly see water sloshing backwards from the containers when the races start, and forwards when they abruptly stop. 

Grade 11: Concentration and dilution

Concentration and dilution can be very challenging to grasp. We set up an activity whereby the students modelled this using a PhET simulation, diluting beakers of coloured solutions themselves and playing around with the concentrations and volumes to work out dilution factors for themselves. 

We also did ‘Redox Art’ where students etched their creations on aluminium foil with a toothpick and painted them with copper II chloride solution, then watched the redox reaction unfold.

Grade 12: Chemical equilibrium and Intermolecular Forces

We introduced the concept of chemical equilibrium with a water transfer activity using different-sized beakers and coloured water. This was such an effective analogy for chemical equilibrium, especially the constant, non-equal volumes of ‘reactants’ and ‘products’ in the last transfers. 

Our students obtained excellent data using Pasco wireless temperature sensors to investigate the rate of evaporation of alcohols of different chain lengths. This was great inquiry-based chemistry and such a useful visual link to relative strength of intermolecular forces.

Student reflections

The vision
Student reflections
Student reflections

Teacher reflections

The vision

The purpose of learning is to evolve our thinking and beliefs. 


We have found that small modifications in our pedagogy can make big differences to students’ belief that they can do science, and science lessons have become more relevant, interesting and appealing to our girls. 


We try to help girls believe that their scientific ability is dynamic and can be developed and improved upon with practice. We are helping students believe that they are stakeholders in the progression of their scientific thought processes through this hands-on approach to science teaching. 


We are invested in using this approach as it is student-centred, makes students take ownership of their learning and encourages understanding of scientific concepts rather than rote learning. We also find that student motivation and interest is enhanced and learners are able to apply their knowledge to new contexts.

What's next?

The vision

Most of our approach is structured and controlled inquiry rather than free inquiry. This is mostly due to being confined by the structures of getting through the IEB curriculum. We would love to do more guided and free inquiry where the learners choose their own driving questions and devise their own learning and development plans. This would allow them to make their learning more relevant to their interests and also broaden their understanding of the world and how subjects are more interdisciplinary.

Closing thoughts

The vision

We are living in the ‘re’ era: Science educators are rethinking, reimagining and recalibrating their compasses to rediscover their purpose. This need not be intimidating and can start small. If our calling is to help students learn, we will be more flexible and open to rethinking our methods. Courage and creativity in the classroom can be learned, and it improves with practice.


Want to learn more about PBL? Want to learn more about IBL?  Hop over to LaunchPad and complete our SACE-accredited Power of Project-based Learning and Becoming a Learning Architect courses. 

Or bring us to your school or join us online for our Extreme Project Makeover or Breaking Down the Silos workshops.