Although closely related to science processes, scientific inquiry extends beyond the mere development of process skills such as observing, inferring, classifying, predicting, measuring, questioning, interpreting and analyzing data. Scientific inquiry includes the traditional science processes, but also refers to the combining of these processes with scientific knowledge, scientific reasoning and critical thinking to develop scientific knowledge. In addition to “doing” inquiry, the phrase scientific inquiry also refers to knowledge about inquiry. It is expected that all students understand the rationale of an investigation and be able to critically analyze the claims made from the data collected. One important understanding ABOUT is that the so-called fixed set and sequence of steps, known as The Scientific Method, is not an accurate representation of the multitude of approaches to inquiry followed by scientists. The contemporary view of scientific inquiry is that the questions guide the approach and the approaches vary widely within and across scientific disciplines and fields.
At a general level, scientific inquiry can be seen to take several forms. Descriptive research is the form of research that often characterizes the beginning of a line of research. This is the type of research that derives the variables and factors important to a particular situation of interest. Whether descriptive research gives rise to correlational approaches depends upon the field and topic. If scientists are attempting to find relationships among variables in nature (e.g., pollutants and animal behavior) the investigations are more correlational than descriptive. Finally, scientists may design experiments to directly assess the effect of one variable on another. This research is known as experimental. To briefly distinguish correlational from experimental research, the former identifies relationships among variables noted in descriptive research and the latter involves a planned intervention and manipulation of variables related in correlational research in an attempt to derive causal relationships.
In addition to the various forms that inquiry takes, students should also understand that all investigations begin with a question, the conclusions must be consistent with data collected, it is common for scientists following the same procedures to get different results, and data and evidence are not the same. Regarding this last point, data are the information gathered during an investigation, but the interpretation of data as being supportive or contrary to a particular prediction or conclusion is evidence. In short, evidence is interpreted data.
In summary, inquiry can be perceived in three different ways. It can be viewed as a set of skills to be learned by students and combined in the performance of a scientific investigation. It can also be viewed as a cognitive outcome that students are to achieve (i.e., what students should know about inquiry). Finally, inquiry can be considered as a teaching approach that places students in situations very similar to what scientists experience during their daily work. In this sense, “scientific inquiry” is viewed as a teaching approach used to communicate scientific knowledge to students (or allow students to construct their own knowledge).