15: How to Include More Exploration

July 27, 2020

In this short solo episode, Nicole explains how to include more exploration in your class. She provides several examples of activity formats to use for exploration in an NGSS class.

Before You Listen

You might want to check out these episodes before listening to this one.

What is NGSS Exploration? (1:06)

Nicole discusses ways to use a discovery-based approach to allow for student exploration in your NGSS aligned class. When using a discovery-based approach, students have the opportunity to explore before you explain what is happening.

It’s important that you understand the difference between “Teaching as Telling” and “Explore before Explain” before listening to this episode. So, make sure that you have listened to Season 1 Episode 10 before listening to this episode.

What does student discovery look like in an NGSS classroom?

During student exploration, the teacher provides students with an activity that allows them to explore a phenomenon. Then, students discuss their ideas as well as possible explanations.

At this point, students are using common terminology rather than science vocabulary. Do not front load the vocabulary. (We will explain why in detail in season 2!)

The Teachers Role

The teacher is responsible for providing necessary background information for students to be able to carry out the activity. Beyond that, the teacher just acts as a facilitator.

The teacher can make observations and might ask guiding questions. However, it is important that the teacher is not validating correct answers or telling students when they are wrong. Instead, the teacher can redirect using those observations and guiding questions.

Examples of Exploration Activities in an NGSS Classroom (3:32)

Here are a few activity types that work well in the exploration phase of your lesson sequence.


Investigations are a great way to help your students to discover the content. They are very hands-on. They require a lot of student thinking.

These could be formal investigations or field observations. In these types of investigations, students are simply collecting data.

However, in order for it to be a discovery-based investigation, students need to be designing these investigations themselves. Labs with a step-by-step procedure are not discovery-based.


Simulations can be a great way to incorporation exploration into your NGSS aligned class. However, a simulation that is used as an explore activity shouldn’t include step-by-step instructions. Instead, students are allowed to freely explore the simulation.

Nicole recommends providing students with some guiding questions if you want to keep them on task.

For example, Phet Simulations are a great tool to allow students to explore. These simulations allow students to manipulate variables to find out the relationship between them.

Creating Models

Creating models is another example of a way that you can help students to discover the content in an NGSS aligned class. Models are physical representations of a phenomenon that students manipulate in order to begin to understand the phenomenon.

Students use these models to understand content. They use the model to test their ideas.

For example, provide students with a light source and various balls. Then, ask students to recreate the phases of the moon. They have to figure out the relationship between the Earth, moon and sun.

In contrast, students use conceptual models to explain their understanding. This type of activity is an explain phase activity.

Using Data

Also, data are great examples of resources that can be used for exploration in an NGSS classroom. In this example, simply provide students with a graph or chart. Then, ask students to make connections using what they are seeing in the data.

For example, provide students with a graph that shows the effect of water availability on plant growth. Ask students to start making observations. Ask them what they notice. Then, have them formulate questions about these observations.

In this case, avoid making connections for them. Try to avoid pointing out patterns and important details. Instead, allow them to make those connections for themselves.

Card Sorts

When doing card sorts, students use the Crosscutting Concepts to discover content. For example, students may look for patterns in the cards that they are given.

Card sorts are great for grouping, compare and contrast activities, and creating hierarchies.

For instance, Nicole uses a card sort to introduce the concept of food webs. Begin by providing students with different cards that represent different organisms in an ecosystem. These cards should contain notes about the organisms.

Students group the cards into categories. This will help them understand the differences between producers, consumers and decomposers.

Observation Stations

In some ways, observations stations are used like card sorts. However, you will bring in phenomena to your classroom.

The stations may include demos, mini-activities, and things to observe. Students rotate through the stations in order to build their understanding of the material.

Want to Learn More?

Resources Referenced: