Illuminating Instruction: Putting Science and Geography Together for Better Science Learning

This post was written by Jim McDonald, Professor of Science Education at Central Michigan University, a National Geographic Certified Educator, and educator.


More than ever, our world is interconnected. Today’s students need to understand how the complex and dynamic human and natural systems interact to make smart decisions and function effectively. The study of geography is essential to the comprehension of how our world works.

The Geo-Inquiry Process helps students develop the skills, knowledge, and tools of a geographer. It provides a systematic way to investigate and understand the world through the patterns, processes, and interactions between human and natural systems and then to act on their conclusions. 

“Studies have shown a positive impact on learning when students participate in lessons that require them to construct and organize knowledge, consider alternatives, engage in detailed research, inquiry, writing, and analysis, and communicate effectively to audiences.” — Bridget Barron and Linda Darling Hammond

“Inquiry science” has become a vague notion and has often led to a false separation of “content” and “process.” The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) performance expectations offer a tight integration of 8 science and engineering practices as they relate to learning and applying disciplinary core ideas while making connections to crosscutting concepts — a 3D model of learning. This is in strong contrast to teaching “the scientific method” at the beginning of the year and then diving into a series of “content” lessons and lock-step labs. There are multiple models of instruction that can fit this 3D approach.

Previously, science teachers were encouraged to identify students’ misconceptions and design instruction to unsettle and replace these. This approach was often reinforced with fact-based memorization lessons. We now understand that children’s science-related identities and ideas, whether scientifically accurate or not, are deeply grounded in their personal experience of the world and that it is productive to leverage them as they learn. NGSS calls for educators to build on these assets whenever possible. The Geo-Inquiry Process does this by showing students how relevant science is to the local issues they care about:

The Five Phases of the Geo-Inquiry Process

  1. Ask: We start by having students ask a question using this student-centered process. Asking good Geo-Inquiry Questions is at the heart of the Geo-Inquiry Process. These activities can be used to help students develop their skills in asking geographic questions and to give them a chance to explore a variety of local issues or problems. These materials are designed to help students narrow in on a specific topic or issue, and frame and refine their geographic questions into a Geo-Inquiry Question that will drive their project and be the focus of the subsequent phases of the project. Once the question is decided, it is not fixed. Since the Geo-Inquiry Process is iterative, the original question can be revised, rewritten, and revisited. Students do this by gathering information and going through the other phases of the process.

Ways to Generate Topics 

• Create an interest board. This can be a physical bulletin board in the classroom or an online platform. Students can add newspaper clippings, web links, images, or brief write-ups.

• If possible, invite community speakers into the classroom (in-person or virtually) to discuss areas of interest.

• Have students take photographs in their community and use these as prompts to identify issues or topics.

• Discuss issues important to students, such as specific social and environmental issues, and look for reflections locally.

• Share the case studies included in the Geo-Inquiry Process Resource Packet with students. Have students read about these explorers and their projects and identify the Geo-Inquiry Questions on which the projects are based.

Tips for Helping Students Develop Good Geo-Inquiry Questions

• When brainstorming, encourage students to write their initial questions without editing them. Encourage them to write for at least three minutes and coax them to write the entire time. Brainstorming in this way can force students beyond the first basic questions that come to mind. 

• Have students write additional queries after researching their topic or issue. Sometimes students lack the knowledge about a topic to craft the questions that can drive a project. 

• Tell students to choose questions that they cannot answer just by looking at a map or searching the Internet for the topic. Ask: If I gave you 10 minutes, could you find the answer to this question? If the answer is yes, students should move on to another question or rewrite the existing question to dig deeper. 

• Give students general but more complex questions that they might apply to their specific topic or issue. For example: Why is this there? Does this form a spatial pattern? How does this being here affect the people or natural environment nearby? 

• Students can test if they have a Geo-Inquiry Question by using the Geo-Inquiry Flow Chart.

A student observes and collects data on a plant. Photo by Mark Thiessen.

2. Collect: Once students have framed their Geo-Inquiry Question, they will need to conduct background research and then acquire the data that will enable them to answer their questions. The possibilities for types of information students will need to gather and ways in which they can gather this information are diverse. The activities in this section are designed to help students build solid background information about their topic through questioning, research, and data collection; to make sense of what types of data may be helpful to them; to identify data collection methods; and to design data collection tools. Since students’ data needs will depend on the issue they are investigating and the questions they asked, you should select the activities that best apply to students’ project(s). 

Collecting data in the field:

• Getting students into the community to collect data is a key component of this process. Going into the field essentially means getting out of the classroom to collect data. Gathering data can be low-tech with paper and pencil or high tech with smartphone applications, spreadsheets, or specialized collection kits. Generally, field activities include surveying, interviewing, mapping (paper or digital), collecting scientific data, taking photographs, and capturing video.

• Location data is a type of geospatial data that students should always collect when they are in the field. Most smartphone mapping applications allow you to drop a pin and record the latitude and longitude of your current location. You can also download applications designed to capture geolocation data. If available, a GPS unit also captures this data. Students should always check location data with another reputable source as bad signals can sometimes cause errors and impact data quality.

• Be sure to have the proper permissions from your administration, parents, and locations and organizations when collecting data in the field.

• Scout locations where students will be collecting data to avoid any surprises on the day(s) of data collection. This step will help you to determine what additional adult support you need.

• If students intend to capture photographs or video, encourage them to plan for several individuals to do so in case of equipment malfunction and to take shots from multiple perspectives. If students will be publishing or publicly presenting their work, ensure they have the proper permissions from any individuals in their photographs or video. 

• Ensure students have the proper safety equipment for their data collection. For example, individuals collecting data in or near a body of water may need life jackets, protective clothing, rubber boots, or gloves.

• Students collecting data in an urban location should select a safe area with the appropriate amount of adult supervision. Before fieldwork, discuss how to approach people to answer survey or interview questions safely and professionally.

• For students who will be collecting field data independently, send information home with tips and safety precautions and ask parents to sign an acknowledgment that students will be working independently and that parents or guardians are responsible for providing appropriate supervision.

• Students should carefully consider methods for recording and organizing their data. Each team should discuss and prepare a plan for collecting and organizing their data before beginning this project. Students should create any recording tools (e.g., a spreadsheet, table, or image folder) before collecting their data and have a plan to save their data in multiple locations. Ask them to consider the following questions: Is it appropriate and safe to use a laptop or tablet to record data? Could a cellular phone be used for data collection? Would it be best to record the data on paper and enter it into a computer in the classroom?

3. Visualize: Collecting data is only one step in answering Geo-Inquiry Questions. The students collect data so that they can tell a story, which helps to present the case and allows students to imagine who to tell the story to — an audience they select. This phase guides students through organizing the data they have collected to tell their story, visualizing that data in a way that conveys an understanding of the issue they are researching and reaches the selected audience, and putting that data onto a map or displaying it with visuals. The Geo-Inquiry Process focuses on using the geographic lens as a way to better share data and tell a story. Telling the story is the key. If the research results in revising the question, students are empowered to do so to tell the story. 

4. Create: In this phase of the project, students will put the information they gathered and the data they analyzed into the context of a story tailored to a particular audience. Students become storytellers, which means they can be creative and guide the story the way they see it. The idea is not just to present information, it is to tell a story that will move others toward action. The story can be created through the use of photography, research, persuasion, writing, and advocacy. After all, students guide the process, with the support of their teacher. 

5. Act: The final step in students’ projects is to share their Geo-Inquiry story and to use their stories for a community, school, and their audience to take action. When students usually learn science, they discover information and develop understanding. The Geo-Inquiry Process goes several steps beyond this to motivate and empower students to take action on an issue. It also helps students tell others about a story that affects the community where they live. Going beyond understanding to action, students use the Explorer’s frame of reference to become and act like stewards of the Earth to make the issue a community priority.


Want to learn more about the Geo-Inquiry Process? Enroll in our course beginning Monday, 11/16, to help bring Geo-Inquiry skills to your classroom and teaching practice.

Feature image by Rebecca Hale