Whole Class Inquiry – Whirligigs

I like to kick the year off in physics with a light inquiry lab in which the students make and test paper whirligigs.  This serves two purposes – for me, a formative assessment of students’ inquiry skills; for students, a review of the inquiry process.  It’s fun and pretty light and serves it’s purpose but this year I want more.

how to make a whirligig

how to make a whirligig - thanks PBSKids.org

I  show the students a model whirligig and ask them to figure out how to make the whirligig with the longest flight time.  We discuss variables to manipulate, and ones to serve as controlled variables.  I facilitate a student discussion and record their ideas on chart paper/ whiteboard.  They split up the variables by group and test them independently of each other.

It soon becomes clear that the data gathering is mostly haphazard and not likely to be meaningful. Sure, this lab is more about process than content but the primacy of data is critical to hammer home early and often. How to intervene and bring home the importance of data with something more engaging than a discussion or report?

Hmmm…. how about some Whole Class Inquiry (Dennis W. Smithenry, Joan Gallager-Bolos)? Money.

“Alright guys, here’s the deal; tomorrow, I’m going to hit you with a class challenge. You’re going to need good data to have any chance of success.”

The transition is better and faster than I could possibly imagine.  They immediately begin taking better notes and doing more trials. Data suddenly matters.

Ladies and gentlemen, engagement and urgency have entered the building.


The following day, I introduce the idea of Whole Class Inquiry.  I tell them that I’m going to challenge them to make a whirligig as a class with a very precise flight time (drop to landing) of 2.7 +/- 0.1 seconds (I know 2.7 sec is reasonable based on the times they were getting before; I have no idea if +/- 0.1 sec is reasonable).

I lay out the ground rules:

  1. Once we start, you will only be able to ask me 3 questions as a class
  2. You will have 30 minutes to come up the dimensions for a whirligig for me to make and drop
  3. You may do as many trials as you want as a class but the final whirligig will only get one shot (really an average of 3 trials)

Set the timer of the big screen for 30 minutes and say go. Take a step back.  Record observations and student comments.

I’ve rarely seen a class collaborate as a group with this level of engagement and sense of common purpose. They immediately blow one of their 3 questions on, “so we only get 3 questions?”  I say, “yes, and that’s one.”  After that they talk amongst themselves before asking any questions.  They lean on each other – not me.  They work together like crazy for half an hour; there is genuine laughter – but it’s on topic.  My principal wanders in on an unplanned drop-in and nobody notices but me.  They’re in the zone.

Yes, they mostly stray into trial and error, rather than planned and organized experiments but that is just a valuable point that I jot down to drive home after the activity.

At 29:30 (ish) one of the students hands me a diagram for a whirligig.  I measure it, cut it out and fold and staple as per their instructions.  We drop it 3 times.  The average is 2.81 seconds but I give it to them.  They literally cheer out loud.

To culminate, I read the observations and student quotes that I recorded.  They laugh out loud again – several times.  I give a few pointers about data gathering, sharing the labor and avoiding simple trial and error when possible.


One quote that I can’t get out of my head was the very first thing said after I said, “go.”  One of the senior boys said, “alright guys, let’s circle the wagons!”  So they did.  They all pulled their chairs together into a circle in the middle of the room and started discussing a plan of attack.

Maybe the community building by working together to achieve a common goal that they found challenging was the most valuable part.  I’m certainly going to do more whole class inquiry.  And soon.

14 thoughts on “Whole Class Inquiry – Whirligigs

  1. Hi Mr. Rice,
    Great blog post. It is so good to see a post that describes a real life activity. Sometimes we can get lost in philosophy but it is so nice to see a “philosophy” in action. Your students are truly engaged.

    Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading more about the ways you engage your students.


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  3. This sounds awesome. I’m going to try something similar with my classes. I really like focusing the whole class around one goal, and limiting the number of questions they have to try to get the teacher to work out all the details for them.

  4. Give it a try. Have fun with the kids. Watch them work together, negotiate, argue, laugh. I learn a lot about my students when I silently observe them working together.

  5. Can I go back to high school and be in your class? I just want to say thanks for the post and echo Brian’s sentiment. Often we speak too much about philosophy, and, as someone just starting out, I’m looking for concrete ideas. Thanks again! I will try it next week when our classes resume.

  6. Thanks!

    I hope to be able to continue to share concrete ideas this year, interspersed with whatever pops into my head, of course.

    Please let me know how it goes!

  7. I went to one of your sessions at NSTA Philadelphia and was completely intrigued. I love the book and the DVD supplement. Thank you so much for sharing your classroom so freely and openly! Whole Class Inquiry should be required reading for all science teachers.

    Thanks also for taking the time to drop in and read my post!

  8. I have 18 in physics. I actually did the marshmallow challenge in my 9th grade Biology classes to start out the year. Those classes have ~22 each. They loved it!

    Afterwards, we watched the 6 minute TED talk and debriefed. I thought it was very productive.

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