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Students With Inquiring Minds Are Scientists (S.W.I.M.A.S.)
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By Malachi R. Ewbank with Linda A. Cook, Ph.D.


It was four years ago when I finally decided to step up to the plate and stare into the proverbial teacher’s mirror. I was failing my class when it came to how I taught science, and it didn’t feel good at all. I wanted to change science education in my classroom to reflect the way that scientists study the world’s complex systems. In many ways, my methodologies for teaching science mirrored exactly the way I was taught as a young scientist. Four years ago, though, that old paradigm took a dramatic shift and immeasurably altered who I am as a science educator.

“I’m not teaching children the importance of inquiry in their science education, and they are increasingly bored in the science classroom.” It wasn’t easy to admit, but it was true. And so S.W.I.M.A.S. (Students With Inquiring Minds Are Scientists) was developed. My first step was to find a thought partner so I asked our district’s K-12 director of science. Together we built a framework where inquiry would promote student choice, true scientific investigation, and in-depth scientific processing. As with any journey, our first attempts were not very effective. Our original idea involved open inquiry of unit topics. Dr. Cook and I went back to the drawing board and decided to narrow the scope of the S.W.I.M.A.S. model in order to focus the learners’ questioning on the specific unit curriculum. Together we created guided inquiry investigations through which students developed their own questions aligned to a specific set of knowledge and skills within the scope of the unit standards. The revision was definitely an improvement to the model, but it wasn’t until our third revision that we cemented a replicable process. We set the expectation that learners would participate in guided inquiry investigations, develop questions of inquiry that could be investigated and/or researched, and then tied back to the broader scientific principle expressed as an essential question or enduring understanding for the unit of study.

The S.W.I.M.A.S. model promotes rigorous thinking through questioning and assessment and is inherently organic because it is driven by student-developed questions. There are five distinct facets built into the S.W.I.M.A.S. model: Pre-Assessment, Guided Inquiry, S.W.I.M.A.S. Menu, Journaling/Scientific Vocabulary, and Post-Assessment.


Pre-Assessment is essential to the S.W.I.M.A.S. model because it gives learners a starting point. I purposely design pre-assessments with a “constructed response” where learners describe and define their background knowledge. This makes it much easier to explain and record the evolution in thinking they experience, something that would not occur with multiple-choice questions. I circle, mark, and comment on all answers on the pre-assessment in order to give learners a broad picture of what their background knowledge looks like. Learners are then responsible for assessing their own background knowledge in order to create a pathway for themselves to address their own learning needs within the content area.

Guided Inquiry Investigations are experiences created to give learners a chance to build scientific knowledge and explore their natural world within the context of the unit-aligned standards. These investigations promote deep questioning by learners to expand their thinking beyond the single task they are facing. Student questions are recorded on Post-it® notes and posted to a common question board in the room. Learners also use these investigations to make careful observations and collect data that may be used to help support or challenge future scientific claims or models.


Learners analyze their own pre-assessment and guided inquiry questions to create their own S.W.I.M.A.S. menu consisting of 3-4 relevant questions they created from the investigations that will help broaden and deepen their understanding of the particular curricular targets. Learner-led conferences ensue, and then children spend one-to-two weeks investigating and researching each question. This is where science comes alive for children because they not only have a vested interest in the process, but they are actively changing and shaping schema which inevitably prompts deeper questioning and thinking.


Science journaling is an art, and I help learners master the process of creating artifacts that speak to the nature of their new learning. The process is simple and requires that learners focus on four core areas: question, prediction, evidence, and claim. I encourage learners to collect as much data as they can and record everything in their notebooks. Learners learn the process of analyzing and synthesizing data in order to speak to its validity as evidence. This is where scientific thinking takes shape in the S.W.I.M.A.S. model. My experience at the beginning of this process was that learners collected pages of data and then tried to defend the notion that all of it was evidence; actually, in some cases, less than half of the data actually supported any claims made by the student-scientists. As Dr. Cook and I reworked the model and incorporated a stronger vocabulary component, learners were directed to focus on the core question and how specific evidence aligned with a claim.

s are designed in two different ways in the S.W.I.M.A.S. model. Some post-assessments have learners revisit their own pre-assessments as tools to show mastery of concepts by explaining, drawing, and defending how their answers have changed over the course of the S.W.I.M.A.S. unit. Other post-assessments are more traditional where questions are asked and learners “show” their thinking through reflective writing and defend any claims they make.

When I started this journey it began with a simple question, “How can I become a better science educator for my learners?” The S.W.I.M.A.S. model was my answer. The model focuses on the inquiry process and not a set of discrete science facts. As with any model, S.W.I.M.A.S. will continue to evolve based on learners’ needs.  One of those needs has led to the development of our S.W.I.M.A.S. rubric. The rubric guides learner development of several scientific practices. When used as a self-reflective tool, the rubric provides a clear path for future growth as scientific thinkers and practitioners.
Watching children grow in their scientific thinking and questioning has not only given me more confidence in inquiry-based teaching through the S.W.I.M.A.S. model, but has led me to believe that all educators can implement student-driven inquiry into the science classroom. I am confident that the S.W.I.M.A.S. model, in the hands of any educator, will help transform science education.


S.W.I.M.A.S. Rubric





Questioning – Investigable and Researchable

Student generated questions are not connected to the topic.

Student generated questions are on topic.

Student generated questions are on topic and require rigorous thinking.

Student generated questions promote deeper conceptual understanding of the scientific principles related to the topic.


A. Qualitative/Quantitative

Makes a few basic observations and measurements.

Observations and measurements are related to the question.

Observations and measurements required a variety of senses and tools.

Observations and measurements reflect conceptual thinking.

B. Subjective/Objective

Observations include subjective information such as inferences rather than direct experience.


Observations are the direct result of experiences but limited to the most obvious.

Observations are the direct result of experiences and include multiple senses and tools

Observations are the direct result of experiences and the choice of tools and senses reflect conceptual thinking.


A. Supports Claim

Gathers data but is not evidence to support the claim.

Gathers data that partially supports the claim or makes claims based on insufficient evidence.

Evidence clearly supports the claim with learner explanation.

Outside observer follows evidence to come up with same/similar claim.

B. Reaches Beyond Classroom

Data is limited to that collected in the classroom during the current investigation and is not evidence to support the claim.

Evidence is limited to that collected in the classroom during the current investigation.

Evidence includes prior classroom and/or real world connections.

Requires complex research and/or investigation.


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