Authentic Inquiry Questions based on Observations: The Wonder of the Wooly Bear

Fenix holding a wooly bear caterpillar in his hand earlier in the fall.

We have been finding wooly bear caterpillars all over the yard for months. My boys love picking them up and carefully holding them in their hands. My youngest described their long, thick bristles (setae) as “scratchy.” This week he brought the banded wooly bear caterpillar to his eye and asked, “why are these caterpillars so sleepy?” 

There it is: an authentic question generated in context by a learner themselves. Authentic questions reflect what learners genuinely wonder and worry about. Authentic questions reflect what genuinely piques learners interest and holds their attention.  In a lot of ways, authentic questions are the best pathway to science education and nature exploration.

I asked, “well, what do you think? Why might the caterpillar be tired or moving around less?” He thought for awhile and said, “Maybe he is tired. Maybe he is cold and tired.”

When we went back inside, I pulled up the resources on Exploring Nature. I also pulled up an article or two online. I read the description of the wooly bear on the site and articles and asked the question back to my boys, “So, why do YOU think Wooly Bear caterpillars are so sleepy? What might be the reason?” 

Getting the correct answer was not the point. The point was treating their inquiry seriously, and providing them with potential sources that they could synthesize and draw conclusions from and discuss. Then, the next day we discussed the wooly bear life cycleand put the life cycle diagram in their nature journals. 

Eventually, we did talk about the cold weather, the decrease in food sources, and the slowing down and sleep of animals that hibernate. They think it is all very cool. I do too.