Science education: purpose, methods, ideas and teaching resources

Agriculture & Food Security
Sustainable Development Goals
Discover the best method of teaching science and download free teaching resources


  • What is the purpose of science education?
  • What is the best method of teaching science?
  • What is Inquiry-Based Science Education?
  • What is an example of inquiry-based learning?
  • Free online resources for science teachers
  • Science education ideas

What is the purpose of science education?

To prosper in this modern age of innovation requires the capacity to grasp the essentials of diverse problems, to recognise meaningful patterns, to retrieve and apply relevant knowledge.

Science education has the potential for helping the development of the required abilities and understanding by focusing on developing powerful ideas of science and ideas about the nature of scientific activity and its applications.

Scientific literacy refers to an individual’s scientific knowledge and its use. It allows an understanding of the scientific process and makes it possible to apply evidence-based knowledge across a broad range of issues that require individual and collective action (such as responding to COVID-19 and climate change, or understanding AI, machine learning and other new technologies).

Science Education is a key area for the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), whose Science Education Programme (SEP) is led by a Global Council of experts that defines and implements its annual activities on global and regional scales.

girls doing science

What is the best method of teaching science?

Science education should enhance learners’ curiosity, wonder and questioning, building on their natural inclination to seek meaning and understanding of the world around. Scientific inquiry should be introduced and encountered by school students as an activity that can be carried out by everyone including themselves.

They should have personal experiences of finding out about and of making connections between new and previous experiences that not only bring excitement and satisfaction but also the realisation that they can add to their knowledge through active inquiry. Both the process and product of scientific activity can evoke a positive emotional response which motivates further learning.

scientific activity for children

What is Inquiry-Based Science Education?

Inquiry-Based Science Education (IBSE) adopts an investigative approach to teaching and learning where students are provided with opportunities to investigate a problem, search for possible solutions, make observations, ask questions, test out ideas, and think creatively and use their intuition. In this sense, inquiry-based science involves students doing science where they have opportunities to explore possible solutions, develop explanations for the phenomena under investigation, elaborate on concepts and processes, and evaluate or assess their understandings in the light of available evidence.

This approach to teaching relies on teachers recognizing the importance of presenting problems to students that will challenge their current conceptual understandings so they are forced to reconcile anomalous thinking and construct new understandings.

IAP seeks to reform and develop science education on a global scale, especially in primary and secondary schools, with a pedagogy based on IBSE because it provides opportunities for students to see how well their ideas work in authentic situations rather than in abstract discussions. Students build knowledge through testing ideas, discussing their understanding with teachers and their peers, and through interacting with scientific phenomena.

science class experiment

What is an example of inquiry-based learning?

An example of inquiry-based learning is 'COVID-19! How can I protect myself and others?' (free download here), a new rapid-response guide for youth aged 8–17 developed as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the Smithsonian Science Education Center, in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and IAP.

The guide, which is based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aims to help young people understand the science and social science of COVID-19 as well as help them take actions to keep themselves, their families and communities safe.

Through a set of seven cohesive student-led tasks, participants engage in the activities to answer questions previously defined by their peers. The questions explore the impact of COVID-19 on the world, how to practice hand and respiratory hygiene and physical distancing, and how to research more information about COVID-19. The final task teaches youth how they can take action on the new scientific knowledge they learn to improve their health and the health of others. Each task is designed to be completed at home.

covid child

Free online resources for science teachers

Food! Community Research Guide

Food! is a freely available community research guide that uses the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to focus on sustainable actions that are defined and implemented by students (download it here).

Mosquito! Community Research Guide

This module effectively promotes excellence within science education while fostering pioneering approaches to empower and unite educators around the world. Mosquito! addresses the problem of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes from an educational point of view (download it here). 

Other teaching resources and guides

You can download more teaching resources and guides here.

Inquiry-based science education resources

Science education ideas

The IAP publication “Working with Big Ideas of Science Education” (available for free here) includes this list of ideas that all students should have had opportunity to learn by the end of compulsory education:

All matter in the Universe is made of very small particles

Atoms are the building blocks of all matter, living and non-living. The behaviour and arrangement of the atoms explains the properties of different materials. In chemical reactions atoms are rearranged to form new substances. Each atom has a nucleus containing neutrons and protons, surrounded by electrons. The opposite electric charges of protons and electrons attract each other, keeping atoms together and accounting for the formation of some compounds.

Objects can affect other objects at a distance

All objects have an effect on other objects without being in contact with them. In some cases the effect travels out from the source to the receiver in the form of radiation (e.g. visible light). In other cases action at a distance is explained in terms of the existence of a field of influence between objects, such as a magnetic, electric or gravitational field. Gravity is a universal force of attraction between all objects however large or small, keeping the planets in orbit round the Sun and causing terrestrial objects to fall towards the centre of the Earth.

Changing the movement of an object requires a net force to be acting on it

A force acting on an object is not seen directly but is detected by its effect on the object’s motion or shape. If an object is not moving the forces acting on it are equal in size and opposite in direction, balancing each other. Since gravity affects all objects on Earth there is always another force opposing gravity when an object is at rest. Unbalanced forces cause change in movement in the direction of the net force. When opposing forces acting on an object are not in the same line they cause the object to turn or twist. This effect is used in some simple machines.

The total amount of energy in the Universe is always the same but can be transferred from one energy store to another during an event

Many processes or events involve changes and require an energy source to make them happen. Energy can be transferred from one body or group of bodies to another in various ways. In these processes some energy becomes less easy to use. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Once energy has been released by burning a fossil fuel with oxygen, some of it is no longer available in a form that is as convenient to use.

The composition of the Earth and its atmosphere and the processes occurring within them shape the Earth’s surface and its climate

Radiation from the Sun heats the Earth’s surface and causes convection currents in the air and oceans, creating climates. Below the surface heat from the Earth’s interior causes movement in the molten rock. This in turn leads to movement of the plates which form the Earth’s crust, creating volcanoes and earthquakes. The solid surface is constantly changing through the formation and weathering of rock.

Our solar system is a very small part of one of billions of galaxies in the Universe

Our Sun and eight planets and other smaller objects orbiting it comprise the solar system. Day and night and the seasons are explained by the orientation and rotation of the Earth as it moves round the Sun. The solar system is part of a galaxy of stars, gas and dust, one of many billions in the Universe, enormous distances apart. Many stars appear to have planets.

Organisms are organised on a cellular basis and have a finite life span

All organisms are constituted of one or more cells. Multi-cellular organisms have cells that are differentiated according to their function. All the basic functions of life are the result of what happens inside the cells which make up an organism. Growth is the result of multiple cell divisions.

Organisms require a supply of energy and materials for which they often depend on, or compete with, other organisms

Food provides materials and energy for organisms to carry out the basic functions of life and to grow. Green plants and some bacteria are able to use energy from the Sun to generate complex food molecules. Animals obtain energy by breaking down complex food molecules and are ultimately dependent on green plants as their source of energy. In any ecosystem there is competition among species for the energy resources and materials they need to live and reproduce.

Genetic information is passed down from one generation of organisms to another

Genetic information in a cell is held in the chemical DNA. Genes determine the development and structure of organisms. In asexual reproduction all the genes in the offspring come from one parent. In sexual reproduction half of the genes come from each parent.

The diversity of organisms, living and extinct, is the result of evolution

All life today is directly descended from a universal common ancestor that was a simple one-celled organism. Over countless generations changes resulting from natural diversity within a species lead to the selection of those individuals best suited to survive under certain conditions. Species not able to respond sufficiently to changes in their environment become extinct.

Science is about finding the cause or causes of phenomena in the natural world

Science is a search to explain and understand phenomena in the natural world. There is no single scientific method for doing this; the diversity of natural phenomena requires a diversity of methods and instruments to generate and test scientific explanations. Often an explanation is in terms of the factors that have to be present for an event to take place as shown by evidence from observations and experiments. In other cases supporting evidence is based on correlations revealed by patterns in systematic observation.

Scientific explanations, theories and models are those that best fit the evidence available at a particular time

A scientific theory or model representing relationships between variables of a natural phenomenon must fit the observations available at the time and lead to predictions that can be tested. Any theory or model is provisional and subject to revision in the light of new data even though it may have led to predictions in accord with data in the past.

The knowledge produced by science is used in engineering and technologies to create products to serve human ends

The use of scientific ideas in engineering and technologies has made considerable changes in many aspects of human activity. Advances in technologies enable further scientific activity; in turn this increases understanding of the natural world. In some areas of human activity technology is ahead of scientific ideas, but in others scientific ideas precede technology.

Applications of science often have ethical, social, economic and political implications

The use of scientific knowledge in technologies makes many innovations possible. Whether or not particular applications of science are desirable is a matter that cannot be addressed using scientific knowledge alone. Ethical and moral judgments may be needed, based on such considerations as justice or equity, human safety, and impacts on people and the environment.

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