Inquiry Arcs


Orange County Academy of Sciences and Arts uses an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning to help students ask questions, make discoveries and build a rich understanding of content. With this in mind, Orange County Academy of Sciences and Arts will be guided by the San Francisco Exploratorium’s approach to inquiry:


  1. The inquiry process is driven by one’s own curiosity, wonder, interest, and passion to understand an observation or to solve a problem.

  2. The process begins when the learner notices something that intrigues, surprises, or stimulates a question – something that is new, or something that may not make sense in relationship to the learner’s previous experience or current understanding.

  3. The next step is to take action – through continual observations, raising questions, making predictions, testing hypotheses, and creating conceptual models.

  4. The learner must find his or her own pathway through this process. It is rarely a linear progression, but rather more of a back-and-forth, or cyclical, series of events.

  5. As the process unfolds, more observations and questions emerge, providing for deeper interaction with the phenomena – and greater potential for further development of understanding.

  6. Along the way, the inquirer collects and records data, makes representations of results and explanations, and draws upon other resources such as books, videos and the expertise or insights of others.

  7. Making meaning from the experience requires reflection, conversation, comparison of findings with others, interpretation of data and observations, and the application of new conceptions to other contexts. All of these serve to help the learner construct an improved mental framework of the world.


Inquiry Arc Process


Inquiry Arcs will provide the foundation for a rich learning experience at Orange County Academy of Sciences and Arts. Each Arc will last an entire semester and include three phases – exploration, expression, and exposition. These phases are based on the approach that Brightworks School SF uses (developed by Gever Tully).



The purpose of the exploration phase of the inquiry arc is designed for students to explore, understand, discover, read and comprehend the topic as it relates to their individual learning plan.  Teachers will guide students in exercises that will help them explore the topic.  The school will organize field study days where students can experience the topic in a real-world setting.  Additionally, guest speakers will be invited to the school to demonstrate their experience with the topic.  The goal of the exploration phase is to provide a foundation upon which students can develop their project plan.


Individuals, small groups or entire bands of students will develop a project plan relating to the arc.  Teachers will guide the students in the development of the project plan to mirror a real-world problem-solving approach.  Parents will be asked to approve their child’s participation on a particular project.  The project plan will be a comprehensive guiding document that will indicate the goal of the project, the members of the team, the resources required to complete the project, milestones and deliverables.  The project plan will be presented to a review board consisting of the principal and his or her designees.  Once approved, the students will move on to the expression phase.


During the expression phase of the arc, students will focus their efforts and attention on executing the project according to plan.  There is a strong emphasis on prototyping and iterative processes while completing the project.  Students’ initial assumptions will be challenged and they may need to modify the project plan.  This will be done with the assistance of the teacher and the project review board.


During the exposition phase, students will demonstrate their project in a real-world setting.  Students will be encouraged to exhibit their project not only at school events but find places in the community to share their project.  Students from other OCDE schools will also be invited to view and experience OCASA projects through field trips. 


A critical component to the exposition phase will be a deliberate process for students to review and reflect on the work that they have done.  Students will be asked to complete documentation on the project for their portfolio.  Through this process, students will revisit the original project plan and reflect on the success and failures from their initial thoughts.  Project teams will also express gratitude to those who assisted in the development of the project during the exposition phase.


Benefits of Inquiry-based Teaching and Learning


There are numerous benefits associated with inquiry-based teaching and learning. Orange County Academy of Sciences and Arts has chosen this approach for five primary reasons:


1. Interdisciplinary teaching and learning

Inquiry Arcs enable students to think critically about the interconnectedness of different content areas, subjects and topics. For example, students may practice measurement alongside history with a visit to the San Juan Capistrano Mission. Or students may express their understanding of climate science by writing a letter to the Orange County Supervisor about the benefits of renewable energy sources. With the Common Core & Next-Generation Science Standards as a foundation for each unit, these types of projects will help students make real-world connections, better understand themselves as learners, and learn to apply newfound knowledge and skills in the world around them.


2. Time for exploration

With Inquiry Arcs, students have time and space to explore the topic at hand and their interests in regards to that topic. Exploration may include question generation, reading and research, guest speakers with expertise or experience in the field of study, community visits and fieldwork, or independent and collaborative studies. These activities will be curated with purpose so that students explore while working toward their own learning goals and developing new skills.


3. Depth over breadth

Inquiry Arcs ensure that students develop a deep understanding of subject matter. The interdisciplinary nature of Arcs means that students are diving into various aspects of the same content in all subjects. Therefore, by the end of a specific Arc, students have had sufficient time and space to dig deeply into content in a variety of ways. This depth helps students retain what they have learned and apply that learning in new ways.


4. Relevancy

Students learn best when they feel as if their learning matters. Orange County Academy of Sciences and Arts will utilize Inquiry Arcs to ensure that students see and experience the relevance of their learning. Students will solve real problems, generate authentic solutions, and work in partnership with the community they live and learn in. Students will see life and learning as intimately connected in school and in their everyday lives.


5. Opportunities for authentic creation

Arcs will culminate with an exhibition to demonstrate the learning. Exhibitions will take on countless forms. These exhibitions will give students the opportunity to apply their learning in a meaningful and authentic way, and will further increase the agency they assume in their own learning.