Robert Gardner: Teaching Scientific Inquiry

What You Need


  • Teaching and Writing: Two Lives in One article
  • Classroom copies of Weather Science Fair Projects by Robert Gardner.
  • Clear, empty, two-liter plastic soda bottle and cap
  • Warm water
  • Matches
  • Measuring cup
Robert Gardner: Teaching Scientific Inquiry


To explore scientific inquiry by performing a hands-on activity about clouds by author Robert Gardner.


This lesson makes use of a book called Weather Science Fair Projects by Robert Gardner (Enslow, 2010), who is the 2010 SB&F Prize Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. You can read more about this award and the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books at Book Award.

Robert Gardner is an accomplished, award-winning author of more than 130 science books for young readers. He has devoted much of his life to educating children in all disciplines of science. After graduating from Wesleyan University and Trinity College, he taught biology, chemistry, and physics at the Salisbury School for almost 40 years. He retired from teaching in 1989, and since then has been writing open-ended, inquiry-based science experiment books. Robert Gardner's books have excited thousands of children to get involved in science and to understand scientific inquiry, all while having fun.

Fundamentally, the various scientific disciplines are alike in their reliance on evidence, the use of hypothesis and theories, the kinds of logic used, and much more. While scientists differ greatly from one another in what phenomena they investigate and in how they go about their work, the exchange of techniques, information, and concepts go on all the time among scientists. There are common understandings among them about what constitutes an investigation that is scientifically valid.

Middle-school students should become more systematic and sophisticated in conducting their investigations. That means closing in on an understanding of what constitutes a good experiment. The concept of controlling variables is straightforward, but achieving it in practice is difficult. Students can make some headway, however, by participating in enough experimental investigations and discussing how explanation relates to experimental design.

For this lesson, students will use the "Making a Cloud" experiment from the book Weather Science Fair Projects by Robert Gardner. By performing this experiment, students will come to better understand scientific inquiry and weather by testing the hypothesis that a cloud can be formed by allowing water vapor to cool and condense on small particles in the air.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).

Planning Ahead

Enslow Publishers currently has three series of books written by Gardner: "Science Projects Using the Scientific Method," "Sports Science Projects," and "Crime-Solving Science Projects." We recommend obtaining classroom copies of a book from one of these 2010 series for more science projects in the classroom.


Students may have spent time outdoors looking for fun shapes in the clouds. This time, however, they will learn to identify the different types of clouds and how they relate to weather. Then, they will discover the more dramatic weather involving clouds: hurricanes and tornadoes.

To begin, have students use their Robert Gardner student esheet to visit the Clouds page of the National Weather Service JetStream—Online School for Weather website to learn about the different types of clouds. Once students have studied this page, ask them these questions (they can write answers to these questions on the Robert Gardner student sheet):

  • What are the four different basic categories of clouds?
      (They are cirro-form, nimbo-form, cumulo-form, and strato-form.)
  • Which type of cloud is formed of ice crystals?
      (Cirro-form are clouds formed from ice crystals.)
  • Which type of cloud looks like a blanket covering the sky?
      (Strato-form clouds look like blankets.)
  • Which type of cloud brings steady rain or snow?
      (Nimbo-form clouds bring steady rain or snow.)
  • Which type of cloud has the greatest height?
      (Cumulo-form clouds have the greatest height.)

Students should then look at photos of actual clouds by clicking on various pictures of clouds on the Skywatcher Chart and discuss which basic cloud types they are.

Once they understand clouds, students might enjoy learning about severe storms. They could take a tour through the BBC's animated guides on Hurricanes and Tornadoes to learn how severe storms are formed:

Students could also visit Forces of Nature on the National Geographic website to cause their own tornadoes and hurricanes.


For this lesson, students should first familiarize themselves with author Robert Gardner and his work by reading his autobiographical sketch, Teaching and Writing: Two Lives in One. Lead a class discussion about Mr. Gardner, using these questions as a guide:

  • What careers make up the author's "two lives"?
      (The two careers are writer and teacher.)
  • What was his childhood like?
      (He grew up in a rural community. His family had no electricity, telephone, or running water and they relied on a coal/wood stove for cooking. He worked on a neighbor's farm where he learned the meaning of hard work plus discipline and organization skills that enable him to be successful.)
  • What class in high school taught him how to think?
      (Geometry taught him how to think.)
  • Why didn't Mr. Gardner attend medical school?
      (He couldn't afford to go and he was eager to begin working.)
  • What classes did he teach at Salisbury School?
      (He taught chemistry and biology.)
  • What led him to believe he would be a good writer?
      (The papers he wrote for his graduate classes were well received.)
  • What types of materials did he first start writing?
      (He first wrote some articles for a children's magazine.)

Then, students should use their esheet to go and listen to a podcast interview with him. Use these questions to guide your class discussion:

  • Where did Mr. Gardener first work after college?
      (He first worked in industry.)
  • Did he enjoy that job?
      (No, he didn't.)
  • When did he get caught up in teaching hands-on science?
      (He got caught up in teaching hands-on science in 1959.)
  • Was he interested in science as a young child?
  • About how many books has Mr. Gardner written?
      (He has written over 130 books.)
  • Who chooses the topics he writes about?
      (Sometimes his publisher tells him what he should write and sometimes he chooses the topic.)
  • What does he find hard about writing with someone else? What does he like about it?
      (The hard part is getting the person to meet deadlines. The good part is you exchange ideas and thoughts to make a better book.)
  • What does he find most difficult about writing hands-on books?
      (He has to make sure that the equipment used in the experiments is easy to get a hold of and inexpensive.)
  • What was the subject of the book that he thought was his best writing?
      (The subject was on whales.)
  • What hands-on topics did he most enjoy writing about?
      (The books he wrote on human anatomy are the ones he enjoyed writing the most.)

After students become familiar with Robert Gardner and his approach to hands-on inquiry, have them use their Make a Cloud student sheet to perform one of the many hands-on inquiries written by the author. This particular lesson is taken from Gardner's book titled Weather Science Fair Projects. It would be helpful to obtain at least one classroom copy of the book, if not enough for the entire class.

To begin, have a classroom discussion about clouds to help them form their hypothesis for the experiment. Ask students:

  • Do you know what a cloud is made of?
      (It is formed of water droplets, which are made by water vapor and particles.)
  • Where does most of the moisture come from to form clouds?
      (It comes from the oceans.)
  • How do clouds form in the sky?
      (They form when warm air rises and expands, and then cools. Cold air cannot hold as much water vapor as warm air, so some of the water vapor condenses on very small particles to form water droplets.)
  • How does rain form?
      (If the conditions are right, small droplets bump into one another, combining into larger drops. These larger drops are too large to remain in the air, and then fall to the earth as rain.)

Then, have students break into small groups of two to three, and using their student sheet, they should follow the directions on it. You can help guide them by using the Make a Cloud teacher sheet.

Note: Part of the activity requires that you light a match. Be sure to follow all of your school's safety regulations when you do this activity.

After they do the Make a Cloud activity, students should use the Cloud Experiment student sheet to test one or two of their own hypotheses. For example, they could try the experiment using cold water instead of warm, or by adding water but not shaking the bottle, or varying the amounts of pressure they apply to the bottle.


Have students answer these questions on their Cloud Experiment student sheet to describe and identify the evidence they've gathered.

  • What are clouds made of? 
  • Why does the water in your experiment need to be warm?
  • Try the experiment again, using cold water instead of warm water. What results do you get?
  • Why didn't a cloud form in the bottle before the match was used?
  • Why do you have to squeeze and then release the bottle in order for the cloud to form?

Make sure to explicitly talk about the reasoning they used to come to a conclusion.


Students who are interested in writing about science should read about Robert Gardner on these websites:

These Science NetLinks lessons could be used as extensions:

Weather Activities from Edheads, is an interactive site of weather fronts and systems.

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards