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Personal Inquiry

Project website

What research questions the project addresses, aims & themes

The aim of the project was to support children aged 11-14 in coming to understand themselves and their world through scripted personal inquiry learning. With the aid of software running on both mobile and desktop computers children we were able to investigate issues that affect their lives, across different settings - including the classroom, their homes, and discovery centres - through a scientific process of gathering and assessing evidence, conducting experiments and engaging in informed debate.

The research addressed five key questions:

  1. How can scripted personal technologies be designed to support effective learning across transitions between formal and informal settings?
  2. How can teachers be enabled to author, orchestrate and monitor successful learning activities, aligned to curriculum topics?
  3. How are such technologies appropriated as tools for learning?
  4. How does the conduct and experience of scripted inquiry learning mediate and change learning activities?
  5. In what ways do scripted inquiry learning activities develop children's learning skills, including to work collaboratively, argue and debate from evidence, judge the veracity of source information, deal with noise in data, and construct and interpret appropriate visualisations of data?

The University of Nottingham and the Open University are partners in a £1.1m 'Personal Inquiry' project to help school students learn the skills of modern science. Funded by the UK ESRC and EPSRC research councils, the project is developing a new approach of 'scripted inquiry learning', where children aged 11-14 investigate a science topic with classmates by carrying out explorations between their classroom, homes and discovery centres, guided by a handheld computer. Other partners in the project include local secondary schools; ScienceScope (a company that develops school sensing and datalogging equipment); Nottingham Museums and Galleries; and Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre.

How the research questions are addressed by the project (methodology and activity/environment)

A computer toolkit, named nQuire, was designed to enable scripted inquiry learning, where scripts are computer programs, like dynamic lesson plans, that guide and support the learners through an inquiry learning process by providing them with a set of structured activities, data probes, visualisations of data, and means of communication. An authoring component of nQuire enables a teacher or educational designer to select, author and modify the scripts and to monitor and guide the student activity.

Seven school-based trials were conducted to evaluate the combination of technology and pedagogy, on topics of: urban heat islands (twice in two successive years), heart rate and fitness, microclimates, healthy eating, sustainability, and effect of noise pollution on birds. Results from one trial that compared outcomes with those of a control class showed a positive effect on learning outcomes and a maintained enjoyment of science lessons. Interviews with participants across the trials provided evidence of increased understanding of the inquiry learning process by children and teachers alike.

Findings and outputs

Findings related to the five "key research questions" include the following:

  • To support effective learning across transitions between formal and informal settings, scripted personal technologies need to enact a dynamic structured model of the inquiry learning process that acts as a negotiable 'boundary object' between teachers, learners and educational designers. The project has developed a novel representation of the inquiry process, implemented as a 'dynamic inquiry guide' on the nQuire toolkit.
  • Teachers can be enabled to author, orchestrate and monitor successful learning activities, by providing an authoring environment that can represent, visualise and support a sequence of lessons and also the phases of the inquiry process. The environment must assist allocation of students to project groups, integration of data, presentation of results to the whole class, and export to standard software applications. Initial training for the teachers should be directed at helping them to understand how the process for each inquiry can be scaffolded by the technology toolkit, how lesson plans need to embrace learning both inside and outside the classroom, how data collected through personal inquiry can be validated, shared and presented in class, and how to manage contingencies including students' inability or unwillingness to manage their inquiry activities outside the classroom.
  • The toolkit was successfully appropriated by teachers and students in contexts that include teacher-directed lessons, after-school club, field trip, and learner-managed homework. Producing an inquiry activity with an appropriate level of engagement proved unexpectedly challenging. Some activities engaged teachers and researchers more than learners, while others were initially 'too personal' for children, causing them embarrassment in collecting and sharing data such as photographs of their meals. In response to these findings, designs for later inquiries followed our established process of co-design by children, teachers and researchers, and were sited in the less formal settings of a nature reserve and an after school club. These resulted in high levels of engagement.
  • Scripted inquiry learning can mediate and change learning activities by giving learners a persistent and dynamic representation of the inquiry learning process, that enables them to understand how the component activities (such as deciding an inquiry question, planning an enquiry, collecting evidence, analysing data and sharing results) fit within and shape the process of scientific investigation. For example, they can come to understand how changing an inquiry question may invalidate data they have already collected, or that data must be collected in an appropriate form if it is to be shared, or that the conclusions must address the original inquiry questions. Children can also come to know how scientific inquiry can be resourced to 'act like scientists' by equipping them with tools to initiate, frame and conduct personally meaningful scientific investigations.
  • The comparative studies showed that scripted inquiry learning activities can be associated with positive learning outcomes, significantly greater than those of a control class, maintain children's enjoyment of science lessons (by comparison with a control class), enable a fluid transition between individual, group and whole class activity, and support learning across formal and non-formal settings.

Project impact

The main impact to date has been to establish the field of 'scripted personal inquiry learning'. The work has been disseminated through eleven peer reviewed conference publications and three journal papers currently under review. Notable achievements have included participation in two American Educational Research Association (AERA) symposia coordinated by TLRP-TEL, the organisation of a symposium on inquiry learning at the international Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Conference in Rhodes, and a workshop of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences, coordinated by the Personal Inquiry project, on "Three Perspectives on Technology Support in Inquiry Learning: Personal Inquiry, Mobile Collaboratories and Emerging Learning Objects" . This latter event brought together the leading international research projects in technology-mediated science inquiry learning.

Research from the project has also been presented at invited talks within the UK and internationally, including conferences and events in San Francisco, Mexico City, and SIntra, Portugal, and to events organised by the STELLAR European Network of Excellence in Technology Enhanced Learning.

An Open Day for the project attracted academic, industry and policy attendees. It included a hands-on demonstration of the nQuire toolkit through an outdoor science inquiry led by children who had participated in the project trials. At a separate Open Day event at the Open University, members of the public participated in demonstrations of the nQuire toolkit.

The nQuire toolkit has been implemented as an Open Source application, available for free download ( We anticipate that it will have an impact on the adoption of scripted inquiry learning in UK schools. Teachers, educational designers and systems developers can run demonstration inquiries through a web-based interface, or can download the software to extend existing inquiries or author new ones. The software can run on a Windows, Macintosh or Linux PC, and on mobile devices web browsers such as the Apple iPad, or can be downloaded to a USB data-stick which allows it to be run from the stick (e.g. in a school) without the need to install software onto the computer. The intention is to make the toolkit fully accessible to the teacher and academic community, in the UK and worldwide, to try, use, design, author, and share scripted personal inquiries. The project has created an online community with facilities for uploading new inquiries, adding teaching materials and initiating a newsfeed and discussion area for each new inquiry.

Additional impact will come from collaboration with related technology-mediated inquiry science projects in Sweden, the US and Singapore.


Personal Inquiry; PI; Technology enabled science learning; situated education; science education

IET People involved

Scanlon, Eileen , Open University, Principal Investigator,
Sharples, Mike , Open University (formerly University of Nottingham), Principal Investigator,
Ainsworth, Shaaron , University of Nottingham, Co-Investigator,
Blake, Canan , Open University, Research Fellow,
Collins, Trevor , Open University, Research Fellow,
 Conole, Gráinne , Open University (now University of Leicester), Co-investigator
Eggleston, Natalie , Open University, OU Project Administrator,
Gaved, Mark , Open University, Research Fellow,
Jones, Ann , Open University, Co-investigator,
Kerawalla, Cindy , Open University, Research Fellow,
Littleton, Karen , Open University, Co-investigator,
Mulholland, Paul , Open University, Co-investigator,
Petrou, Marilena , Open University Research Fellow,
Anastopoulou, Stamatina , University of Nottingham, Research Fellow,
Benford, Steve , University of Nottingham, Co-investigator,
Crook, Charles , University of Nottingham, Co-investigator,
Greenhalgh, Chris , University of Nottingham, Co-investigator,
Feisst, Markus , University of Nottingham, Co-investigator,
Norton, Bronya , University of Nottingham, Research Projects' Co-ordinator,
O'Malley, Claire , University of Nottingham, Co-investigator, claire.o'
Paxton, Mark , University of Nottingham, Co-investigator,

Project partners and links

Learning Sciences Research Institute, The University of Nottingham
Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University
BlueCoat Academy
Economic and Social Research Council
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
Nottingham City Council
Nottingham City Museums and Galleries
Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre
Oakgrove School
Teaching and Learning Research Programme

In addition the project has an international Advisory Panel to provide advice and support, more information can be found at


UK ESRC and EPSRC research councils (£1.2 million)



Start Date and duration

1st August 2007 to 31st August 2010

Research & Innovation