What If? Whiteboard Scenarios in Science Education

AUTHOR: Shawna Wiebusch, Secondary Science Education Specialist

One of our tasks as science teachers is to teach students about inquiry, patterns, and causality. The TEKS, across many grade levels, call for students to analyze, evaluate, make inferences, predict trends, and to critique scientific explanations. They also expect students to communicate scientific findings and explore the strengths and weaknesses of models.1 These skills do not happen by accident. We must explicitly teach students to argue and to care about their arguments in academia.

What If? Scenarios, which are a twist on a classic thought experiment, are particularly well suited to helping our students apply their scientific understanding to new situations. According to Dr. Stephens and Dr. Clement, a thought experiment is “ the act of considering an untested, concrete system designed to help evaluate a scientific concept, model, or theory — and attempting to predict aspects of the system’s behavior.”2 In creating What If? Scenarios, we start with the world as it is, then we change something about that model and ask students to predict how it will affect the many interconnecting parts of the system. In this process, students justify their understanding of the world and give teachers insight into their mental models.

In a recent workshop over 8th grade science, I presented the following What If? Scenario:

You wake up one day to find that there are no longer 24 hours in a day. Instead there are 30 hours in a day.

  • Describe the change in Earth’s motion that would have to happen to account for the longer day.
  • Draw a picture that shows this change.
  • Predict the effect of a longer day on seasons, tides, moon phases, and our calendar.

This simple prompt, projected on the wall, led to conversations beyond the expectations listed. Teachers discussed the potential effects on biodiversity and the gravitational pull of the Moon and Earth upon each other. They argued about whether a slower rotation would change the length of seasons or the intensity of temperature extremes, and about how those temperature changes would affect weather and climate. Each group thought of something slightly different than the others and all contributed to a complex, analytical discussion of how the Earth moves in relationship to the Sun and the Moon.

The power of the What If? Scenario is not just in asking the questions, but also in providing students with practice in argumentation and scientific communication. Each group of three students gets a large whiteboard and a different colored marker for each team member. The basic rule in creating their board is that all students must contribute to the conversation and to the board. As students complete their board, the teacher walks around the room and helps provide just-in-time support. After all boards are complete, teams leave one representative at their board to act as docent, who is charged with explaining the group’s response to the What If? Scenario and asking for input and advice. All other students circulate around the room, listening to mini-presentations and asking questions. The goal here is to get students to help each other improve their predictions based on the science learned so far. Sentence stems such as “Can you explain why you believe_______________?” and “I disagree with _______________ and would change it because____________________.” may help guide students with limited experience in scientific discourse. Once three or four other teams have visited each board, the authors of the board regroup and revise their boards based on all of the information they learned from the gallery walk.

What If? Whiteboard Scenarios also meet the needs of many learners. Students are listening, writing, speaking, and reading about science throughout the process. Differentiation is built in because GT students will likely push beyond the scope of the prompt. There are also supports in place to help struggling learners. Through the whiteboarding process and the gallery walk, students have many opportunities to test their ideas out on each other in small, low risk environments prior to speaking out in whole group or being formally assessed over the content.

The Framework for K-12 Science Education states, “The argumentation and analysis that relate evidence and theory are also essential features of science; scientists need to be able to examine, review, and evaluate their own knowledge and ideas and critique those of others.”3 What If? Scenarios require students to use all of the science they know to respond. They also require students to think critically because we are no longer just telling them what we, as teachers, know will happen. We are asking students to tell us what they think and we are asking them to back it up with scientific principles, laws, and theories. I encourage you to play “What If?”with your students. You may find yourself surprised by how far they can take it and how much they can learn from each other.


1 “Texas Education Agency – 19 TAC Chapter 112.” 2006. 11 Nov. 2015 <http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter112/>.

2 Stephens, A. (2015). The Role of Thought Experiments in Science and … – CiteSeer. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

3 “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices …” 2014. 11 Nov. 2015 <http://www.nap.edu/catalog/13165/a-framework-for-k-12-science-education-practices-crosscutting-concepts>

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