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ACTIVITY in Observations, Inferences, Scientific Method. Last updated December 28, 2023.


In this activity, students will experience how scientists carry out a scientific investigation through inquiry. They will be challenged to make an inference based on their observations, without being able to directly see the results of their tests.

Grade Level

Middle or high school

NGSS Alignment

This activity will help prepare your students to meet the performance expectations in the following standards:

  • Science and Engineering Practices:
    • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
    • Developing and Using Models


By the end of this activity, students should be able to

  • infer to form a hypothesis based on their observations.
  • apply inquiry skills in determining what is inside each of the black boxes.
  • determine a conclusion based on their experimentation.

Chemistry Topics

  • Inferences
  • Observations


Teacher Preparation: 30 – 60 minutes

Lesson: 60 minutes


Per group

  • shoebox
  • 2 index cards
  • scissors
  • masking tape
  • packaging tape
  • one marble


  • Students should use caution when using scissors.

Teacher Notes

  • Plan ahead if you think you may use this activity during the year. Collect shoeboxes well before you plan to do the activity and ask students to bring in some from home if possible.
  • If completing both the construction process and the implementation of the activity in the same class period, keep the students moving! They will want to spend a lot of time constructing. I use a timer, allow about 10 minutes for construction and about two minutes for each box while observing.
  • If you want this to take longer, have students add more than 2 index cards to their box, and increase the amount of time allotted for observation.
  • I saved the boxes from one class for future use. If you can do this, it will cut down on the construction segment and allows more time for observing.
  • Make a “teacher master copy” – number and sketch each box before sealing it with packaging tape.
  • I have made the students a “box template” in order to sketch their predictions if I feel they need the structure. Older students can manage to follow the instructions for making a template outlined in the procedure section easier than younger students.
  • After all of the groups have completed the observation process, you should reveal the arrangement inside of each of the boxes for students to compare their answers.
  • I have used this activity for both introducing the scientific method and also when teaching the history of atomic models.
  • Extension Activity: After completing this activity with chemistry students, I have done a similar activity where I place an unknown object (coin, marble, etc.) in a ball of clay. Students use straight pins to determine the object, or at least the general shape of it similar to Rutherford’s quest in discovering the atomic nucleus.

For the Student



Being a scientist can be a frustrating job! When you make a hypothesis only to discover it is incorrect may leave you not wanting to continue with the experiment. In this activity you will gain some insight into a scientist’s inquiry process when using the scientific method.


  • shoebox
  • 2 index cards
  • scissors
  • masking tape
  • packaging tape
  • one marble


Constructing the Black Box:

  1. Each group should gather the necessary materials.
  2. Determine an arrangement for the index cards inside the shoebox. Be creative with the cards: bend the cards, fold the cards, create a tube by taping the ends to one another, use the card to box off the corner in your box, etc. (Note: Don’t cut your index card)
  3. Firmly tape your cards into the box, securing each one with tape to the bottom and sides of the box.
  4. Add one marble to the box.
  5. Before closing the box, have your teacher copy your design onto their master copy and assign the box a number.
  6. Close the shoebox and secure with packaging tape.

Observing Unknown Black Boxes

  1. On a piece of white paper, draw a small rectangle to represent each of the boxes you will observe. Your teacher will tell you this amount.
  2. Number each rectangle. The rectangles will represent each unknown box that you will analyze. As you observe a box, draw inside the rectangle to represent how you think the index cards are arranged in the shoebox.
  3. Once you have a box, you will have a given limited amount of time to make your observations. Roll the marble inside to determine where the index card walls are located.
  4. Sketch your observations in the appropriate rectangle.
  5. Repeat the observation process for the remaining boxes. You will also get your box at some point in the rotation.


  1. In general, how did your models of the inside of the box compare with the actual inside?
  2. Our class had ______ boxes. My group guessed ______ boxes correctly.
  3. Describe your methods in determining the design inside each box. Include the senses you used in your observations.
  4. Could you have used another method of observation? Explain.
  5. How did it feel not knowing what was inside each of the boxes?
  6. Discuss how models serve scientists in their research.