Scientific Literacy through Inquiry: Practicing Scientific Process through Pinhole Photography

and work within the scientific process of examining a situation, developing a testable question, and formulating a reasonable hypothesis. They practice a cycle of testing and reflection where all data and their organization are crucial to the next steps taken. Written records of data and their analysis are invaluable and are the basis for conversations between peers and the instructor.

Developing scientifically literate students who have mastered these skills is a challenging goal. Students come in thinking that “doing science” is tidy: they believe that it starts with a purpose and ends with a conclusion. But real science is not so cut and dried. After all, science is a rich discipline that involves a whole range of skills and interdisciplinary concepts woven together. We have developed the Pinhole Camera Project to support student engagement in the scientific process while enhancing literacy skills. The Pinhole Camera Project exposes students to hands-on, inquiry-based activities where the outcome is not predetermined. It empowers students with the tools and skills required to make meaning of and critically analyze a variety of information.

The Pinhole Camera Project, which we have done for the last five years in our ninth grade Integrated Science Curriculum, is driven by scientific inquiry. The task: students build a pinhole camera that produces clear images. After students design and construct their pinhole camera, they test its functionality by taking photos, developing them and examining the results. Without any background information on photography, students’ first photos are usually not successful. They analyze possible causes (pinhole size, light leak, etc.), fix the issue and then retake the image. Therefore the process is as follows:

  • Hypothesis: students design and construct a camera and examine possible camera flaws
  • Design process: students address the problems
  • Data collection: students take and develop the photo
  • Results and conclusion: students observe the results to address their hypothesis

Students redesign their experiment repeatedly until they achieve a clear image. Each trial and error must be documented in a lab journal in order for the students to receive fresh photo paper for their next try.

This photography project allows us to capture moments of discovery and redirection in this scientific endeavor as students practice and refine scientific and general literacy skills. Students’ Camera Journals are meant to capture all the scientific thinking and critical analysis of their data. We structure class to support students as they document their thoughts through the process from start to finish. A journal entry template helps learners organize, structure, and document their scientific thinking. In addition, we keep a list that students made of all possible variables involved in the experiment on the board as reference. We find these literacy tools especially useful for students who struggle with writing and organization. Students often use the template to help them guide their thinking. Students who are perplexed with their results refer to the list on the board as a brainstorm tool as well as a springboard for their writing.

Furthermore, our templates include key scientific process ideas, (i.e. control, independent and dependent variable, etc.) to push students to incorporate and apply these concepts in their thinking and writing. We also found it important to schedule at least five to eight minutes of quiet time in class for structured journal writing. This offers an opportunity for students to reflect on the quality of their own work. The rush during an investigation in a classroom environment can be a distraction for those who need time and quiet to organize their thoughts in writing.

Class and small group discussions are also given structure via a Tuning Protocol. This also allows us to monitor students who are making meaning from their experiences and the data. These group discussions occur three times throughout the project: at the pre-planning phase during the design of their experiments, the analysis phase of their data, and the conclusion phase of their experiment. The Tuning Protocol structures the small group conversations as follows:

  • 1 minute: student presents question, hypothesis and pinhole design
  • 20 seconds: whole group is silent to reflect on student’s design
  • 3 minutes: each group member gives positive feedback
  • 3 minutes: each group member offers constructive ideas
  • 30 seconds: student presenter does a “think out loud” and repeats what was said

To make sure that the small group activity runs smoothly, we model a dialogue using student volunteers. Meanwhile the whole class “fishbowls,” sitting silently as observers and charged with identifying three characteristics of a good group participant. At the end of the conversation, the whole class documents “ways of being an ideal contributor” on a poster to help them remind of their roles as collaborative scientists.

Throughout all of these mini-conversations, each student is responsible in maintaining a lab accountability worksheet. The worksheet contains the primary issues and questions that need to be addressed in the conversation. In order to make learners accountable for the conversation, each student must document the comments they offer to each team member. The worksheet is also a great tool to reinforce students’ understanding of the vocabulary and concepts of an investigation. It is also a useful tool to help students’ conversations focused. The worksheet not only drives students’ conversations but helps them make each other accountable for rigorous scientific thinking.

We designed the Pinhole Camera Project so that our students have a meaningful context in which to use general literacy as a tool to help them reach the scientific process goals we set out for them. According to the National Science Education Standards, “Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions.” We view scientific literacy as a process skill that’s identical to problem solving. A scientifically literate individual is able to investigate and find solutions to a problem by seeing the significance of an issue, making consistent connections, demanding evidence, probing for multiple points of view, and considering alternatives. Our shared view on scientific literacy stems from our commitment to the habits of mind that makes a strong problem solver. And in order for science students to be accountable for their work and communicate their research to their peers, they need to apply the general literacy skills of writing, revising, critical thinking, and speaking.

An essential component of this project is its ability to cater to a differentiated classroom. We have inclusion classrooms, and our students come to us with a wide range of skills. For example, we have students who are completely independent workers. We have other students that need to be guided each step of the way and who receive extra services and modifications for emotional or academic reasons, and, of course, many are in between. Our students’ families run the full range of socio-economic status and we enjoy a strong diversity of ethnicities as well. Fortunately, this project allows all students to engage at their most comfortable level. Most students are willing and excited to get into the darkroom and develop those negatives! The project has opportunities for hands-on work, journal writing, discussion with peers over data analysis, and construction of a camera of one’s own. Thus, there is strong student ownership of the process, and with this kind of instant “buy-in,” motivation is rarely an issue when teaching this project.

The Pinhole Camera Project contains all the twists and turns of a real science expedition. Students get frustrated because they have proven that their hypothesis is incorrect. Students get excited when, after 20 trials, they finally discover the variable that drives the functionality of their camera. We share their joy as we examine their first clear photo together. Between the writing and conversations, students see that science is not so cut and dried; it’s a discipline of subtlety and finesse. The small meetings are critical in helping each other think and refine their experiments. The writing and documents are helpful in referring back to previous errors to drive new ideas. Most importantly, students see a scientific problem as a complex entity that involves multiple variables. In order to solve the problem, they need to conduct experiments and examine data with discipline and criticism.

This project has continued beyond the scope of the class time dedicated to its completion. Some students sign up for photography classes in School of the Future’s after-school program. Others take on the work of turning this initial work into an Exhibition, a large project submitted to a committee for evaluation, much like a college thesis. Students must also present orally to the committee should the student earn a satisfactory score on the written part. Students need four of these Exhibitions to graduate from our school and one must be in science. As each year passes, more and more students choose this project for enhancement. They enjoy the work and the satisfaction of manipulating variables to achieve a desired result. Students even have turned their qualitative data into numerical results to examine their work on a different level. The Pinhole Camera Project definitely has turned a small-scale class project into a full-blown research expedition.

This Pinhole Camera Project empowers students with the tools and skills required to make meaning of and critically analyze a variety of information. The project design demands that students write and speak about their experiment, enhancing basic literacy. Science literacy is supported as they investigate and find solutions to a problem by skeptically analyzing the situation. Evidence drives their decisions. Since there are numerous variables, students must think over the many alternative solutions available to them. This project gives students a rare view in doing real science: they are able to experience the cyclical nature of a scientific endeavor. This project teaches them to not expect final answers in science, that finding answers is not always straightforward or easy and that sometimes, errors may lead the way to understanding. It is an excellent experience for students to have early in their high school career and it is one we can refer to over and over as they struggle with investigations in science or other classes.

Our science department works to spiral scientific literacy skills throughout from ninth through twelfth grade. The general and scientific literacy tools students taste in the Pinhole Camera Project are repeated throughout the year and beyond with increasing difficulty in context. Therefore, our students graduate as experienced problem solvers and thinkers. We hope our pride and excitement about the Pinhole Camera Project will prompt you to try it with your students.

School of the Future Facts
A CES Mentor School, School of the Future is a New York City urban public school serving 617 students in 6-12th grades. For additional information, visit School of the Future at CES ChangeLab.

The School of the Future pinhole photography project was developed in partnership with the Hall Farm Center for Arts and Education. For more, visit

For more on the National Science Education Standards, visit the National Science Teachers Association website at

The Pinhole Camera Project was developed and supported in conjunction with the Educational Alliance at the School of the Future, the staff at Adorama, and the School of the Future Parents Association.

Allison Godshall has been teaching high school science at School of the Future for eleven years. She currently teaches one elective environmental science course using the roof garden she developed with students and is a Math and Science Coach for new staff to the school.

Annie Chien has been a science teacher at School of the Future for seven years. Annie loves science as a hobby and is a life long science student herself. Visit her class website at