You are here

Physics by Inquiry

Physics by Inquiry: An Introduction to the Physical Sciences 

by Lillian C. McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington 
(John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY. 1996)

Physics by Inquiry has been developed on the basis of more than 40 years of experience in providing preparation for preservice and inservice teachers. Through in-depth study of simple physical systems and their interactions, students gain direct experience with the process of science.  Starting from their own observations, students develop basic physical concepts, use and interpret different forms of scientific representations, and construct explanatory models with predictive capability.  All the modules have been explicitly designed to develop scientific reasoning skills and to provide practice in relating scientific concepts, representations, and models to real world phenomena.

Physics by Inquiry is not meant to be passively read.  The modules do not provide all the information and reasoning included in a conventional text.  There are gaps that must be bridged by the student.  The process of science cannot be learned by reading, listening, memorizing, or problem-solving.  Effective learning requires active mental engagement.

Physics by Inquiry has been designed for courses in which the primary emphasis is on discovering rather than on memorizing and in which teaching is by questioning rather than by telling.  Such a course allows time for open-ended investigations, dialogues between the instructor and individual students, and small group discussions.  A major goal is to help students think of physics not as an established body of knowledge, but rather as an active process of inquiry in which they can participate.

Physics by Inquiry is particularly appropriate for preparing preservice and inservice K–12 teachers to teach science as a process of inquiry.  The modules can also be used to help underprepared students succeed in the mainstream science courses that are the gateway to majors in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.  For these student populations, as well as for those in the liberal arts, the curriculum helps establish a sound foundation for the building of scientific literacy.

Some articles by group members that describe the format, structure, and goals of a course based on Physics by Inquiry, are given below.

McDermott LC, Heron PRL, Shaffer PS.  2005.  Preparing K-12 teachers to teach physics and physical science. APS Forum on Education Newsletter. :19-22

McDermott LC.  2006.  Preparing K-12 teachers in physics: Insights from history, experience, and research. American Journal of Physics. 74:758-762

McDermott LC.  1990.  A perspective on teacher preparation in physics and other sciences: The need for special science courses for teachers. American Journal of Physics. 58:734-742

McDermott LC, Heron PRL, Shaffer PS.  2005.  Physics by Inquiry: A research-based approach to preparing K-12 teachers of physics and physical science. APS Forum on Education Newsletter. :23-26

McDermott LC, Shaffer PS, Constantinou CP.  2000.  Preparing teachers to teach physics and physical science by inquiry. Physics Education. 35:411-416


Instructor resources for Physics by Inquiry

Preface to Physics by Inquiry

Table of Contents of Physics by Inquiry

Instructor Guide

This website contains resources for instructors.  Equipment lists and sample course materials (e.g., syllabi) are available to the public.  A password is required to access additional information.  To request a password, please send an email to from your institutional email address that provides the following information: your name, your institution, a phone number, the relevant course code, and the module(s) that you are interested in teaching.

Impact of Physics by Inquiry

Physics by Inquiry has directly and indirectly impacted research and curriculum development by researchers outside of the University of Washington.  

Table of contents documenting Physics by Inquiry's impact.