First Graders Become Corn Experts: Using Questions to Drive Instruction

First graders love when fall comes to Kansas. It’s a magical time when lots of events are occurring in their environment, and I take full advantage of their natural curiosity. We begin the school year with a mini science unit featuring corn and agriculture. Every year in May, my class plants a few corn kernels near our flower garden. By the time school starts in the fall, the corn stalks stand out among the flowers.

As we water the garden, students start asking questions. How did the corn get here? Is it ready to pick? How high it will grow? Do we get to pick it? That is all I need to get the unit rolling!

I try to bring authentic items into our classroom whenever possible. These items become part of the phenomenon that I use to start lessons and to pique interest in a subject. With this particular unit, we first watered our plants, and the next day, I brought in 6 giant cornstalks donated by a local farmer. These cornstalks had the root balls attached and were in seed sacks. 

I put them and a few flower plants in our activity area and didn’t mention them. The kids had plenty to say and were excited as they attempted to make sense of what we would do with both of these plants. As they observed, I wrote down the questions they asked. The next day, we used those questions as the springboard to our discussion about their experiences with corn and flowers. Then we donned our lab coats and safety goggles and formed small groups to pull apart the cornstalks and flowers to compare and contrast their parts.

I always encourage my young scientists to ask questions like “I wonder why…?” “I wonder if….?” “I wonder what…?” When students are encouraged to begin their questions with “I wonder,” it adds to the subject’s relevance. I believe that by asking questions about their world, children become more engaged in defining problems and seeking answers.

After we shared all of our findings, we recorded our thoughts and wonders in our journals. The big questions of the day were what the names of all of the parts were and what they were used for. Students defined their own problems, and that led to some class labeling and deep discussions about why corn had all these parts and where could we find more information.

We used books like Corn by Gail Gibbons, Corn Is Maize by Aliki, From Kernel to Corn by Robin Nelson, and Corn (All About Food Crops) by Cecelia H. Brannon. We also used and as resources. I find that by introducing vocabulary after we explore the phenomenon, these words are more easily understood and applied, as they have more meaning at this point. Our first-grade curriculum asks us to examine how plants use their parts to survive, grow, and meet their needs.  My first graders asked those same kinds of questions and were able to determine the answers in various ways.

It was now time to put our newfound corn knowledge to use. My students realized that even though we have cornfields all around us, they didn’t really know that much about corn. To solve that problem, we wrote a class book titled Coconut Loves Corn in which a little monkey has tired of eating bananas and wants to move to Kansas to learn about and eat different kinds of corn. The book is amazing, and we published it on large paper and mounted it on signboards that will be placed around our outdoor school’s walking trail.

We hope to encourage all Bentwood Elementary students to read our story and learn interesting corn facts while they walk the trail. To promote our book, we created a brief description that will be read during morning announcements. Of course our blurb begins with the question, “Have you ever wondered why so much corn is grown in Kansas?”

Do you incorporate agriculture in your science lessons? If so, I’d love to hear your ideas. I love sharing and getting new lessons for my classroom. Comment below, and let’s be “amaizing” together!

Next Gen Science Standards


Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs.



Read texts and use media to determine patterns in behavior of parents and offspring that help offspring survive.



Make observations to construct an evidence-based account that young plants and animals are like, but not exactly like, their parents.



Analyze data from tests of two objects designed to solve the same problem to compare the strengths and weaknesses of how each performs.


Nancy Smith is a first-grade teacher at Bentwood Elementary School in the Olathe Public Schools district in Overland Park, Kansas. Her enthusiasm for science is evidenced by the many engaging activities she plans for her students, from building chicken playground equipment to hosting mini science expos to starting a flower tire garden. Smith is a National Board Certified–teacher who received the 2016 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She is passionate about using the environment as a springboard to learning.


This article was featured in the September issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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5 Responses to First Graders Become Corn Experts: Using Questions to Drive Instruction

  1. Sarah says:

    I love the way you got your students involved so naturally!
    Thank you for sharing your story!

  2. Dan Gruhlke says:

    I greatly appreciate how you’re using the natural curiosity of your young learners to engage with their world! I, too, work with budding scientists (PreK & K; Eastview Education Center, Monticello, MN), and I love their inborn instincts to ask.
    So, way to go! And, I love the pic.’s! Excellent!

  3. jackeye3e4 says:

    oh,it’s so good. i want to make friend with you! I am a teacher for china.

  4. Niraj says:

    Excellent article and out of box efforts which makes Science fun and opens the new level of interest for young learners. Learning Science by playing and staying within nature, must be great experience for kids.

  5. Niraj says:

    Excellent article and out of box efforts which makes Science fun and opens the new level of interest for young learners. Learning Science by playing and staying within nature, must be great experience for kids.

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