What if we use questions when problem solving?

Use what if questions to help generate promising ideas to solve problems.

Activity Image
10, 11
30 mins
Thought starter


In this activity, students use what if questions to generate promising ideas to solve a problem. While this activity uses examples related to solving the problem of an oil spill, other examples could be used to help nurture the competency of applying and innovating.


What you'll need

  • "Using what if questions” worksheet
  • “Assessing my ability to use what if questions to develop promising ideas” rubric 

  1. Begin the activity by inviting students to think about what they do to generate ideas to help solve a problem. Do they use any strategies to help with their thinking? Explain to your students that they will be learning a thinking strategy to help them better understand a problem and help them generate promising ideas. 
  2. Introduce the strategy by posing the following problem to your students: the local food bank is struggling to meet the needs in their community. What promising ideas can they come up with? As they begin to suggest ideas, ask them to rephrase their ideas as a what if question. For example: 
  • What if we organize a food drive?
  • What if we help them purchase more food?
  • What if our school provides meals to the community? 
  • What if we volunteer our time at the food bank?
  • What if 

Share with your students that asking what if  questions is known as a ‘thought experiment’ in science – to deepen understanding of phenomena, scientists may pose what if questions and explore the potential results by thinking about the results rather than performing an experiment in a lab.

3. Pick one of the what if questions and as a class discuss the possible consequences of that idea. Remind your students that consequences can be positive or negative. Write the consequences on chart paper or the board. Invite students to reflect on any new insights they gained based on these consequences and to suggest changes or refinements to the idea. 

4. Finally, review the criteria for a promising idea and have students suggest ways to make the idea more promising. Promising ideas are: 

  • Purposeful and address the problem
  • Thoughtful and insightful combinations of new and existing ideas
  • Helpful in deepening understanding of the problem

5. Explain to your students that they are now going to practice using the thinking strategy to develop promising ideas for the following problem: A large oil spill has occurred in a local body of water (for example, a nearby lake, ocean, river, stream, or pond) and the community is looking for the most promising ideas to clean it up and prevent future water contamination. Provide each student with a copy of the “Using what if questions” worksheet. This worksheet can be used by students in other contexts as well.

6. Organize students into groups and invite them to work collaboratively as they consider what they already know about the problem and what other related ideas might be useful in addressing this problem.  

7. Instruct groups to suggest at least five ideas in the form of what if questions. Inform your students that while some ideas should consider known scientific applications, other ideas can be out of the ordinary or unconventional ideas that have never been tried before. Encourage them to approach the task with an open mind as they generate new ideas. 

8. Next, ask students to consider both the positive and negative consequences for each what if questions and record any new insights they gained based on these consequences. Instruct each group to revise or combine their ideas as needed.  

9. Encourage groups to use the criteria for a promising idea to determine the most promising idea to clean up the oil spill. Ask each group to share their ideas and thinking with the class.

10. Conclude the activity by inviting your students to think about how posing their ideas as what if questions altered or deepened their understanding of the problem. Ask your students to suggest other conservation and sustainability related contexts where asking what if questions might be helpful for introducing new and refined ideas. 

Modify or extend this activity


  • In Step 1-4, you might instead consider a problem that is more relevant in your local community.
  • In Step 5, you might consider having each group further identify the specifics for the problem. For example, each group might want to focus on developing ideas to solve the problem of an oil spill in a different local body of water. Your students may also enjoy specifying the amounts or type of oil that have been spilled.


  • As a possible extension, consider having students complete the “Food’s carbon footprint” activity. 
  • Consider modelling an oil spill in your classroom. Provide each group with the opportunity to try out their most promising solutions for cleaning up the oil spill.
  • Investigate with your class some of the most recent oil spills in B.C. and what was done to clean them up. A comprehensive list of oil and chemical spill reported in B.C. can be found on this website.

Curriculum Fit

Science 10

Big idea

  • Energy change is required as atoms rearrange in chemical processes


  • Practical implications of chemical processes (oil spill clean up)

Curricular competencies

Applying and innovating
  • Generate and introduce new or refined ideas when problem solving

Chemistry 11

Big idea

  • Matter and energy are conserved in chemical reactions


  • Green chemistry: development of sustainable processes and technologies that reduce negative impacts on the environment (eg. reducing toxicity, designing benign solvents, increasing energy efficiency)

Curricular competencies

Applying and innovating
  • Contribute to finding solutions to problems at a local and/or global level through inquiry
  • Implement multiple strategies to solve problems in real-life, applied, and conceptual situations


Throughout the activity consider how well students:

  • Contribute to respectful group discussion
  • Create what if statements to pose solutions to a problem
  • Determine consequences of their ideas
  • Use the criteria for a promising idea 

Guide students in using the “Assessing my ability to use what if questions to develop promising ideas” rubric during the activity.


Select the materials you require for this activity or download all

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