The Scientific Method

The scientific method is an organized way of investigation that seeks to be objective, accurate, and controlled. At the heart of any investigation is observation and the asking of questions that can be answered with the tools available. Detailed record-keeping is vitally important so that the methods performed can be repeated by the investigator or others. Usually the scientific method is outlined as specific steps, though there may be modifications as an investigation is carried out. The investigator should always be willing to be proved wrong.  (See also the levels of investigation summarized below.)

These are the normal steps of the scientific method:
1. Ask a question that can be answered by observation and/or measurement.

2. Research what is already known about the question. This research should be specific.

3. Form an hypothesis, that is, an explanation of what is expected to happen in the investigation.

4. Design an experiment or a plan of observations. All experiments should be controlled. This means that only one variable should change and all other factors be the same when comparing different treatments. Keep detailed records of results. A journal or log of data is most valuable.

5. Analyze the results. Tables and graphs are important for seeing relationships and interpreting the data which is collected. The results may prove the hypothesis wrong.

6. Draw conclusions. The conclusions are an interpretation of the results that have been obtained. All conclusions must stand the test of repeated experiments and new techniques which expand the ability to assess what is the reality. There are always limitations in what can be observed and measured.

7. Share the methods, results, and conclusions of the investigation with others. Scientists usually publish their work or present it in meetings with other scientists. This makes it possible for others to repeat the investigation to give further validity to the conclusions.

8. Repeat the investigation or pursue new questions that arise from the investigation. New hypotheses can be tested. The work of science is never-ending!

Levels of Investigation

The level of investigation should be tailored to the age of the child.  The youngest may only master the lower level(s), but with age comes greater skill.  The following is a simple hierarchy of skills.

The child is able to make simple observations using all of their senses (except maybe taste) and describe what is observed by means of speech or writing.  It is surprising what can be observed if time and concentration are dedicated to the task!

Based on observations made, organisms or objects are mentally (or actually) placed in groupings based on a specific distinguishing factor.  For example, flowers may be grouped by color, seeds may be grouped by shape, or items may be grouped by whether they can be picked up by a magnet.

Tools are used to provide greater accuracy in determining such things as height, length, width, volume, weight etc,  Sometimes visual scales are used to determine the specific properties of matter (e.g. a color pH scale to determine the relative acidity or alkalinity of a substance). 

Inferring is a higher level thought process.  Basically, it is the drawing of conclusions about what has been observed, classified, and/or measured.  It is looking beyond to determine the meaning behind it all.  The greater the amount of time spent making observations etc., the greater the accuracy of the inference.  It is always possible to make false inferences.

This is where it all comes together.  Beginning with observations and hypotheses, the scientific method is used to plan and interpret an experiment.  There are always new questions to be asked and investigated.  That is the fun of science!

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