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Home / Science lessons / What is the Scientific Method?
  • What is the Scientific Method?

    If you're wondering for the tenth time, "What is the scientific method?," wonder no longer!  The scientific method is a great tool for scientific discovery and for coming up with sound scientific conclusions.  You'll use it constantly in science fair projects as well as basic experiments.  This method can be broken down into five simplified steps.  You may  not need every step for every experiment you do, but as a whole these provide a solid foundation for science exploration. 

    Define the problem. Decide what you want to find out from your project.  What aspects of a science topic interest you?  For example, you might wonder, "How does lack of sunlight affect plant growth?"  You can use preliminary research to narrow down or define your problem if you need to. 

    Observe/Gather data. In this step, collect information related to the problem.  You might do this by reading science books and magazines on your topic or by doing research on the internet.  (Look for university or government sites.)  You can also talk to people who work in a related scientific field and are knowledgeable about your topic. 

    Think about it/Predict. The special name for this is hypothesizing. Predict an answer to your problem, based on the information you found.  Look for patterns in the data that might lead to a reasonable prediction.  You might form a hypothesis that "even one hour less sunlight per day will affect the growth of a sprouting bean plant." 

    Experimenting. This is the really hands-on part, when you design, perform, and analyze experiments to test your hypothesis.  By repeating the experiment, you'll have more results to compare and draw accurate conclusions from.  This principle applies even when completing experiments from a curriculum. 

    Controlling variables is essential for getting accurate results.  Variables for a plant growth experiment include kind of seed, amount of water, position in sun, as well as amount of light.  If you are testing the effect of less light, this is a changing variable.  At the same time, make sure constant variables do not change between experiments:  all the bean sprouts came from the same packet of seeds, you give each plant an equal amount of water, and they are placed in the same position outside. 

    Another key is multiple test subjects.  Don't cover just one bean sprout with a paper bag for an hour and compare it to another bean sprout.  Use more than one plant as your test subject, and use more than one plant as your control group of "normal" plants. 

    Forming conclusions.  If your experiments turn out as forecasted, then your predictions were probably based on sound scientific principles.  If they were off target, evaluate your data and start again with a refined hypothesis!  Usually if something goes wrong, you should check your variables. 

    scientific reasoning

    Where do scientists go from there?  After a good conclusion has been tested often enough, with the same results each time, it becomes a theory - a model or explanation of a scientific concept. A theory that has been tested often enough with the same results becomes a scientific law. However, this does not mean the law is absolutely certain; it just has a lot of evidence to support it.

    The scientific method hasn't always been around, but the mathematician and natural philosopher Roger Bacon used something like it back in the 1200s. He emphasized the importance of experimentation to verify a hypothesis. As his method gained followers, the way people went about science began to change. They used inductive rather than deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning looks at something general and then moves to conclusions about a specific example, whereas inductive reasoning looks at specific ideas or situations and from there draws conclusions about a whole. Basically, inductive reasoning applies specific evidence to a much broader related idea. The scientific method does the same thing by studying the specifics in detail and then drawing a general conclusion.

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