The scientific method has been used extensively since the 17th century as a process by which scientists "do science" in the real world. It has been used to discover many incredible things about the world around us. The scientific method is a constant process: one discovery can lead to many more questions which, when investigated, can lead to more answers. Depending on the level of your students, your district's curriculum, and other factors, the steps outlined below may not exactly match what you teach. However, the process should still match conceptually. In addition to a summary of the key steps of the scientific method, there are suggested activities to get your students engaged in thinking about science in the real world.
Everyone does this all the time, from the second we wake up to the second we go to sleep. From a very young age, children take on the role as scientists, making careful observations of the world around them. Storyboard That can be used to describe these observations in the form of short comics. Observations aren't just things we see with our eyes. They include a whole different range of things, and include things we feel, smell, taste, touch, or hear. They can also come from information gathered using scientific equipment, such as microscopes, thermometers, and seismometers.
Questions can be based on anything, although some questions are easier to answer than others. One of the most important parts of scientific inquiry is thinking about the "hows" and the "whys". Coming up with questions can be a great activity to complete with your students. Have students come up with a mind map storyboard of any questions they have about the world, or narrow down questions to a specific topic. Depending on the age of your students, you may notice these questions often overlap!
Research could be as simple as an internet or library search, and is a great time to talk to your students about reliable and unreliable sources. Scientists use journals to find out if other scientists have done similar work and what suggestions these scientists have made for further study and experimentation. Another idea is to read some research you have found to students, highlighting and explaining any challenging key vocabulary. This will encourage students to do research to answer their questions before completing an experiment, especially if one has already been done.
A hypothesis is a testable statement or an educated guess. The hypothesis is important because the experiment tries to determine how one variable can have an effect on another. When creating a hypothesis, it is important to first identify the dependent and independent variables in the investigation. Think about what effect changing the independent variable might have on the dependent variable. From this, form an “if...then…” statement. For example, when carrying out an investigation to see how temperature affects mold growth on bread, the independent variable is temperature and the dependent variable is the amount of mold that grows on bread. The “if...then…” hypothesis would be, “If the temperature increases, then the amount of mold on the bread will also increase.”
Data can come from completing a prescribed activity designed by a teacher, carrying out an experiment based on a testable hypothesis, or by using published data on the subject. To find out more about how to get your students working as scientists and designing their own experiments, see "Experimental Design". This can also be a great moment to help students figure out what data is the most important to collect.
Organize the results of the experiment and look for patterns, trends, or other information. Often at this stage, students can create tables and graphs to make it easier to understand the information. This can be a great way of incorporating math skills into your science curriculum.
At this stage, scientists interpret the data to draw conclusions; they decide whether the data supports or falsifies a hypothesis.
When carrying out an experiment to see how temperature affects mold growth on bread, test two pieces of bread: leave one in a warm place, and the other in a cold place. One hypothesis could be if the temperature is lowered, then the mold will grow more quickly. After completing the experiment, if more mold had grown on the piece of bread that was left in the warm location, then the data does not support the hypothesis.
It is important to get your students to share their work with their peers to continue interest in scientific inquiry. Students can easily share their results and conclusions in many ways:
The sharing of results is often done through the publishing of papers through scientific journals or speaking at scientific conferences. Show students examples of these journals and see if they find something they think is interesting.
This is normally carried out by other scientists around the world. The more people that can reproduce an experiment and find the same results, the more support a theory gains. However, your students can compare results from other students or carry out follow-up experiments too. This is a particularly great exercise if students have designed an experiment. Multiple groups should conduct one experiment to see if they have the same conclusions or if the experiment is not reproducible.
Many of the great scientific discoveries that followed this method are also great stories! Storyboard That can be used to get students to visualize these stories and develop an understanding of what the scientific method looks like in action. Students can identify the different scientific method steps following the story of famous discoveries. In the example below, the storyboard looks at the discovery of the helical structure of DNA.
Work done by Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarty in 1944 showed that deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was the chemical that carried genetic information. Although they knew this, the scientific community was still unsure of what shape the DNA molecule had. James Watson and Francis Crick hypothesized that the molecule would be a helical shape. They predicted using mathematical computations that the X-ray diffraction pattern for a helix would be an X shape. Watson and Crick had been working on producing a model of DNA based on their hypothesis.
Rosalind Franklin, a young researcher at King’s College London, was carrying out research that looked at the different diffraction patterns made when X-rays were shone on different samples. One of the samples she was researching was crystallized DNA.
Photography 51 was an X-ray diffraction image of DNA taken by Raymond Gosling (a PhD student under the supervision of Franklin) without Franklin’s permission or knowledge. This image was showed to Watson and Crick. When Watson saw the photograph, he knew instantly that the structure must be helical from the X-shaped pattern of the X-ray diffraction pattern.
Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for their research on the structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 38, four years before this award. It is commonly accepted that her evidence was critical in identifying the structure of DNA. It is still debatable whether she would have identified the structure on her own without the work of Watson and Crick.
Another great activity is to get students to use Storyboard That to tell a story in history like the one below. It is important to note that not all of the great discoveries in science history have followed the scientific method above. Galileo and his discovery of the moons of Jupiter is an fascinating example of this.
There are lots of exciting stories of scientific discovery that you could get your students to storyboard! Here are some other interesting stories for students to research and retell.
For more resources on the impact of scientific inquiry and discovery in history, check out our history resources.
Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, Italy, on February 15th, 1564. He was the son of a famous Italian musician. Although he was very interested in becoming a Catholic priest, he started his degree to become a doctor at the University of Pisa. He fell in love with mathematics and physics when he accidentally attended a lecture on Geometry.
One of Galileo’s most important and most controversial papers was Siderus Nuncias, or Starry Messenger, which detailed his observations of the moons of Jupiter. These observations supported a change in the way people understood the structure of the universe. Until these surprising observations, people had agreed with the Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, who first put forward the idea that Earth was at the center of the universe. This concept of the universe was known as the Geocentric Model.
Galileo was an early pioneer of the telescope. His early telescopes often contained flaws and produced blurry images, but still could magnify objects about 30 times for the observer. He sold his telescopes and used the money to fund his research. He used his telescope to observe the night sky and make detailed observations of what he saw.
On the night of January 7th, 1610, Galileo looked into the sky at Jupiter. He noticed “three fixed stars” very close to the planet all lined up. Over the next few nights, he discovered that these ‘stars’ weren’t all fixed, and appeared to be moving relative to Jupiter. We now know that these ‘stars’ weren’t actually stars, but moons of Jupiter. He realized that if these bodies were orbiting Jupiter, then the Geocentric Model didn’t make sense. This data supports the Heliocentric Model, the idea that the Sun is at the center of our universe and that other celestial bodies orbit it. Nicolaus Copernicus was a Polish scientist who first hypothesized that the Sun was at the center of our universe.
The Catholic Church was an extremely powerful force in the world at the time and they were not at all impressed with Galileo’s discoveries. The Church felt that any mention of a Sun-centered universe opposed its views and the Bible and was very keen to stop the spread of this idea. Galileo was called by the Roman Inquisition, as the Church thought he was attempting to rewrite the Bible. Galileo was found to be “suspect of heresy” and was put into jail. The next day, he was put under house arrest until he died eight years later.
Modern day scientists have realized the Sun is the center of our solar system, but not the universe. Our Sun is a star very much like billions of others in our Universe. In 1992, 350 years after Galileo was imprisoned, the Catholic Church admitted they were incorrect about Galileo’s views and Pope John Paul apologized about the event.