I asked a simple question on my Facebook page: “Are there any science education topics you would like to see more blog posts about?” A IRL (in real life) friend of mine responded, “The scientific method… Is it used? What are contemporary thoughts on this? Relevancy to teaching?”
We probably all know the scientific method in some form. When I was in school (specifically, 8th grade – my teacher that year was also a veterinarian on the side and I believe his focus was farm animals, particularly large ones like horses and cows) I learned the scientific method as “PPRC” Purpose, Procedure, Results, Conclusion. I still use this, actually, when writing scientific articles and abstracts. (One sentence for each makes a great abstract!) Another common topic was the more expanded “Scientific Method”, which usually includes:
5. Some kind of analysis (may or may not involve “rejection” of hypothesis)
I suspect many teachers still teach this way, and frequently I see things like “discussion” and “data collection” and other relevant but complicating detail thrown in. If it works for them, that’s fine. It also lines up nicely with what is expected for students participating in science fair activities (you’ll hear more about science fair from me later), and that repetition is good for students.
Back to the Facebook question, is this a contemporary approach to the methods that scientists actually use? No, I don’t exactly think so.
Firstly, scientific questions. Scientists DO science differently than K-12 students. Their questions arise out of personal experiences in their field or come from the resolution of a similar study. K-12 students generally have a question presented to them from a teacher (this saves a lot of time and does help to keep a class focused). In the language of education, if you are looking to learn more about posing a good question to lead into a unit of student-based investigation, use the search term “essential question”. (One great book on the topic of essential questions is Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.)
Secondly, the idea of having a student, at this point, write a hypothesis. A hypothesis should be informed. Scientists are informed enough to make a hypothesis (in many cases I suspect even before framing a “question”, which a scientist might not formally do until after they’ve completed their study and are writing it up). To save time, teachers will provide a worksheet or refer to a textbook reading, but generally, students struggle with writing a hypothesis without any experience.
Honestly, in my classes I don’t see students struggling with ideas about “procedure” and “results” and “conclusions”. They complain about conclusions because that’s the work after the fun of the experiment, but too bad on that one.
So what do I do with my students?
Every experiment we do is hung on this frame.
Why are we doing this? (purpose)
What will we do and how will we measure it? (procedure)
We organize the measurements. (results)
We describe what we learned in terms of our purpose. (conclusion)
Now that my students have been trained to do this by 9 weeks of experiments that are organized this way, my students are learning a new step: the hypothesis. I give them the purpose of the experiment, and the procedure. Now at the end of the experiment, while they are working through the questions I provide that help them draw conclusions, I am starting to hear more questions coming from my students.
“Dr. O, I think that if we did X instead of Y, then Z would happen. Can I try that?”
YES! Make sure you take notes about what happens as you test your hypothesis!
After a few weeks of allowing students to hypothesize, in this way, it can be made part of their formal framework.
Next quarter we will start to talk about making good charts, informational diagrams, and figures.
The last quarter of the year, (handily after their graduation tests) they will be able to create their own experiments, hopefully.