A Second Look at the Scientific Method

03/26/2019  |  By Dr. Terry Talley
THE FUTURE IS NOW
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When we introduce the Scientific Method to our student, we have the highest intentions for these budding scientists to come away from the experience with a sense of what it is like to be a scientist. But, in reality are we just reinforcing the stereotype of the “mad scientist” in a dirty lab coat, with white hair flying straight back, and the black outline of soot around his safety goggles from an explosion in the lab? Is our disappointment with what comes back as “science fair projects” the product of our own making?

How prepared do your students feel, after memorizing the steps of the “Scientific Method,” learning the steps in isolation, and being told to go ask a question, do your research and design an experiment? From my initial experiences as a MS science teacher, in the library with my students, I can honestly tell you — they were not prepared.

Research usually ended up with a search for a science fair demonstration book or website, and the one selected didn’t easily fit into the steps of the scientific method they had just memorized. It became obvious to me, I missed the mark when they would ask, “Do I write the question before the hypothesis — because I don’t even know what to ask?”  

Then, I would send them off to do their “Science Fair Project” with a due date one month later. A few students would ask, “What is my hypothesis? How do I write the conclusion, when I don’t know what I changed in my experiment?”  Some would bravely ask questions in the interim such as, “OK, I’m writing up my conclusion and I didn’t write a hypothesis like the Scientific Method says, so should I write one now?” My favorite, although most frustrating question would be, “My hypothesis was wrong, so I don’t know what to do. Do I need to start over? I don’t think I have enough time.”

With a sigh of relief, after the Science Fair and the projects are presented and graded, the Scientific Method poster was replaced with the Periodic Table of Elements poster or Newton’s Three Laws of Motion Poster and science lessons moved on. Having completed the “Scientific Method Unit” and we were ready to move on to the next unit in the Scope and Sequence.

Over the next several years I learned that I missed the point and I short-changed my students. By teaching the “Scientific Method” as a series of separate steps, in an insolated unit, I provided a very unclear, confusing, and unrealistic view into the methods of scientists.  

The methods of scientists include both the skills and the knowledge used in their practice of explaining phenomenon. Scientists utilize a variety of methods depending on what they are investigating and trying to explain. 

It is logical that they usually begin with a question, but sometimes they are well into their study before the question emerges. Depending on what they are studying, they may or may not be able to develop a hypothesis, because of a lack of controlled circumstances, variables or the environment.

The research conducted by scientists is in the body of scientific knowledge that is already understood. Scientific research includes examining what has already been discovered, experimented, or changed with the natural world. It is what is already known. Their research is an attempt to add their findings to this knowledge and to share their discovery with the world!  Is it the same, is it different or is it new? The practices of scientists are about designing experiments and investigations that can prove or disprove their claims about the evidence they are examining.

Although relatively straight forward, I found that unless taught with clarity, and utilized often, my students would come away from their own investigations thinking science is something done by old men, with bad haircuts, who are in dangerous situations daily. If our goal as science teachers is to help our students understand the natural world around them and to begin to understand how it works as an amazing system, we need to understand the Practices and Methods of Scientists ourselves. By no longer teaching it as one method and in isolation, but by using the “Practices of Scientist” as our guide, there is a better chance that they will see the science in their everyday lives and in the world that they are living in.

Dr. Terry Talley, retired educator and author of The STEM Coaching Handbook, is the National STEM Manager for STEMscopes. Talley holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Mississippi University for Women and an Ed.D. in Curriculum, Instruction and Administration from the University of North Texas. She began her career as a secondary science teacher, later serving as a Science Teacher Specialist, Dean of Instruction, and eventually Supervisor for Science. Dr. Talley joined Rice University as the Program Manager for STEM Professional Development with Accelerate Learning and the National Institute for STEM Education. Prior to joining Rice, she was at the SRT-STEM Center as Program Director for the UTMB Office of Education Outreach in Galveston, TX.
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