What is the Scientific Method?

The scientific method involves following seven general steps in sequence. In some cases steps may be combined to reduce the number to five, but more often than not the procedure will consist of seven steps, with each step consisting of additional sub-steps. The basic steps are:

1. Make Observations - You observe something in the world about you, something that may seem out of the ordinary, or something that just makes you curious about why things work the way they seem to work. You see something and wonder how is works, why it happens, or what causes it. It puzzle you enough that you wish to examine it. You first step in the scientific method then, is to carefully observe the thing which drew your attention, and write down in very clear terms exactly what it is you have observed and why it puzzles you.

2. Ask Questions - You write down one or more questions about what you have observed in order to clarify your thoughts and focus in on what is puzzling you. Exactly what is it you want to find out? Write a statement that describes what you want to do. Also, at this time you should be pondering the possible variables that might affect the problem.  Make some intelligent guesses about what might be causing the conditions you. When you think you  understand which variables may be involved, try to figure out ways in which you might change only one at a time. If you change more than one at a time, you will get mixed results because you will not know which variable is causing your observation, or if it's the combined result of several variables. Many times variables are interrelated and may work together to cause the effect you see. Try to select variables that you think would act independently of each other. Then gather information and see if others have been puzzled by the same phenomena and if your questions may have already been answered by others. Read books, magazines or ask professionals in order to gain background information and more sharply focus your questions. Keep track of your sources of information so that you can use them as references in later describing your experiment.

3. Make a Hypothesis - A hypothesis is a question which has been reworded into a form that can be tested experimentally. In essence, it is your predicted outcomes. You attempt to predict, in advance, how any experiments will turn out and what the answer to your question(s) might be. While there is often a logical reason for making your predictions, this step may be largely intuitive and may reflect your past experience with similar questions.

Hypotheses are possible causes, not just a generalization based on inductive reasoning. There is usually a separate hypothesis for each major question you have asked and probably one overall hypothesis for your entire project. A hypothesis should be testable and you should plan on one or more experiments to test each hypothesis. As this is a tentative answer to what originally puzzled you, this is a very important step.

It is not necessary that your hypothesis end up being correct... many are not. Hypotheses can be proven wrong or incorrect, but they can never be proven with absolute certainty. It's quite possible that in the future someone with additional knowledge may find an example where the hypothesis is not true.

4. Explore Methods of Testing - You next examine the different ways you have available to test each of your hypothesis, and to do the testing necessary to figure out whether or not your hypothesis is correct. If possible, design an experiment to test each hypothesis.

Write down an experimental procedure, a step-by-step listing of what you intend to do to answer each of the questions you have raised.  And remember that for an experiment to yield answers that can be trusted, there must be a "control", an additional test or trial run done exactly the same as the others except that no variables are changed. The control experiment becomes a reference point that allows you to see what WOULD have happened if nothing was done, and compare it to what DID happen when you altered a variable. Controls are sometimes difficult to design for your experiments but they are a very important part of the scientific method. You should also write down your predicted results of each specific test. This will help you think about the experiments in detail and plan for what elements to be watching for when you do the testing.

The methods you select should be such that others can repeat your experimentation and that all who do the experiments will have a result that is measurable (quantifiable). Experiments are often done numerous times to assure that the observations and conclusions are reproducible. Reproducibility is crucial; without it you can't be sure your results are accurate. Reproducible experiments reduce the chance that you did the testing incorrectly or that you merely saw a random effect during a single experiment.

5. Experimentation - And now you do the testing, several times if necessary, and carefully measure and record the results you obtain. It's not enough to make just general statements about the results of your experiments; you need to gather and record actual, quantitative data from them. Data can be the amount of force applied, the chemicals used, an object's physical measurements, the time something took, etc.

Typically experiments are done in series, changing only one variable at a time. This provides you with the "raw data" which you can then analyze and determine to see if your hypothesis has been proved or disproved. Carefully record all your observations. Even results you did not expect may be important so record all your results, both good and bad.

If you get the results you expected, then the experiment supports your hypothesis. Make sure that you have an accurate record of how the experiments were conducted and the results you obtained. Replication, the ability of others to do the same experiment in the same way, is very important. Have others duplicate your tests to assure that your methods were correct and that your experimentation can be duplicated by others.

6. Examine Results - You carefully examine your results, double checking any calculations, looking for patterns or surprises in your results. At this step keep an open mind. The purpose of science is to learn what really is, not to prove your hypothesis was right. If your results surprise you, you may wish to go back and repeat the experiments to confirm that your methods were correct and your measurements were accurate.

At this step you do any calculations needed from your raw data to obtain the numbers you need to draw your final conclusions. Not all experiments will need a calculation section to the report but most will. It is from your calculations of recorded data that tables and graphs can be made. By studying tables and graphs, you can often see trends that tell you how different variables caused your observations. Based on those trends, you can reach conclusions about the experiments you did.

7. Reach Conclusions - You examine the results and state whether your predictions were confirmed or not.  Using the trends in your experimental data and your experimental observations, try to answer your original questions. Was your hypothesis correct? Now is the time to examine all your results, and assess the experiments you did. If your hypothesis was correct, briefly explain the major factors that prove the hypothesis.  If the hypothesis was in error, try to explain your results; what other answers might their be to your original questions and/or hypothesis? And bear in mind that a faulty hypothesis is quite all right. Many major scientific breakthroughs have occurred because a scientist did not get the results expected and went back to do more experimentation to find out why.

Additionally, what you have learned from one set of experiments may allow you to answer other questions as well. Many questions are related. Several new questions may have arisen while you were experimenting. You may now be able to understand or verify things that you discovered when gathering information for the project. The answer to one question often lead to more questions, which lead to additional hypothesis that need to be tested and more experimentation for the future.

And finally.....You may find that your progression of research and experimentation does not necessarily follow theses steps exactly as given, and that's okay. The purpose of the scientific method is not to prescribe a routine which cannot be varied, but rather to provide a systematic method of asking questions, proposing hypothesis, and doing the testing to determine the correct answers. After testing your hypothesis, you may be unhappy with the results and may decide to retest your hypothesis with additional testing, propose another hypothesis, gather more data, or ask another question.

The scientific method is not cast in concrete but it is systematic, straightforward and easy enough to learn and use that non-scientists can  make use of it for their own interests. And interestingly, many scientific discoveries come about by accident, by getting unexpected results and accidentally asking questions that had not even been asked. Who knows, perhaps YOU will be the one to make the next big discovery!  Happy experimenting!!!

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