A Second Look at the Scientific Method

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. However, in reality, are we just reinforcing the stereotype of the “mad scientist” who works in a dirty lab coat, has white hair flying straight back, and has 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?

After memorizing the steps of the scientific method, how prepared do your students feel learning the steps in isolation and being told to go ask a question, do 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 of one month later. A few students would ask, “What is my hypothesis, or 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?” However, my favorite, although most frustrating question was, “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, 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 scientists 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. Scientists’ research is an attempt to add their findings to this knowledge and to share their discovery with the world! Are their findings the same, are they different, or are they 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, and 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, 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.

Share your ideas and experiences with the practices of scientists and engineers with us as comments to the blog this month!  I hope Talley’s Take becomes a place where you and others can share your thinking about being a STEM teacher and a place where you can comment and ask questions about what others find to be highly effective strategies for teaching in STEM content fields.

This month, Talley’s Take is focusing on science investigations for your students.  Check out the STEM-ify It video. It showcases how using investigations in the science classroom stimulate student thinking, critical observations, and thoughtful responses among students. I look forward to your comments!


Terry Talley, Ed.D.

STEMcoach in Action!





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