Teaching scientific method involves a set of steps. Traditionally, these steps were taught as a rather rigid process. Today, however, teachers employ a larger, more flexible set of science practices. Contrary to popular belief, the scientific method is not dead. Instead, it can be used flexibly as a part of today’s instruction.
Ms. Sneed Prepares for Teaching Scientific Method
Our favorite fourth grade teacher stapled some Dollar Store shelf liner to the backsplash of her sink area. Next, she added some colorful borders. Finally, she matted her scientific method posters on black paper. Voila!
Just as she was finishing up, the teacher next door popped in to borrow some salt. “Hey,” said Mr. Frank, “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
“Thanks! These posters on the top help me teach the steps in the scientific method:
- Ask a question.
- Conduct research.
- Design a fair test.
- Make observations.
- Record results.
- Draw conclusions.
- Share results.
“And the four on the bottom remind the kids of what makes a fair test: compare, control variables, use tools, and replicate.”
Setting Up a Simple Experiment
Ms. Sneed pointed to the table. “To get started,” she said, “we’ll conduct an investigation. It’s featured in the my teaching scientific method slideshow. In other words, we’ll do the experiment as its presented in the PowerPoint presentation.”
Mr. Frank looked at the materials: a pitcher of water, plastic cups, plastic wrap, and a graduated cylinder. “What experiment will you do?”
“Don’t laugh. It’s super simple. Kids will explore whether more water evaporates from a closed or open cup.”
Using a Graphic Organizer
Grinning, Mr. Frank picked up a template. “Hey, I like this scientific method organizer. It’s perfect for recording the steps. Additionally, it matches your posters.”
“Thanks, I’ll make you a copy.”
“I appreciate it. Now I better get going. I need to plan my reading lesson for tomorrow.”
Presenting a Slideshow with Examples for Teaching Scientific Method
The next day, Ms. Sneed was ready to rock and roll. After her kids filed in, she fired up the PowerPoint presentation. “Okay everyone, today I’m teaching the scientific method. It’s a set of steps scientists use for experiments. After the presentation, we’ll also try the lab they use as an example.”
Ask a Question
Without further ado, Ms. Sneed started the presentation. “The first step is asking a question. However, you should always compare. For example, today we’ll consider this question: Which will evaporate more, water in an open cup or water in a covered cup?
“What are we comparing?”
“Water in open and closed cups?” one child ventured.
Ms. Sneed moved to the next section of the presentation. “Second,” she said, “scientists research. It’s good to know what others have already learned about your question. In this case, we find that water in a covered cup does evaporate into the air that’s also sealed in the cup. However, when that air becomes saturated, it begins to return to the water in the same rate that other water molecules are evaporating.”
As the teacher clicked forward in the presentation, she continued. “After that, you’ll hypothesize. What a big word! But don’t worry. It just means predict. Using your background knowledge – and your research – you predict the answer to the question. For example, you might say, ‘A small amount of water will evaporate from a closed cup, and more water will evaporate from an open cup.'”
Design a Fair Test
“Next,” said Ms. Sneed, “we’ll discuss how to design a fair test. As you can see on the slide, it must test the hypothesis. And like we discussed before, it will compare something. However, to make it more valid, you will also control variables, use scientific tools, and replicate.”
A few kids shifted uncomfortably in their seats. “Now, don’t worry,” Ms. Sneed said. “It’s easier than it sounds.
“First, we’ll talk about variables. When you conduct an experiment, only one thing can be compared. In our example, it’s water in open and closed containers. That’s called the independent variable.
“Everything else must be controlled, or kept the same. For example, we’ll use the same plastic cups and same cover. In addition, we’ll use the same liquid, temperature, light, humidity, etc. See? Same, same, same! That way, we know that whatever happens was a result of the cover – and not something else.”
As Ms. Sneed glanced around the room, she noticed that her students looked more relaxed. “Okay, we’ll also measure. Instead of just eyeballing it, we’ll take a precise measurement. In this experiment, we’ll use a graduated cylinder.”
Now Ms. Sneed moved to the side table. Then she pointed to the stack of cups. “Here you can see that I have many cups. That way, each lab group in our class will conduct the same experiment. Replication. In other words, we will repeat it over and over again. That way, we can be more sure that the results are valid.”
“Of course,” Ms. Sneed continued, “you will make observations. These will include what you see, as well as what you measure.”
“Then you’ll record your results. After all, how can you remember it all?”
Ms. Sneed continued progressing the slides. “Finally, you’ll draw conclusions. After you’ve studied your results, you answer the original question.”
“But you’re not done yet. True scientists share their results – and you will too. Generally speaking, scientists use tables, graphs, and reports to communicate their findings. However, they can share in any way that makes sense.”
After Ms. Sneed finished teaching scientific method, her students set up their lab. As the year progressed, they used the process over and over. They even experimented with succulents! And, of course, conducting experiments became one of their favorite activities.
Enjoy Teaching Scientific Method as Part of Your Science Practices
A few years later, Mr. Frank once again visited as Ms. Sneed set up her science posters.
“Hey,” he said, “I thought teaching scientific method was a thing of the past.”
The New NGSS Science Practices
“I know,” Ms. Sneed responded. “With the new science and engineering practices from the Next Generation Science Standards, I thought I’d have to scrap it all. However, after studying them, I realized I just need to expand what I’m doing. Additionally, I can’t be as rigid.”
She walked to the table and picked up a list. As she pointed to each of the science practices, she discussed it with Mr. Frank:
- “Ask questions – Sure, I’ll need to do more to help my students pose testable questions, but it’s part of the old scientific method.
- “Develop and use models – That’s something new that I’ll need to include in my science program.
- “Plan and carry out investigations – Basically, this matches my old process. So I’ll just switch my lingo. Instead of calling it the scientific method, I’ll call it an investigation. Furthermore, I’ll have to present the steps as a set of flexible strategies. In other words, it’s not one process. Instead, it’s a set of processes. And kids can pick and choose whatever they need to answer a question.”
- “Analyze and interpret data – Yep, part of the original process.
- “Use mathematics and computational thinking – Check. Still a match.
- “Construct explanations – To me, this is a bit broader than generalizing or drawing conclusions. Therefore, I’ll expand what I ask kids to do.
- “Engage in argument – In the past, my students did this naturally in their lab groups. However, now I’ll encourage it more. I’ll also ask them to write paragraphs with evidence to support their claims.
- Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information – Once again, something I already asked them to do.”
Teaching Scientific Method Strategies in a New Way
Mr. Frank nodded. “I see what you mean. Instead of getting rid of the scientific method, we’re just expanding on it.”
“And using it much more flexibly,” Ms. Sneed added. “To me, the two biggest differences are using models and engaging in argument.”
“Where does inquiry fit into all of this?”
“Great question! I read that the authors of the NGSS considered using that term. However, it meant too many things to too many people. Therefore, they settled on the term investigation instead. This year, I’ll use three terms interchangeably: investigation, inquiry, and experiment. My aim is to help kids understand that scientists use a variety of practices, or strategies, to answer questions.”
“This makes me feel so much better,” said Mr. Frank. “Now I know we can still use our favorite science labs. You know I couldn’t give up the apple experiment.”
“And I couldn’t give up the gummy bear lab!” Ms. Sneed smiled broadly. “Maybe we’re no longer teaching scientific method, but we’re still using the same processes to answer questions in science.”