The world is full of questions. What causes volcanoes to form? Why does it rain? The scientific method was developed to provide an unbiased way of finding the best possible answer.
The scientific method was developed so scientists could test possible explanations to questions, and allow others to verify the results. There are five general steps of the scientific method:
1. Make observations
2. Ask a question based on observations
3. Form several hypotheses
4. Test the hypotheses
5. Make a conclusion
Observing the world around you is an important first step in the scientific method. As you make observations, you may begin to ask questions about those observations. You may see clouds form overhead, see the lightning, hear the thunder, and then feel the cold rain, but how do the clouds form and why does rain fall from them?
Betsy sees that she has a shadow. She has also noticed that her shadow will disappear at times, and even change shape. Looking around the illustration, you can see that not only Betsy has a shadow. The trees, shrubs, and even nearby rocks also seem to have shadows. These are all important observations.
The formation of a question comes from observation. However, not all questions can be answered using the scientific method. The scientific method can only be used on those questions that have testable hypotheses. Explanations that can not tested are in the realm of faith. People can believe in statements of faith, but those statements can never be proven true or false.
Betsy asked a question, "So what is this shadow and why does everything seem to have one?" This is another important step, since a question needs to be raised that can be tested. What do you think a shadow is? What might be some of the ways you might be able to test your explanation?
To find an answer to a question, a hypothesis is formed. A hypothesis is a possible explanation for the question. They can be proven false, but can never be proven absolutely true. This allows other people the ability to verify the results, and leaves the chance to find better explanations as our understanding grows.
To help remove any personal feelings that may be added when a hypothesis is formed, multiple hypotheses are typically proposed. This causes all of the hypotheses to be tested harder in order to throw away the false explanations.
Betsy has begun thinking of all sorts of possible explanations. How might Betsy test these hypotheses? How would you test them?
This is what separates science and faith. By testing the multiple hypotheses proposed for a question, they are proven true or false. The tests are repeatable, meaning other people can take the accepted hypothesis and test it independently. Current science theories are based on this principle, which means theories can and do change over time.
Betsy decides to try a jumping experiment to see if the shadow is a part of her. She figures the shadow should remain connected if it is a part of her. To see if the shadow is a natural clock, or if the shadow is the result of the absence of light, Betsy decides to use an overhead lamp to look for a shadow at night.
The final step of the scientific method. This is when a hypothesis is either accepted or rejected. If the conclusion means the hypothesis is rejected, then another hypothesis needs to be examined. If the hypothesis is accepted, then the explanation becomes a theory. In both cases, the conclusion should state all the findings so others can verify the results or explore some of the findings.
Betsy has conducted her experiments, and has concluded that shadows are caused due to a lack of light. Now Betsy needs to share her findings and let others try to support or reject them.
Here are some printable classroom experiments to explore. The answer keys are provided on the Teacher Resource CD.
Here are some terms and definitions that typically come up during discussions about the scientific method.