What is the Scientific Method?

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My girls have started watching a TV show called Ready Jet Go! (which, incidentally, is an awesome show for learning about outer space), and they’ve caught on to one of the catchy tunes from the show that teaches the scientific method. (Here’s the official version, although I prefer this informal one…)

My kids now think the scientific method is cool, and they’ve been singing the song to each other, trying to remember all the steps. Awesome!

But perhaps you’re asking, “What is this whole ‘scientific method’ thing anyway?

I’ve touched on the subject here on Go Science Kids before, but I hadn’t really introduced it properly. And it really deserves a proper introduction, don’t you think?

what is the scientific method

What is the Scientific Method?

The scientific method is the process that modern scientists use to work out what is true about something. It’s a method that reduces bias, and follows a series of logical steps.

The 6 steps of the scientific method

Step One: Ask a question

Kids are the best at asking questions, they ask them all the time! If they are asking really deep complicated questions, try breaking them up into a series of smaller ones that you can test one at a time.

Step Two: Form a hypothesis

A hypothesis is an educated guess about what will happen if you combine two variables. It’s a “guess you can test”. It’s written as a statement, rather than a question. It can sometimes be a “if, then” statement, such as:

“If I increase the slope of the ramp, the toy car will travel further”.

This hypothesis has two variables: the slope of the ramp, and the distance that the car travels. You can change the slope of the ramp, and then measure how this change affects the distance.

Think about what you can measure, with the tools that you have available.

Step Three: Experiment!

See if your hypothesis can pass the test. Remember to do a ‘fair test’ by using a control and testing variables one at a time. If you try an experiment and it doesn’t work, it’s a great opportunity to ask why not? What could you change?

Step Four: Observe and record

What can you measure, document, record? Remember that scientists don’t just record numbers – they often draw pictures to record observations too.

Step Five: Draw conclusions based on your observations

If you didn’t prove your hypothesis correct, it doesn’t mean the experiment failed. Quite the opposite! Ruling out a possibility is just as important as proving one correct in science.

Modify your hypothesis based on your findings and test again.

When your hypothesis consistently lines up with observations, then you have formed a theory.

Step Six: Share your findings

Publication and peer review are important parts of the scientific method. Kids can share their findings too!

Before a theory is accepted by the scientific community, experiments are rigorously tested. But even if a theory is currently accepted as true, doesn’t mean it can’t be proven false if new information becomes available. The body of scientific knowledge is constantly shifting based on the most current information.

It’s a cycle

Scientific Method Cycle

The scientific method is not supposed to be viewed as steps done strictly in order 1-2-3-4-5-6. More likely it may be 1-2-3-4-3-4-3-4-5-2-3-4-5-6, or something like that! You can also skip a few steps if you’re reproducing an experiment at that someone has already done before, more like 2-3-4-5. Reproducing experiments is often called a ‘science demonstration’.

Science Demonstrations vs Science Experiments

Teaching Science at Home - demonstrations vs experiments

The first time we do a science activity, we’re often reproducing an experiment that we’ve read about elsewhere. My kids’ learning curve seems to be more about the exposure to new materials, new concepts, new vocabulary. They want to follow the instructions, and see an activity through to the (often cool) result at the end.

By the second and third time we do an activity, my kids’ confidence starts to grow. They know how the experiment works, and start to take ownership of the process, teaching the steps back to me. They can predict the outcome based on prior experience, and can then do the experiment to prove it (or go back and see what they did wrong if their experiment didn’t work.)

By the time we’ve done a project a few times, the kids often start asking deeper questions. “What happens if we change this one aspect?” This is when an activity morphs beyond ‘just’ a demonstration, into a experiment. This is the opportunity for kids to formulate their own hypothesis, test it, document results, make conclusions and (most likely) revisit their hypothesis again. All important steps in learning the scientific method!

This is why I cringe whenever I hear people calling kids’ science activities as ‘just’ science demonstrations. In our experience, doing science demonstrations is a first (and very important) step towards encouraging confidence and a love of science in young kids!

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