On the scientific method

David W. Kramer kramer.8 at osu.edu
Thu Apr 12 10:19:35 EST 2001

I've read all the excellent messages in this thread and can't resist
jumping in!!

I agree on the importance of students learning and following the scientific
method (even though scientists still debate what the exact steps are!  or
what they should be called!) but we should be willing to rise above purely
semantic issues, accepting the use of several terms to describe the various
steps as long as the basic observation/problem/hypothesis/data gathering
and analysis/conclusion/communication rubric is there.

Most of us at one time or another have criticized 1) science fair projects
and 2) the teachers who make these assignments (seemingly with limited
understanding of the process of science).  We volunteer as judges and are
too often dismayed by what usually amounts to a lack of instruction or
faulty instruction of the students.  So we criticize.  Afterall, we're
trained to be critical of what we see!!  Some of us decide that it isn't
worth our time to continue to be involved in such a poorly conceived and
executed endeavor.

But:  If we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem!

Let us rejoice that at the very least the science fair introduces thousands
of students to the joys and frustrations of hands-on science.  At least
they are not just reading about science or passively watching a video.
They are DOING science.  But we need not ignore the fact that they could be
doing it better.

Rather than simply criticizing how it is being done poorly in too many
cases, let's try to think of ways of improving the process.  Here are just
two ideas:

1) Volunteer to visit at least a few schools in your area that have science
fair projects to  talk to the students (and their teachers... insist that
the teachers stay in the room so they can give this lecture next year)
about the scientific method, i.e., the process.  Don't just name the steps
but explain the logic, the role of each step.  Use this as an OPPORTUNITY
TO TEACH THAT in everday speech they use "theory" the way scientists use
"hypothesis"... a predicted explanation that needs to be tested.  AND in
science we use the word "theory" also but to mean something very different:
A principle that has a very high degree of predictability, that has been
supported with data under a wide variety of circumstances (e.g., over a
long time, in many places, under many conditions, with many different
organisms, etc.).  WE NEED TO EXPLAIN THAT the Cell Theory, the Theory of
Evolution, etc. are NOT HYPOTHESES but are more akin to the LAWS of the
physical sciences.

Next year go to several new schools.  After several years you will have
educated lots of students and their teachers.

2)  We also need to provide students and their teachers with a one-page
(well, maybe two!) explanation of some very basic (developmentally
appropriate) statistical analyses.  What is a mean?  a median?  a standard
deviation?  a percentage?  tests of statistical significance?  When should
these various analytical techniques be used?  What do they show us?  I
enounter lots of students (even in my college classroom!) who can calculate
percentages, for example, but have no clue as to why you would want to do

Students also need to know the value of making data sets visual through
graphing techniques.  Can you graph a hypothesis even before you have
gathered data?  (What should the graph look like if the hypothesis is
supported by the data?)  When is it appropriate (and inappropriate) to use
a line graph? bar graph? pie chart?  I encounter two problems with
statistical analysis in science fair projects:  1) too little data, 2)
incorrect choice of analytical tool.  The students have access to some
fairly sophisticated software tools and many students know how to use them
to construct beautiful graphs but they don't understand which kind of graph
is used for which purpose.

I think we can do a better job of supporting science fair and similar
programs.  Our professional societies can publish a brochure on the
scientific method and another one on statistical analysis and make these
available to our members to distribute when we 1) train teachers (WE are
the ones who prepare the teachers!!), 2) talk to students about science
fair projects, and 3) judge science fair projects.  The Botanical Society
of America would be pleased to do this.  Send me your suggestions.


David W. Kramer, Chair
Education Committee
Botanical Society of America

Asst. Prof. of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology
Ohio State University at Mansfield
1680 University Drive
Mansfield, OH  44906-1547
Phone:  (419) 755-4344      FAX:  (419) 755-4367
e-mail:  kramer.8 at osu.edu
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