On the scientific method

Karl Kleiner kkleiner at eagle.ycp.edu
Mon Mar 26 12:08:00 EST 2001

Where I judge high school science fair projects, it is the math and
physics students that always win. Why? Because they have a MODEL!  Their
projects usually go like this:
1) Make observations
2) Find mathematical model that explains underlying principle for
observations OR
3) Take existing mathematical model and derive a new model to explain
observed phenomena
4) Conduct experiment and collect data
5) Validate model by comparing emperical data to expected data generated
by the model

In constrast, most botany projects that I see give me the impression
that the student rolled out of bed one weekend morning and thought:
'What would happen if I played Mozart to one group of plants and Def
Leppard to another group?' Such experiments fall somewhere between
Aristotelian (there is a treatment, but no control) and Galilean (there
is a comparison between treatments, but still no control). Indeed, many
experiments, despite having two treatments are really Baconian in
approach - there is little preconceived idea of what the outcome will

The big problem as I see it is that we do not teach our
biology students the underlying principles (theories) that govern
biological processes in such a way that they can use them to investigate
the world around them. There is an excellent article addressing the
shortcomings of ecological research in The Scientist (O'Connor, Raymond
J. 2000. Why Ecology Lags Behind Biology, October 16th).

Many students may enter biology because it is perceived to be easier
than math and physics. Perhaps the details (of natural history) are
easier to grasp, but to actually conduct research in biology,
particularly plants and animals, is more difficult. There are well
established theories, it's just doesn't seem that they are as well
presented as those in math and physics. Moreover, the inherent
variability in natural systems makes validation of those theories
perhaps more difficult. 

Karl Kleiner
Assistant Professor of Biology
Department of Biological Sciences
York College of Pennsylvania
York, PA  17405
(717) 815-1754 - Phone
(717) 849-1653 - FAX
kkleiner at ycp.edu


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