Exploring how we “do” science – part 2

Whether we know it or not, each one of us thinks like a scientist. Research is the second step and really just involves gathering informaiton.

The words “scientific process” or “scientific method” usually conjures up memories of boring classroom lectures about what smart people do on their weekends. And if the words “scientific process” excited you enough to read this article, then you maybe one of those brainy men or women. But the fact is that while scientific process sounds all academic, each one of us uses it every single day – we just don’t know it. So here is a fun and simple way to break down the scientific process that hopefully all of us can understand -- and it might even result in a better association with the phrase.

Today’s article focuses on the second step of the scientific process: research.

Research can seem like a complex process and in some settings it is, but research can be very simple too. Research is really searching and gathering information. Here is an example of how this part of the scientific process would work: If you walked into a room, flipped the light switch and nothing happened, you will likely start the scientific process by asking “why didn’t the light go on”? At one level you already have done some research as you know that the light should have turned on and you may know some reasons that it may not turn on – the power is out, the bulb is burned out or a circuit breaker has blown. In this example you have done some previous research which has helped you problem solve some potential causes. In other examples, “what kind of bug is that” you may need to start searching and gathering information.

Research can be done generally in two ways: 1) searching good information that is already available and 2) conducting an experiment yourself. “Google it” is a common method used today and a quick go to for parents with inquisitive children. This is a prime example of searching for available information. Other options are reading books and articles, finding summaries of research that other scientists have done, or talking to experts in your community or at Universities. Michigan State University Extension has a great feature that allows you to post questions on their “ask an expert” tool. That is a great way to get researched-based, accurate information.

Conducting an experiment yourself is a wonderful hands-on way to finding your answer. This doesn’t have to be complicated either. Using our light bulb example an experiment could be as easy as turning on the lights in another room to see if they work. Now you can certainly take it to another level and research how power outages happen, why bulbs burn out and how a circuit breaker is blown, but each one of those really serves as a separate question and doesn’t need to be answered in order for you to continue working through the scientific process to determine the answer to your original question of “Why didn’t the light go on?”

That is one of the neat things about the scientific process. As we go through the steps to find the answer to our question, many other questions emerge. Our natural curiosity, particularly in kids, helps drive the desire to ask questions and research the answer.

The scientific process doesn’t sound cool to some of us, but it is what we do every day and it is a helpful way to structure inquiry and problem solving. It is also helpful for young people to know that every time they ask a question like, why didn’t that light turn on when I flipped the switch – they are starting a process that scientists use every day. Each of us think like scientists, we just don’t realize it.

For a fun, hands-on activity check out MSU Extension, 4-H Youth Developments resource 4-H science Blast! In the class and download their free lesson Science Process: Exploring How We Do Science.

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