What is the Scientific Method Anyway?

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Students will be able to discuss the steps of the scientific method and apply them to engineering design processes.

Big Idea

Use dixie cups and popsicle sticks to get your kids excited about the scientific method!

Notes for the Teacher

This lesson is a great mix of media, student large and small group discussion, participation at the board, and hands-on work linking student prior knowledge and experiences with the scientific method to engineering design practices.  One of my intentional goals in our class is to have the students actively engaged in comparisons as often as possible and this lesson does that.  I find that doing so builds vocabulary comprehension quickly and prompts deeper level questioning and analysis conversations that we can build from throughout the year.  Now that we are moving into the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards and including engineering concepts into our curriculum, it feels important to me to start building new engineering knowledge using our related scientific methodology knowledge as our entry point to a broader understanding of the connections between all types of scientific research processes.

The flow of the room is busy but relaxed.  I also find that I can refer back to the bridge-building activity throughout this unit and students instantly connect and respond.  I can't wait to hear about your experiences using and expanding upon this great starter activity!

The Classroom Flow: Introducing the Scientific Method and Engineering Design

30 minutes

1. Review the steps of the scientific method that the class discussed during the Sharkweek activity.  Specifically point out terms such as hypotheses, data, variables, experimentation, conclusion.

 2.  Tell the class that you'd like to shift the conversation to include engineering practices.  Ask the class, "What do you think of when you hear the word engineering?"  and use the spokesperson protocol to collect input and generate a class list on the board.

3.  Pass out the Inventeens handout and show the ten minute Inventeens clip produced by the Boston Museum of Science.

4.  Ask students to discuss the handout prompt with their groups and use the spokesperson protocol to initiate a class discussion.

5. Tell student groups to take a few minutes to compare and contrast the scientific method and engineering design.  Request that one student from each group then come up and fill in a Venn diagram you have drawn on the board.  

6.  Use the class constructed Venn diagram to discuss commonalities and differences between the two methods of scientific exploration.  Point out similarities/differences and ask for class feedback.  Students will work with you to consolidate some of the phrases and to reject some erroneous ideas.  

  • Note:  The biggest takeaways from the student-created Venn diagram that I point out and emphasize are that engineering always involves the creation of a product while science research does not and that both processes involve hypotheses, data, and experimentation.  I also utilize the appropriate domain-specific vocabulary such as iterative process and experimental design.  I also circle the most important phrases/words that students have written down to emphasize them in the conversation and later on in the bridge building activity.  The areas that students typically need some clarification on are the idea that engineers also have hypotheses and that they do a type of experiment in order to determine if their design will be effective.

The Classroom Flow: Bridge Building

20 minutes

1. Announce to students that they will now work through the engineering design process in pairs.  Tell them that you'd like for them to be thinking about the words we just emphasized and to see for themselves the similarities and differences between the scientific method and engineering practices.  

2. Show the needed supplies for each pair of students:  four dixie cups, at least 20 popsicle sticks, and one handout.  

  • Note:  Students love using colored popsicle sticks for this activity because it allows them to add an aesthetic, personal touch to their designs.  I put about 40 sticks in 8 cups and place one cup on each lab table for two lab pairs to share.

3. Keep announced directions for the activity at a minimum, the less words the better so that they can get to exploring and collaborating right away.  The short version:  

  • put three dixie cups open end down on the three circles on the handout
  • arrange the sticks on top of the three cups so that the fourth cup can 'float' above the paper supported only by the popsicle sticks
  • neither the popsicle sticks nor the fourth cup can touch the paper

 4.  As the kids work, circulate and encourage any and all designs.  Ask student groups to let you know when they've come up with a design that works and emphasize that there are many designs that can work! 

5.  When groups call you over, congratulate them!  Comment on a specific aspect of their bridge and/or ask them to tell you more about their thinking/design planning.

6.  As individual pairs call you over eagerly to show you they have met the challenge and after you have praised their work and asked them about their process, give them a second challenge:  imagine each stick is worth $1000 and you, the designer want to see if they can reduce the overall price of the bridge.  

  • Note: Here is an example of one of the two bridge designs with the smallest possible number of sticks.  I find it is not helpful to give them a number to shoot for, but simply to let them get there on their own if they can.  This activity can be challenging for some students and your encouragement goes a long way!  All students will be highly engaged for as long as you schedule this activity to last.

 7.  When student groups call you back over to see their revised bridges, comment upon the iterative design process and bring the focus back to the terminology and concepts listed on the Venn diagram.


This year, I tried a slightly different design activity based upon the marshmallow challenge.  After students completed their challenge and we measured and admired each group design, we viewed the short video clip about how business people, architects, engineers, administrative assistants, and kindergarteners compared to our results.  The video is a great way of getting into the idea of prototyping, creativity, group dynamics, and cooperation.  The kids and I loved the experience and the discussion we had after we completed the challenge and watched the video.  

We also created a great class Venn diagram on the board to show the differences and similarities between scientific research and the engineering design process.  We emphasized the iterative process and highlighted how many aspects of the two ways of thinking and doing science really are for scientists and engineers.