Exploring Scientific Methods

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SWBAT know and use the steps of the scientific method to design experiments.

Big Idea

Just as scientists follow different paths to solve scientific problems, students learn about the creativity and variety of approaches called the scientific method.


20 minutes

What is a scientist exactly and what is it that they do? Students have many ideas about the work that scientists do. Oftentimes, these ideas reflect a narrow view of scientists as represented in popular media. Students also report that science in school is "hard", "boring", "structured" while simultaneously reporting that scientific discoveries are "important", "interesting" and "creative". Science may very well be all of these things; in order to truly engage and interest students in scientific practice, they need to participate in authentic opportunities using scientific methods, so they can feel the importance and creativity.

This lesson on Exploring Scientific Methods is an introduction to the wide array of scientific practices scientists use to plan investigations individually and collaboratively (SP3). Within the exploration of these practices, students also explore nature of science concepts such as: "Scientific Investigations Use a Variety of Methods" and "Scientific Knowledge is Based on Empirical Evidence". The Exploring Controlled Experiments series of lessons is an investigation that dovetails nicely with this lesson: Exploring Controlled Experiments (Part 1/2) and Exploring Controlled Experiments (Part 2/2). After completing these lessons, students are well-prepared to design experiments and conduct investigations using the creative variety of methods scientists use.

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, students play a sorting game with a partner. Using generic steps of the traditional linear scientific method found in slide 2 of the Exploring Scientific Methods presentation, students put the steps of the scientific method in a logical order. This can be done by students writing the steps on paper or by printing/cutting out each step, so students can physically sort the steps.

As a class, we choose one of the steps. Students stand if they chose that step for their first step. Using the Critical Thinking Skills Blooms Taxonomy Question Starters, students defend their choices, which leads to a discussion about whether these steps have to occur in a certain order or if the steps have to occur at all for successful scientific investigation.


30 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. To help students further explore some of the practices represented by the traditional steps of the scientific method that they sorted in the ENGAGE section of the lesson, students take notes on page 1 of the Scientific Method Notes. If students need additional resources to help them complete the notes, students access the Science Buddies Web-site.

Upon completion of page 1, students check their work using Scientific Method Notes Answer Key or Alternate Scientific Method Notes. Students pair up to use what they have learned to create a flowchart showing the steps we followed in one of our last experiments (slide 3 of the Exploring Scientific Methods presentation). To help them remember the steps they followed, students choose a recent investigation like this one: Wild Water Slide Student Work Experimental Design Plan. If students are unfamiliar with flowcharts, they search "flowcharts" online to see examples. The flowchart is completed on a large piece of plain paper using colors, symbols, words and illustrations to help students "explain" the scientific process. For more on the importance of using models to predict or describe phenomena, see this section's reflection: Scientific Practice - Modeling Processes. To see this process in action, watch this video:

As students finish, they do a "mini-presentation" to show me their flow chart: Linear Scientific Method Student Example. This is a great opportunity to probe student thinking about the "why" of the scientific method they charted. Questions like these help refine conceptual understanding:

Why is it important to have certain steps?

Which steps in your flow chart are the most important?

Do your steps have to happen in this order?

What would happen if you skipped a step?

Then, students work on their next challenge. The are given the prompt (slide 4 of the Exploring Scientific Methods presentation): 

Create a flowchart showing the steps scientists followed in the Trogloraptor spider investigation.

 They watch this video:

From the video, students create a second flow chart. They then answer this analysis question (written or orally - slide 5 of the Exploring Scientific Methods presentation):

Describe how the process of discovery for the Trogloraptor spider is different than the linear scientific method chart.

To see how students create their flowcharts, view this video:

At this point in the lesson, the critical point for students to recognize is that there is no one "right" scientific method. Asking for specific examples from their flowcharts (Non-Linear Scientific Method Student Example) of how the trogloraptor process is different than the investigation we completed in class, drives students to this realization. By looking at student flowchart examples and the linear and non-linear graphics, students can visualize these differences. While the linear scientific method (slide 6 of the Exploring Scientific Methods presentation) is the traditional representation of the scientific method, there are many alternate ways to visualize the variety of scientific methods that scientists use (slide 7 of the Exploring Scientific Methods presentation). For printable versions of these graphics, visit: Teaching Tools.

Teacher Note: The second page of Scientific Method Notes can be used to transition from learning about general scientific practices to learning to identify factors of a controlled experiment. As noted, lessons that intersect with this lesson are: Exploring Controlled Experiments (Part 1/2) and Exploring Controlled Experiments (Part 2/2).


The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. If time allows, there are two novel situations for students to explore.

1) Analyze the scientific and engineering processes (slide 8 of the Exploring Scientific Methods presentation) to answer this question:

What differences do you see between scientific process and engineering process?

Using choices from the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy "analyze" products, students analyze the diagrams and create a final product to illustrate their thinking. For example, students may create a diagram, graph or questionnaire that illustrates their understanding of this question.

2) Evaluate this quote and prompt (slide 9 of the Exploring Scientific Methods presentation):

If “the aim of science is to seek the simplest explanation of complex facts”* , then which step of scientific method is the most important?

*Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) English mathematician and philosopher. Concepts of Nature, p. 163.

Using choices from the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy "evaluate" products, students evaluate the quote and prompt and create a final product - such as survey, letter or conclusion paragraph - to illustrate their thinking.


The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. Exploring scientific practices is a year-long or even life-long process, so attempting to evaluate mastery of these practices as a whole or individually is a big undertaking.

When I teach this lesson, students have already designed an experiment with limited guidance as a pre-assessment. This gives us a nice baseline from which to determine how necessary this lesson is and to what extent students need additional instruction and practice. I've found that nearly all 6th grade students need significant instruction and practice. Therefore, in the short term, evaluation occurs when students design another experiment individually (using scaffolded experimental design plans based on their level of understanding on the pre-assessment) to see if they have grown in their understanding. Here are some experimental design graphic organizers that are leveled:

Experimental Design Plan - Low Guidance

Experimental Design Plan - Partial Guidance

Experimental Design Plan - Moderate Guidance

Throughout the course of the year, students are continuously evaluated through additional experimental designs and assessments on individual methods - such as developing and using models (SP2) or analyzing and interpreting data (SP4) when they are used within authentic instructional contexts.