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Interactive Science: Labs to Master the Scientific Method

by Miguel Guhlin
scientific method

As imperfect as it may be, the Scientific Method remains humanity’s greatest tool. Some may even see it as the lever to move the world. But a tool for doing what? As Greg Epstein points out, it is the “most reliable tool for determining the nature of the world around us.” In this blog entry, we’ll take a look at some ideas for introducing the scientific method to students. What’s more, I’ll offer some suggestions for engaging young scientists.

The scientific method is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge. It has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, observing then applying rigorous skepticism to those observations. That’s important since one’s cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation. (source)

The process varies in its details from one discipline to another. But generally, the scientific method is often represented in a simple diagram:

interactive science

Source: Brightyellowjeans – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 | See Others

Although the steps appear simple, more work must take place than just completing a science lab. Students must engage in discussion and reflection. As I reviewed some of the fun labs in this blog entry, I realized that I had had little exposure to the problem-solving aspect in my school days. To make sure that’s not happening with your students, be sure to follow the steps included in the diagram below.

interactive science

View online and make a copy – Created by author, adapted from John Almarode’s description in his book

Introducing the Scientific Method

Engaging in scientific reasoning and critical thinking is hard work. How do you introduce it to students in a way that engages them? In the blog entry, How to Design Research-Based Science Lessons, I describe the first step which includes three goals:

  • Get students engaged in learning science
  • Give students ownership of their learning
  • Assess and scaffold student progress from where they are to where they need to be

This means that students must internalize the scientific method and engage in metacognition. They must ask themselves, “What does the evidence say? What do I think about that evidence? What does it imply for next steps?”

Clarifying Vocabulary

Before I share some examples, let’s take a look at some key vocabulary terms to know:

  • Observation. What you see occur or happen
  • Hypothesis. A suggested explanation for the observation
  • Control group. A set of controlled variables that are unchanged. You only adjust the one variable for experimentation. The variable that is adjusted is known as the Independent Variable (IV).
  • Independent Variable (IV). This is the variable that is changed to see how it affects something else.
  • Dependent Variable (DV). The variable that is being measured/observed. It is assumed that the DV is affected by the IV. The DV’s value depends on the IV (source).

Below are some tried and true demonstrations that students can observe, write about, and discuss:

interactive scienceDemo #1: Water Temperature and Effect

Does water temperature affect how fast an Efferdent tablet dissolves? Give this activity a try for middle school students.

Tips for Implementation

Here are some suggestions from Carlos Gomez. I’ve also included some website links I thought might be helpful:

  • Get the tablets at a Dollar store.
  • Get a bag of ice in a cooler for the cold water. You can warm up water in an electric kettle. I pour it for the kids into their beakers so they don’t have to use tongs. Use room temperature water from the sink as your control.
  • Students time from the start (drop tablet) until fully dissolved. Temperature doesn’t need to be recorded because we simply care that one is hot water and the other is cold.
  • You can do a simple graph (bar or line) with independent variable (IV) being water temperature (hot, room, cold). Time can serve as the dependent variable (DV).
  • You can also try this with Alka-Seltzer, but Efferdent tablets are less expensive. View lesson plan.
  • Also use tablets to measure how much carbon dioxide gas is in an Efferdent tablet.
interactive science

Image Source: Newton’s Third Law

Demo #2: Barbie Bungee

Use scientific method as students differentiate between speed, velocity, and acceleration. They will also compare and contrast Newton’s three laws. Try this activity with high school chemistry students.

interactive science

Tips for Implementation

Demo #3: Slug Lab

Students write their own research questions about slug feeding behavior, then gather evidence. The goal is to learn how to design experiments that successfully gather the evidence needed. This activity works well for middle and high school students.

Tips for Implementation

Demo #4: Paper Tower Challenge

In this experiment, students work to discover the best way to assemble a paper tower. The independent variable is the tower design. The dependent variable is the height of the tower. Provide same materials (type and amount of paper, scissors). The materials will serve as the control.

Tips for Implementation

  • View lesson plan for standard challenge.) or explore an alternative.
  • Give each group two pieces of 8 1/2 x 11 copy paper, scissors, and cellophane tape. Challenge them to make the tallest free-standing paper tower. Some ground rules that Kerry BresMontgomery suggests:
    • Use as much or little tape as you want.
    • Rip/cut/fold paper.
    • Cannot tape tower to floor or desk.
    • Only 20 minutes to design and build.
    • Cannot get extra paper, so make a plan before cutting or ripping the paper.
    • Height is from base to top only counting paper (cannot make a tape spire).

There are many other cool lab ideas that can engage students. Use these to develop their scientific reasoning.

Be sure to explore Save Fred, Pringle Ring Challenge, Baking Soda Rockets, and Gummy Bear Osmosis. You may find the Bubble Gum Lab and Elephant Toothpaste of interest as well.

More Labs

You can find many more labs for a variety of age ranges and grade levels online. Here are a few places where you can find those:

In part two of this blog, Interactive Science: Virtual Labs, we will explore virtual labs that can help with the Scientific Method. Stay tuned!


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