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Kids Connect! You’re a scientist too!

By Christine DePetrillo
August 1, 2011
File under: Children, Education, Nature, Research


Scientists make new discoveries every day all over the world. Isn’t that amazing? Imagine, for example, being Galileo Galilei who first discovered some of Jupiter’s moons. Or think about being Benjamin Franklin who realized lightning was electricity. Or what about Albert Einstein who came up with the theory of relativity, E = mc2? Or Jane Goodall who was the first to observe that chimps used tools.

All of these people made discoveries that have changed our world.


That last box could be YOU!

Without scientists, much of the information we know about our planet would still be a mystery. It’s nice to know how to care for plants, how spiders are helpful, or how we can deal with pollution. When a scientist tries to answer questions like these, he or she uses The Scientific Method to do an experiment. You can use these steps to do your own experiments too.


Step 1: The Big Question

In this step, you define what question you wish to answer with your experimentation. The question should be specific and lead to something that is observable or measurable. For example, Which cleans up more of an oil spill: cotton, foam, feathers, or plastic wrap? A question like this will allow a scientist (that could be you) to observe the results of attempting to remove oil using three different test materials. This experiment would be both observable (you can see which material picks up more oil) and measurable (you could measure the size of the oil spill in a pan of water before and after using the test materials). Scientists avoid questions like Which cleans an oil spill better: cotton, foam, or plastic wrap? This question uses the word better which is hard to measure. Better could mean different things to different scientists, and consistency in experiments is very important. Also notice that the only variable (the thing we’re changing) is the test material. If you change too many things, the experiment will get confusing and it will hard to examine your results.

Step 2: Background Information

It’s important to know something about your topic before you do your experiment. Reading a few books, encyclopedia articles, web articles, and watching videos about the subject help you design a better experiment and predict what the outcome might be. For the oil spill example discussed above, researching specific oil spills, their effects on wildlife, and how they are typically cleaned up would give you a solid base on which to build your experiment.

Step 3: Formulating a Hypothesis

This step allows you to make an educated prediction about the answer to your big question. It’s often helpful to begin this prediction with the words “I think…” because you are not certain of the outcome of the experiment. This is merely a statement suggesting what you believe will happen. For our oil spill example, a good hypothesis might be I think feathers will clean up more of an oil spill. Notice how part of the big question is in the hypothesis making it clearly written and easy to understand. This statement doesn’t mean that feathers will definitely pick up more of the oil. It’s just a guess based on what you’ve researched about oil spills. Can you think of two more hypotheses that could be written for this experiment?

Step 4: The Experiment

The experiment itself has two parts. The first is a Materials List. Here you list everything you will need in order to complete the experiment. Be specific with this list. Name the quantity (how many), the size, and the brand, if necessary, for each item. For example, you might use 1, 13 by 9 inch foil pan for the oil spill experiment.

The second part of the experiment is the Procedure. This is a step-by-step description of what you will do in your experiment. Usually the steps are numbered and presented in a logical order. Again, be specific and clear. You might have something like the following for the oil spill experiment:

1.  Gather your materials.

2.  Fill the foil pan with three cups of water.

3.  Pour a tablespoon of vegetable oil on the water. Let it spread. Measure its circumference (distance around the edge of the oil spill) using a piece of string. Record this measurement.

4.  Take the feathers and dab them onto the oil, trying to remove as much as the oil as possible…

This isn’t a complete list, but you get the idea. You are telling someone how to do the experiment. The materials list and procedure are important because they will let other scientists repeat the experiment exactly the way you have done it.

Step 5: Results

Once you have done your experiment following your procedure, you will have observations and measurements to analyze (study in detail). In the oil spill experiment, you will have measured the size of the oil spill before and after using each of the test materials. This data will be used to either support or not support your hypothesis. If your hypothesis is not supported, don’t panic. It’s okay if your prediction was wrong. That’s why you did the experiment. If you knew how it was going to turn out, you wouldn’t have had to experiment in the first place, right?

Step 6: Conclusion

Here is where scientists state their results in an organized way to communicate them to others. You tell whether your findings support or don’t support your hypothesis. Hopefully, you’ve learned something interesting about your big question and now know more about your topic. After all that’s what science is all about – LEARNING! Don’t forget to share that learning with everyone.

Assignment: Your turn! Below are some websites that have experiments about oil spills. Try one and let me know what results you get!

Science Fair Adventure

Science Buddies

San Diego Zoo Science

Challenge: Try some other science experiments using The Scientific Method. Use this website to get some cool ideas or design your own experiment on something you are interested in. Have fun and let us know how it went!

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