A Different Approach to Teaching the Scientific Method

In middle school science, I feel like it is important for students to really understand the steps of the scientific method. Knowing the order of the steps isn’t necessarily that important to me, but understanding each of the steps and what they entail is. I view the steps of the scientific method more as a way of thinking and problem solving than simply a way to conduct an experiment. Yes, students should know how to conduct an experiment correctly and they’ll need the steps for their future science classes. However, I realize most of my students won’t become scientists and won’t use the steps outside of school. What all of my students will need, regardless of their future career choices, is a way to approach and solve the problems that come their way. The scientific method can help with that, so that’s how I choose to present it to my students.  Consider the six steps of the scientific method.
  1. Make an observation and ask a question about it
  2. Research if needed
  3. Make a hypothesis
  4. Test the hypothesis in an experiment
  5. Record and analyze the data
  6. Write a conclusion
Students can use these steps to solve problems in their everyday, middle school lives. When I introduce the scientific method, I bring in a problem they can relate to.  I don’t know about your students, but my students are always having some kind of friendship drama.  So I walk my students through the steps of the scientific method in relation to a quarrel with a buddy.
  1. Make an observation and ask a question about it: You notice your best friend Ashleigh is being frosty to you but extra friendly to everyone else in your friend group. You ask yourself “Why is Ashleigh mad at me?”
  2.  Research if needed: You ask your friends why Ashleigh is mad.  Then you look through your Facebook posts to see if you wrote anything offensive. You see that yesterday you wrote a post saying Ashleigh’s skinny jeans don’t make her look very skinny.
  3. Make a hypothesis: You’re pretty sure Ashleigh is mad about your post. You think to yourself “If I remove the skinny jeans post and make a new Facebook post about my insensitivity, then Ashleigh will stop being mad at me.”
  4. Test the hypothesis in an experiment: As soon as you get home from school, you delete the old post and write a new Facebook post about how you made a mean and unfunny joke about a friend and how sorry you are about hurting her feelings. For good measure, you add that you’re a little jealous because you wish you had her curves.
  5. Record and analyze the data: Within an hour you have 67 likes on your new post and 13 comments praising your apology. You also have one rude comment from your annoying little brother, but he’s stupid and doesn’t matter. You get a message from Ashleigh saying that she forgives you and asks if you want to go shopping this weekend. 
  6. Write a conclusion: You learned you shouldn’t write or say mean things about your friends (or anyone else…except your annoying little brother), and apologizing and admitting you’re wrong is important. In the future, you will treat your friends better.

I think it’s important for students to realize the scientific method reaches beyond the science classroom. Besides the example above, I also use the Steps of the Scientific Method Activity with Rappers Scenarios. (You can learn more about the rapper activity here.) Using examples students can relate to and seeing how they and others can use the steps in their daily lives will help them remember the steps and actually understand them. With practice, they’ll begin to approach problems and work towards solutions differently.

In order to give my students more practice with the steps of the scientific method, I use card sorting activities. My students enjoy them and the activities are more hands on than other approaches. In my Teachers Pay Teachers store you’ll find a set of three card sorting lessons about the scientific method. Each lesson can be used in multiple ways and comes in both English and Spanish so I can reach all of my students. (You can purchase the card sorting activities here.)

Lesson Option 1
The first lesson option is a group card sorting activity.  I use this activity as practice for my students at the beginning of the year when they’re first learning about the scientific method and again after winter break as a review. In this activity, the students work together to sort the cards into the six steps of the scientific method. For each step, there are five cards: a number card, a step description card, a step explanation card, and two example cards. Take a look at the picture below to see an example of each type of card.

This activity gets students to understand what is involved in each step and see what it might look like in an experiment or a problem a student might encounter. The students can work together and discuss the groupings of the cards. After all the cards have been grouped, I have my students complete a two-part reflection sheet individually. The first part is about how well they would have done by themselves. For part two, the students pick out key words and phrases from the example cards and explain how those key words indicate what step the example was a part of. I like it because it gets the students thinking about why it represents a step and not just where a card should be placed.

Lesson Option 2
The second lesson option is an individual card sorting activity.  I use this activity instead of the group activity for my classes that get a little wild when given any kind of freedom. (It seems like there is always one of those that needs a constant thumb pushing down on it.) Alternatively, I sometimes use it in all of my classes as an assessment part way through the scientific method unit. I do this by having the students glue the cards on a paper to hand in. This lesson option has a lot of possible purposes: a review, a pre-assessment, formative assessment, or summative assessment. I’ve used it as a quick activity where students just sort the cards. And I’ve extended it by having students complete a reflection sheet where they explain how the examples represent each step.

Lesson Option 3
The third lesson option I use with our interactive notebooks. The students sort the cards and glue them into their interactive notebooks instead of taking traditional notes. When they’re done gluing the cards, they have the steps in order, a description of what the steps contain, and an example of each step to refer back to in the future.  You can use the cards as a part of your lesson and arrange the cards together as a class. Or you can give your lesson about the steps and then have the students arrange the cards afterward as a way to practice what they just learned. If there is time left over in class, I encourage my students to color their cards in a way that is meaningful for them. For example, they might color all of the steps in yellow, the descriptions in red, and the examples in blue.  Or they might color all of the step one cards in red and step two cards orange and continue on in the order of the rainbow.

While the steps of the scientific method are important for students to learn for their future classes and possible future science careers, I think it is more important for students to learn about the steps so they can use them in their everyday lives as a problem solving technique. When the steps are presented in this way, alongside of the typical science context, I find this approach helps students remember the order of the steps, understand why each step is important, be more motivated to learn the material, and be more likely to use the steps in real life outside of school. If you're interested in using these any of these card sorting activities in your classroom, take a look at the Steps of the Scientific Method Card Sorting Activities in my TpT store. 

 Steps of the Scientific Method Card Sorting Activities

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