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Learning Objective #1 Resource home Printable Version

Understanding scientific inquiry and the scientific method

You're probably using this tutorial because you are taking a science laboratory course. When you are in that lab you are expected to think like a scientist and act like a scientist, so it's a good idea from the beginning to talk about what that means--to think like a scientist and act like a scientist.


Here are some questions to think about: (answer them in your own words)

What is a scientist?
What do scientists do?
What does it mean to think like scientists?
When you are done, click here for more ideas.

The word "science" comes from the Latin verb "scire" which in English means "to know."

Scientists' primary goal is to know, to uncover, to discover, to find out something.

Scientists wonder, explore, observe, predict, investigate, infer, reflect, and communicate what they learn.

One helpful way of understanding what science is all about is to think of it as an act of inquiry.

Anytime you are asking questions, you are engaging in inquiry. When inquiry is applied to science, it is known as scientific inquiry. In addition to posing questions, someone engaged in scientific inquiry is also observing, examining, analyzing, and collecting important information about what they are investigating. Scientific inquiry is probably the most important part of the science process: it reflects curiosity and gets at the essence of science


Think of something youíve always wanted to know about, something that really intrigues you. Then, write down a series of questions about it that you would like to answer. Click here when you're done.

As a scientist, you have taken the first step in scientific inquiry: you have identified questions you would like to answer. Scientists usually start out with a series of questions or a problem they want to solve. Those questions, like the questions you formulated above, come from observation and are based on your knowledge of the world around you. Scientists usually refine their initial questions so that they can be answered by scientific investigation or experimentation. Specific scientific questions, and the means used in finding the answers, will be specific to a particular field of study.

Now that you are familiar with scientific inquiry, you are ready to explore it in the context of the scientific method. Scientific inquiry is grounded in the process of the scientific method.


Before we explore the details of the scientific method, let's find out how much you already know about the scientific method. On a sheet of paper, write the words "scientific method" inside a big circle in the middle of the page. Think about everything that comes to mind with respect to the scientific method and connect your ideas to the main circle by drawing lines extending outward from the circle. It should look something like this:

NEXT, take the ideas you generated above and try to organize them into a series of steps you think scientists take when solving problems or answering questions.

Click here when you're done

Compare your ideas to the ones below. Write down anything that is missing.


  • Identify a problem you would like to solve (this is the central point).
  • Formulate a hypothesis: A hypothesis is a scientist's best estimation, based on scientific knowledge and assumptions, of what the answer to the problem is. It must be specific and testable.
  • Test the hypothesis: Design an experiment that proceeds to answer the specific problem.
  • Collect and analyze the data: Record the data you collect from your experiment. If the data shows evidence to support the hypothesis, then you accept the hypothesis. If the data shows evidence that contradicts the hypothesis, then you reject the hypothesis. (NOTE: Hypotheses can only be supported or rejected, never proven.)
  • Make conclusions: At this point, you bring everything together. What does it all mean? You may identify a new problem or start all over again with the original problem. In either case, you will need to report your findings. This is where scientific writing becomes important.

More information on the scientific method

  1. The scientific method revolves around the identification of a problem or question that needs to be answered.
  2. The scientific method is a learning tool you can use to help you learn the process of science.
  3. Even though they may not refer to it as "the scientific method," most scientists go through a series of steps similar to those described in the scientific method when conducting their investigations.
  4. As mentioned above, scientists usually start out with a problem or question that can be phrased as a hypothesis or series of hypotheses.
  5. Once a hypothesis is formulated, a scientist will usually design an experiment or study to test the hypothesis.
  6. A hypothesis can only be supported or rejected, never proven. It may be distinguished from a scientific theory or a scientific law.

Scientific theory: An explanation of why and how a specific natural phenomenon occurs. A lot of hypotheses are based on theories. In turn, theories may be redefined as new hypotheses are tested. Examples of theories: Newton's Theory of Gravitation, Darwin's Theory of Evolution, Mendel's Theory of Inheritance, Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Scientific law: A logical, mathematical statement describing a consistency that applies to all members of a broad class of phenomena when specific conditions are met. Examples of scientific laws: Faraday's Law of electromagnetic induction, Coulomb's Law of electrostatic attraction, Dalton's Law of partial pressures, Boyle's Gas Law.


Everyone uses steps similar to those of the scientific method when solving problems in everyday life. Think about some ways you've used the scientific method in the past week. Start out with a problem or question. Next, try to formulate a hypothesis. What experiment or test would you use to check your hypothesis?

Click here for some ideas


  1. Abstract summarizes the whole article.
  2. Introduction establishes the context for the research: the area in which the research takes place, the research problem, the importance of the research, and the guiding question of hypothesis.
  3. Materials and Methods describes the research procedure. The Results reports the outcomes of the research procedure.
  4. Discussion interprets the results, explaining them and comparing them to the results of other experiments.
  5. Conclusion focuses the reader on what is important about the research: its contribution to the larger area of study. The References lists the sources used in the article.


Now that you are somewhat familiar with the scientific method, try practicing how to formulate hypotheses and design experiments by reacting to different real-life scenarios.

Choose a scenario

When practicing the scientific method, most people are engaged in "scientific thinking."

Scientific thinking, like critical thinking, is used during problem solving, but in a scientific context. Here are some important elements of scientific thinking:

  • Empirical evidence: when thinking scientifically, you rely on evidence that is tangible (can be perceived by the senses and anyone can experience it)
  • Inductive logic: a form of thinking in which you reason from evidence to a general conclusion drawn from that evidence
  • Skepticism: constant questioning and examining of evidence


Go back to the scenarios above, and review your responses. Think about how you arrived at the hypotheses and experimental designs you wrote above. Try to identify your line of thinking. Was it consistent with scientific thinking? Write down your ideas.

Continue on to Objective #2...




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Rev. EW 8/18/03

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