MSP:MiddleSchoolPortal/Methods of Science

From Middle School Portal

Methods of Science - Introduction

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Recognizing that methods vary among science disciplines compels us teachers to abandon the often-used phrase "the scientific method." That phrase is now commonly replaced with "methods of science," a subtle, but semantically important distinction. Specifically, "methods of science" underscores the variety of process skills available to scientists, and it implies that some methods are more appropriate than others, depending on the research problem or question. Thus, as teachers we are obligated to help students acquire accurate conceptions of the methods of science, which are a reflection of the nature of science (NOS). That is, science is characterized by the unique methods applied to explore the natural world. Not all methods available to a scientist are used in every science investigation.

If the methods vary with the discipline, can we be expected to know what all of them are and how best to teach them all? And let’s not forget our responsibilities in facilitating student conceptual understanding of the nature of science (NOS). When do you address this topic with your students? At the beginning of the school year, sometime later, or intermittently across the school year? How do you address it? Do you conduct a pre-assessment to see what students know? What do you include in that pre-assessment?

We take science teaching seriously because we believe knowledge of NOS science and methods increases one’s quality of life and enables positive contributions to society. But the reality is most of us teaching middle school science are not trained scientists with extensive experience in doing science. So how do we fulfill our obligation to help students acquire an accurate understanding? Resources, resources, resources!

One of the problems in teaching the old “scientific method” was that it was often divorced from the content and taught as an isolated unit of science, commonly presented as a series of tangible, discrete steps. While students were frequently successful in reciting in order the steps and their definitions, they lacked any deep conceptual understanding since they rarely had the opportunity to use the method to do real science. Thus, an integrated approach is a more effective approach. By that, we mean integration of methods of science with discussion of the nature of science and with opportunity to practice science process skills through inquiry methods of instruction and learning.

The key to success is integration. For example, an activity conducted midway through the school year focused on the concept of air pressure as related to weather should also be exploited for its potential (a) in making explicit particular methods of science used in investigations of air pressure and meteorology, (b) in reinforcing NOS, and (c) for the opportunity it gives students to practice sciences process skills such as asking questions, making observations, interpreting data, and using the empirical evidence to construct logical inferences, predictions, and explanations.

A mental model for integrating these three areas follows. Try envisioning a grid or matrix of the elements of the NOS by science process skills. These column and row headings intersect at the science activity students engage in, where they practice and simulate science process skills. For example, one element of the NOS is its reliance on empirical evidence. One science process skill is the ability to observe and record data, collecting empirical evidence. These two ideas intersect when students engage in an inquiry activity focused on questions such as what’s the easiest way to move a 40 kg flat screen TV up the stairs into your carpeted bedroom? Assume you are alone and not capable of carrying it for fear of dropping it. Students will need to design an apparatus and test models of their apparatus for how much they reduce the force needed. They will need to keep careful records to support their conclusions. Thus, they conduct inquiry as scientists do, all the while reinforcing the nature of science and developing their process skills.

Resources provided in this Middle School Portal publication will help you gain additional understanding of these three topics: methods of science, the NOS, and science proficiency. In Background Information for Teachers, we give you access to publications designed by professional organizations specifically for teachers looking to increase their teaching effectiveness in these three areas. We also provide a section of Lessons and Activities you can do with your students to help them develop in these three areas.

In the final section, we identify content standards in the National Science Education Standards aligned with concepts in this publication.

Background Information for Teachers

There are many quality resources available for teachers focused on the topics of methods of science, the nature of science, and scientific proficiency. In this section we will highlight just a few. We begin with the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. Under the Nature of Science heading, there are seven maps. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Scientific Investigations map appears below. This map is one of nine under the heading Historical Perspectives. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. The second map is the grade 6-8 band from Scientific Theories. You will want to view the Avoiding Bias map as well.

Scientific Investigations

View individual map Printable view of map

Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning This publication from the National Research Council was written specifically to help teachers address the Science as Inquiry standards of the National Science Education Standards. Chapters are short and focused. You may find it helpful to peruse a single chapter or the entire book.

Ready, Set, Science: Putting Research to Work in K-8 Science Classrooms Ready, Set, Science is the comprehensive synthesis of research into teaching and learning science in kindergarten through eighth grade. It summarizes a rich body of findings from the learning sciences and builds detailed classroom cases of science educators at work. The educators are teaching a core concept across a learning progression and striving to facilitate student science proficiency. From these accounts, teachers can begin to transform their own classrooms to mimic these and assist students in achieving both conceptual understanding and skills in science content and methods.

Teaching the Process of Science This new module at the Pedagogy in Action website was created by Stanford University's Anne E. Egger and addresses practical teaching questions like "what is the process of science," "why should I teach it," and "how do I teach it." The module also includes several how-to examples and a list of additional resources. Egger writes: "We expect our students to gain not only content knowledge from our courses (for example, what happens to pH when acids and bases are mixed in varying proportions), but process knowledge -- how we know what we know. These pages will help you integrate the process of science into your teaching at all levels, using a variety of different techniques."

Science Sampler: The Scientific Method -- Is it Still Useful? This article from Science Scope is free for NSTA members or 99 cents for nonmembers. Many scientists and science educators contend that a structured scientific method does not exist; others argue that the scientific method is too simplistic in its approach to scientific inquiry. This article addresses the dilemmas surrounding the scientific method, and provides suggestions that will enable you to meld the method with process skills.

Scientific Inquiry: National Science Teachers Association Position Statement This free pdf from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) provides the rationale and recommendations for teaching science through inquiry.

The Nature of Science: National Science Teachers Association Position Statement The rationale and recommendations for teaching about the nature of science are provided in this position statement.

Rethinking Laboratories This article from The Science Teacher is free for NSTA members or 99 cents for nonmembers. Although research demonstrates the value of inquiry-based science, many curriculum materials are still based on traditional approaches that fail to engage students in inquiry. Using an example of a typical cookbook laboratory – the "rusty nail" - this article describes an inquiry analysis tool and adaptation principles that were created to help teachers evaluate and adapt laboratory instructional materials to be more inquiry-oriented. The adaptation principles are clearly listed and are transferable to the curriculum materials you may be using.

Discovery, Chance and the Scientific Method The authors of this article on the nature of science discuss several events in science history and ask how chance influenced each. They conclude that though many texts credit serendipity, the reality is the scientists involved were probably aware of work done before them on until-then unanswered questions. The scientists used this previous work to inform their own work and thus were enabled to make scientific progress, not by chance but by clever application, creativity and synthesis.

Evolution: Online Course for Teachers Session 1: What Is the Nature of Science? In this session, participants use the 5Es (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate), a constructivist approach to learning. The course focuses on the nature of scientific processes; the value and limitations of scientific process; the scientist's use of terms such as fact, law, theory, and hypothesis; and how scientists choose the best solution using fair tests. The outcomes for participants include the ability to develop hypotheses from observations; identify the kinds of evidence sufficient to reject or accept a hypothesis; and apply scientific processes in different situations.

The Science Educator’s Guide to Selecting High-Quality Instructional Materials This guide presents a method for judging the quality of K-12 teaching materials, both in print and online. It is based on AAAS Project 2061’s curriculum-materials analysis procedure which was developed over several years with funding from the National Science Foundation and in consultation with K–12 teachers, materials developers, scientists, teacher educators, and cognitive researchers nationwide. The guide is designed to help science educators determine how well an instructional material supports students in learning important science ideas such as those described in national benchmarks and standards. With its step-by-step procedure for taking a critical look at instructional materials, the guide can help science educators take a more informed approach to a number of essential tasks. The online version of the guide includes examples from textbooks that have received high and low ratings when previously evaluated using the Project 2061 procedure, interactive tutorials, files that can be used as templates for recording evaluation judgments, and links to useful online resources.

Lessons and Activities

Resources here include lessons and activities that enable students’ conceptual understanding of the nature of science as well as practice in science proficiency. Any science learning activity can be an opportunity to reinforce these topics. Some of the activities are content specific, serving multiple pedagogical purposes as pathways to science content knowledge.

Spontaneous Generation This lesson demonstrates that scientific knowledge is stable, but also prone to change. Students will understand how those changes can happen in the context of the history of spontaneous generation. This lesson from the American Association for the Advancement of Science aligns with Benchmarks 1 and 10, Nature of Science and History of Science. It can be done as a class or as independent study. Part of the lesson involves students' accessing related information on the Internet. Thorough teacher background information and pedagogically sound, structured discussion questions are provided.

Science Sampler: Thinking About Students' Questions This article from Science Scope is free to members of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) or 99 cents for nonmembers. Asking questions is a vital component in any classroom, but it is absolutely essential in a science classroom. As science teachers, we know that questioning plays a major role in the inquiry process and has a positive impact on students' learning. This article discusses the importance of questioning skills and current research on questioning techniques. In addition, the article presents a series of lessons that were implemented by the author to improve the questioning abilities of middle school students.

Science Sampler: Pick-a-Number This article from Science Scope is free to NSTA members or 99 cents for nonmembers. The Pick-a-Number activity, a variation of the game 20 Questions, provides a way to address challenges at the beginning of the school year, in a standards-based way. It also helps students develop the essential skill of asking questions as part of the scientific inquiry process. Some rules of the game simulate or make analogous the idea that not all questions are good questions; for example, lending themselves to scientific inquiry. Another rule says students are required to listen to others’ questions and are not allowed to ask a second question until all other students have asked their first question. This is analogous to having to conduct research to find out what others know before embarking on a scientific investigation.

Tried and True: Peanut Butter and Jelly Science This article from Science Scope is free to NSTA members or 99 cents for nonmembers. Are you feeling frustrated with the quality of your students' writing? If so, head straight for the peanut butter and jelly. Students will respond to this fun-filled activity as they learn the importance of writing clear procedures in science. Communicating in science is a process skill students are expected to develop.

Teaching Evolution Activity 1 This activity introduces basic procedures involved in inquiry and concepts describing the nature of science. In the first part of the activity the teacher uses a numbered cube to involve students in asking a question — What is on the bottom? — and the students propose an explanation based on their observations. Then the teacher presents the students with a second cube and asks them to use the available evidence to propose an explanation for what is on the bottom of this cube. Finally, students design a cube that they exchange and use for an evaluation. This activity provides students with opportunities to learn the abilities and understandings aligned with science as inquiry and the nature of science as described in the National Science Education Standards.

Science in the Toilet: The Flush of Learning This article from Science Scope is free to NSTA members or 99 cents for nonmembers. Of the many possible technologies available to highlight the uses of science in everyday activities, few are more ubiquitous or more humble than the toilet. However, this much-used and much-overlooked appliance incorporates a number of interesting science principles that can capture the interest of students. The activities described in this article serve as effective tasks to help students better understand the integration of science, technology, and society.

Building Science Process Skills This article from The Science Teacher is free for NSTA members or 99 cents for nonmembers. Although this article describes a zoo field trip in which high school students developed acquisitive and organizational skills while exploring rain forest habitat, it can be adapted for middle school students. A well-designed and -executed field trip experience serves not only to enrich and supplement course content, but also creates opportunities to build basic science process skills. Specifies are provided regarding the activities, their objectives, and how they were assessed so you can adapt them to your own context.

National Science Education Standards Alignments

Concepts of this publication align with the following content standards of the National Science Education Standards.

Science as Inquiry: Content Standard A

Abilities Necessary To Do Scientific Inquiry

Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence. Students should base their explanation on what they observed, and as they develop cognitive skills, they should be able to differentiate explanation from description – providing causes for effects and establishing relationships based on evidence and logical argument. This standard requires a subject matter knowledge base so the students can effectively conduct investigations, because developing explanations establishes connections between the content of science and the contexts within which students develop new knowledge.

Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations. Thinking critically about evidence includes deciding what evidence should be used and accounting for anomalous data. Specifically, students should be able to review data from a simple experiment, summarize the data, and form a logical argument about the cause-and-effect relationships in the experiment. Students should begin to state some explanations in terms of the relationship between two or more variables. Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions. Students should develop the ability to listen to and respect the explanations proposed by other students. They should remain open to and acknowledge different ideas and explanations, be able to accept the skepticism of others, and consider alternative explanations.

Communicate scientific procedures and explanations. With practice, students should become competent at communicating experimental methods, following instructions, describing observations, summarizing the results of other groups, and telling other students about investigations and explanations.

Understandings About Scientific Inquiry

  • Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations. Some investigations involve observing and describing objects, organisms, or events; some involve collecting specimens; some involve experiments; some involve seeking more information; some involve discovery of new objects and phenomena; and some involve making models.
  • Current scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations. Different scientific domains employ different methods, core theories, and standards to advance scientific knowledge and understanding. *Mathematics is important in all aspects of scientific inquiry.
  • Technology used to gather data enhances accuracy and allows scientists to analyze and quantify results of investigations.
  • Scientific explanations emphasize evidence, have logically consistent arguments, and use scientific principles, models, and theories. The scientific community accepts and uses such explanations until displaced by better scientific ones. When such displacement occurs, science advances.
  • Science advances through legitimate skepticism. Asking questions and querying other scientists' explanations is part of scientific inquiry. Scientists evaluate the explanations proposed by other scientists by examining evidence, comparing evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations.
  • Scientific investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or procedures for an investigation, or develop new technologies to improve the collection of data. All of these results can lead to new investigations. History and Nature of Science: Content Standard G

Nature of Science

  • Scientists formulate and test their explanations of nature using observation, experiments, and theoretical and mathematical models. Although all scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change and improvement in principle, for most major ideas in science, there is much experimental and observational confirmation. Those ideas are not likely to change greatly in the future. Scientists do and have changed their ideas about nature when they encounter new experimental evidence that does not match their existing explanations.
  • In areas where active research is being pursued and in which there is not a great deal of experimental or observational evidence and understanding, it is normal for scientists to differ with one another about the interpretation of the evidence or theory being considered. Different scientists might publish conflicting experimental results or might draw different conclusions from the same data. Ideally, scientists acknowledge such conflict and work towards finding evidence that will resolve their disagreement.
  • It is part of scientific inquiry to evaluate the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical models, and the explanations proposed by other scientists. Evaluation includes reviewing the experimental procedures, examining the evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations. Although scientists may disagree about explanations of phenomena, about interpretations of data, or about the value of rival theories, they do agree that questioning, response to criticism, and open communication are integral to the process of science. As scientific knowledge evolves, major disagreements are eventually resolved through such interactions between scientists.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related science-focused virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of science-related careers (click on the Math link at the bottom of the home page).

Author and Copyright

Mary LeFever is a resource specialist for the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project, a doctoral candidate in science education at Ohio State University, and presently teaches introductory biology at a Columbus, Ohio local high school. She has taught middle school and high school science and is an adjunct instructor of biology and natural sciences at Columbus State Community College. Please email any comments to or join the discussion at our social network for middle school math and science teachers at

Original copyright June 2008 — The Ohio State University. Last updated July 20, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.