The Process of Science

Scientists everywhere use a similar
process to study the world. You might have heard it called the scientific
method or scientific inquiry, but whatever you call, it doing science
involves asking questions and methodically investigating answers. It
all starts with observing and wondering: what do you see, smell, and hear? Part of
the scientific process is making notes and keeping track of your questions.
Otherwise you might forget something important. Once upon a time there was a
boy named John who liked to draw sketches of what he saw.
One day while exploring he discovered a rocky outcrop that was home for Eastern
Phoebes. He noticed it had a dark bill, a white throat, a faint yellow belly, and
when it puffed up its crest, he noticed the bird’s head his was big compared to its body. He watched it for a while and noticed the Phoebe pumps its tail up and
down a lot when it’s perched on a branch. He wondered, how do they make their nests? How many eggs do they lay? Why do Phoebes sing more in the morning? So John had moved to the next step in the scientific process, and this can be
one of the hardest things about the process of science: asking questions in a
way that makes them suitable for an investigation. But I thought all
questions are good, right? I’ve heard there’s no such thing as a bad question.
Yes, but some are pretty hard to test. For example, back to John’s question, “Why do Phoebes sing more in the morning?” Yeah! I wonder why do they sing at all? Is
it because they’re happy? Are they hungry or lonely? Are they musical?Is it the
weather or because they’re looking for a friend? There are so many possible
explanations. So many variables. As a scientist you could ask questions
all day. The trick is to narrow one down and get specific. With John and his
eastern Phoebes, maybe it went something like this: I wonder where the Phoebes are
going? Do Phoebes migrate? Well, yes. Will Phoebes come back to this area next year? Hmm. Maybe. Will Phoebes come back to this nest? Hmm. Will these Phoebes come back to this
nest next year? This is an interesting question because John noticed that most
birds abandon their nests when their chicks are grown and don’t usually come
back the next year. Now, John had observed the Phoebes in the same nest on the rocky outcrop for a few years in a row. He wondered if this
year’s birds were the same birds that were here last year. Maybe some were and maybe some weren’t. It was a mystery he thought he could solve. And because his
question focused on things that were observable, measurable, and repeatable he was off to a good start. He was ready for that next step in the wheel. Hypotheses
are the possible answers to your research question. With this step, be sure
you list all possible outcomes — including the possibility that you might find no
difference or no relationship in your study subjects. John proposed three
possible answers to his questions. Number one. The same Phoebes will come back to the nest they used the previous year. Number two. Eastern phoebe nests are reused the next year, but by different birds. Number three. Phoebes are equally likely to use their old nests or different nests. If they return to an
area. Number three is the null hypothesis, where there is no difference in the
likelihood that Phoebes returned to their old nest or to a different nest.
uh-oh, I see a problem. If all the Eastern phoebes look alike, how will he know if
the same birds come back? Ah, you’ve hit upon the most important thing that
happened throughout this whole scientific process. Reflect and rethink. A
scientist is constantly rethinking, making sure the ideas still makes sense
and plans will work. It’s like solving a
puzzle. So how will John know which birds are in his study group and
which are not? As a scientist, now you’re in the plan and test phase of your
investigation. This is when you decide what science tools to use to help gather
data. This is when you think about how to be sure that your methods are consistent,
objective, and fair. In order to keep track of his study group, John knew he
needed to mark the birds somehow. He had an idea. He would capture a few birds and
secure a silver wire to their legs to mark them as his test group before they fly south for the winter. He made little marks on the wires so he could tell them
apart. The banded group of birds migrated south just before the snow flurries came.
The following spring John got the answer to his research question. Of the
ten nests from which he’d tagged Phoebes, eight of them same exact birds returned.
Hold on, I think we skipped a few things. Once the data are gathered, a scientist
will summarize and explain what they found. They might use charts and graphs
and sometimes a lot of math to figure out what the data mean. For example, what about the birds that came back to the site that didn’t have bands? Umm, they either
lost their bands or weren’t part of the study? Okay, so what are the data? It
looks like this: John attached silver bands to birds in the
fall. The birds were gone all winter, and in the spring sixteen birds (eight pairs)
returned to the same nest. A new pair moved into one nest, and one nest was a
abandoned. We definitely found evidence to support hypothesis number one: The same
Phoebes will come back to the nest they used the previous year. Well, okay, one new pair
moved into the neighborhood, but most of the nests were used by the same birds. To make a conclusion we’ll look at the data and decide which hypothesis is best
supported by the evidence. If the data don’t reflect what the scientists
thought would happen, or the data are confusing, that’s okay! That just means
the outcome was unexpected. Which means there’s more to learn. Which
means more science is needed. And scientists are always learning from
their investigations — and from each other. This is why it’s so important for any
scientist to share their findings. Some scientists publish scholarly
articles in peer-reviewed journals. Some make a YouTube video. Or you could give a presentation. You could even write a letter to the editor. In John’s case he
made notes in his journal. Want to know the year? Okay… 1803! Want to know who he is? Yeah Oh, I think you’ll know him. It’s John
James Audubon. He was an artist and a naturalist. He was just 18 years old when
he made scientific history. The first recorded scientist to conduct a bird banding experiment in North America. An artist. A scientist. A curious person — like you and
me. I’ve been thinking about Phoebes. I wonder where they go in the winter. Do you think they go to the same place every year or
do they go to different places? Oh, great question. How would you investigate that? Little tiny cameras or satellite tracking
devices, maybe? And because of the trailblazing work of John Audubon and
more who followed, we have rules now to protect birds. The International
Migratory Bird Treaty makes sure that any handling of birds today is only by
trained experts. I’d like to become a trained expert, it sounds like fun!
Alright, let’s start at the beginning. What’s your research question? We should tell you that when we wrote this story we made up some of the numbers to
illustrate the practices of science. We don’t have many specific details about John’s
investigation, but we do know Phoebes often do return to the same nest from
summer to summer, unlike many other bird species. And historical records suggest
that John James Audubon really was the first person in North America to put
bands on birds legs, and the first birds he banded really were Phoebes. Look it up and see for yourself!

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