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How to Think Like a Scientist

Part I: Creativity can be the spark that ignites a great science project

Creativity and imagination play important roles in getting started with any science project. So does curiosity. To learn more about how students can begin to “think” like a scientist, check out this article from Science News for Students. The story discusses the kind of thinking that allows students to become part of the scientific process.

(By the way, you will sometimes see stories referred to as being from Science News for Kids (SNK) or from Science News for Students (SNS). They come from the same online magazine: Our SNK site changed its name to SNS in October 2013.)

Picking a research project to perform represents a difficult decision. So does planning the project. Neither is impossible, but both take work and time.

Science projects that win awards and prizes share some common features. One is that they tend to involve concepts and ideas that the student scientists who choose them find greatly interesting, even fascinating. If a project doesn’t arouse your curiosity, you might want to think about finding another one that does.

Identifying a problem, and then coming up with a solution to that problem, inspires many science projects. Check out this Science News for Students article for some examples of students who found inspiration within their own hometowns, schools and families. Sometimes it takes keen observational skills to even identify a problem worth solving. And this story, also from Science News for Students, highlights some students who launched winning projects after noticing a rabid skunk, a balky wireless router and other things that made them curious.

This story features a handful of students who carried out original research just because they were curious about the why of something. Curiosity also can prompt students to conduct scientific research, and not just demonstrating some scientific principle. You can learn more here about the importance of asking questions, studying the background information to a problem and then testing predictions. This process also reveals the true nature of scientific inquiry.

Once you have picked a topic, some people may tell you to use the "scientific method." The scientific method is a series, or sequence, of steps that take you from asking a question to arriving at a conclusion. Some people explain the scientific method is how science is done. The real picture is more complicated, since there are many pathways to finding answers to the questions that science seeks to answer. Here is a Science News for Students article that discusses some criticisms of using the scientific method.

For many students who are just getting started in research, the scientific method represents a handy way of laying out the steps to testing their hypotheses through experimentation. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), describes those steps in detail. And the National Park Service gives a nice concise definition.

Meanwhile, a research question is different from a topic. It is a statement that explains the goal of a study. It states what a study will investigate or what it will prove. A hypothesis takes a research question and then translates it into a prediction about an expected outcome.

Also different is an engineering design. It is a process that takes you from the identification of a problem to finally creating a solution to that problem. The process also includes criteria for measuring success. The engineering design process may make up one of the steps in the scientific method, since you can follow the engineering design process in building an experiment to test a hypothesis.

Next: It All Starts With an Idea

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