Asking Scientific Questions
Many students come into my classes intimidated by the idea of doing science and think they could never come up with a novel question — that the exciting area of science is reserved for just a select few, like professors.
Because of that misconception, we do the “Asking Scientific Questions” discussion and activity at least twice during the semester in every class I teach, once as the first lecture of the semester and then again right before group research projects. In this activity, the students learn the key components or ingredients of scientific questions and then practice coming up with their own questions, or what I call their recipes. This discussion spans and unites all sciences, and it works with any topic or discipline in science. I use it for my courses in ecology, introductory biology, wetland ecology, biogeochemistry, coral reef ecology, and statistics.
Discussing what composes a scientific question empowers students to understand any subject I present or to read any scientific paper I assign, even if they are unfamiliar with the specific area. They immediately break any discussion or reading down to its recipe: What factor is thought to affect what other factor?
As they go through the process of how to form a scientific question, and in the process come up with their own research recipes, one can see their confidence immediately lift, as students understand what science is and how they too can come up with a unique scientific question.
The most common response students provide is that they wished they’d had this discussion in high school, at the beginning of college, and when they started their majors. This is one of my favorite responses in that they actually understand why all their math was so important, and that understanding x-and-y relationships gives us the quantitative power to predict cause and effect. Eureka! They’ve got it.
In each of my other classes throughout the year, I always reference this activity. When I present graphs, for example, I start by having students understand the research question, or recipe, that the graph investigated. And when I present novelty in science, I talk about how a person simply investigated how a new independent variable could affect a dependent variable. The end result is that it makes science approachable, understandable, and a tool for everyone rather than for a select few.
Brian Silliman is the Rachel Carson Professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Duke University, where he teaches marine ecology, coral reef ecology and marine biodiversity. He also studies and occasionally experimentally manipulates snails, crabs, alligators, trees, grasses, microbes, corals, and oysters. Brian is dedicated to making the investigative side of science accessible to all ages.