Testing A Scientific Hypothesis

It is fair to say that scientists are like detectives. They piece together clues to learn about a process or event. One of the ways scientists collect evidence or clues is by conducting experiments. Experiments test an idea or hypothesis. Although all experiments do not follow the same step-by-step instructions, many do follow a similar investigation procedure.

Experiments begin by posing a question. A scientific question is one that can be answered by gathering evidence. For example, the question, "Which freezes faster - fresh water or salt water?" is scientific question because it can be answered by carrying out an investigation and gathering information.

The next step is to develop a hypothesis. This is a prediction about an experiment outcome. A hypothesis is a type of prediction, meaning it is formulated using observations and previous knowledge and experience. However, a hypothesis differs from a prediction in that it must be testable to prove or disprove fact. A properly worded hypothesis should take the form of an "if...then" statement. For example, "If I add salt to fresh water, then the water will take longer to freeze." Hypothesis statements can be used as a rough outline for conducting an experiment.

Next, the scientist must design an experiment in order to test his or her hypothesis. The plan should be written out in a step-by-step procedure and should describe the details of the observations and measurements. When designing the experiment, there are two important steps that must be included: controlling variables and forming operational definitions.

A variable is any factor that can change in an experiment. A single variable that can be changed throughout the experiment is called the manipulated variable. Using the example above, the manipulated variable is the amount of salt added to the water. The responding variable is what you measure or observe to obtain your results. Using the same experiment, "how long the water takes to freeze" is the responding variable.

The other component of a well-designed experiment is having clear operational definitions. An operational definition is a statement that describes how a particular variable is to be measured or how a term is to be defined. How will you determine if the water has frozen? Insert a stick in each container. What is the definition of "frozen" in relation to the experiment? This is the time at which the stick can't move anymore.

The observations and measurements made in an experiment are called data. At the end of each experiment, data should be analyzed for patterns and trends. Patterns are better revealed when they are classified in tables or graphs. They can then help the scientist answer questions like: Did they support the hypothesis? Do they reveal flaws in the experiment? Is more data needed?

After a thorough analysis, a conclusion must be made to sum up the investigation. When drawing a conclusion, the scientist needs to decide whether the data collected supports his or her hypothesis. Sometimes, it takes several experiments before a definitive conclusion can be made. Often, conclusions lead to posing new scientific questions and planning different experiments, while using the same investigation procedure to test a new hypothesis. If doing experiments seems like an exciting activity, you may want to earn a degree in science! You can pursue this fascinating field by way of an online education.

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