Is it time for you to do a science fair project? Are you looking for ideas? You’ve come to the right place.
Asking questions – like a scientist
While some people may believe there’s no such thing as a dumb question, some questions are certainly better than others. One of the tangential skills that scientists learn is how to ask good questions. When students are asked to do a science-fair project, they are being challenged to ask a good question. Oftentimes, however, no guidance is given to help a student with the process of developing a good question. Fortunately, in this day and age, it’s not that hard to find general information, and I encourage you to do so. That said, here’s a brief summary of one strategy for critically analyzing a scientific question.
What is a good scientific question?
I suspect if anyone actually reads my posts and feels the need to leave a response, they will no doubt argue that good scientific questions don’t fit a single mold. That said, a good place to start with asking scientific questions is to be sure that it has the following properties:
- The question is testable given your resources. There are many questions that require knowledge and/or information beyond what is available to us. If you know you don’t have access to the resources needed to answer a question, then it doesn’t make a good science question (for you, anyway).
- The question can be phrased as an hypothesis. While not all sciences are hypothesis-driven, being able to define your scientific question in terms of a falsifiable hypothesis helps to direct your scientific inquiry.
- The question is interesting to you. At the end of the day, if you are not interested in the science you are doing, it will be difficult to overcome the inevitable hurdles that you will face along the way.
Types of questions
Again, there are many ways to categorize questions. Here is one way, and I’ll use the topic of insect biodiversity as an example. In each case, we should think about how it fits the above-mentioned criteria.
- Broad fact-based questions. How biodiverse is the insect population? This is a very interesting, and important question, since insects play a major role in agriculture and our food supply. While it is possible to get an answer (Wikipedia claims that there are over a million species of insects), it would be difficult for us to get at the answer. The question is also not in the form of an hypothesis, and it’s not obvious to me how we could restate it.
- Narrow fact-based questions. What is the insect biodiversity on my school’s campus? So now we have narrowed the question down to something that we can probably test, possibly at the expense of making the question less interesting given the smaller scope. We still face the same problem with formulating an hypothesis as we did with the previous question, and this will be true for many fact-based questions. In general, fact-based questions do not make good scientific questions.
- Why questions. Why are there bugs on my school’s campus? Again, a potentially interesting question, but one that will be very difficult to answer. On the surface, it may seem to be a simple question, but as we dig deeper, we find that the question is quite broad, and may have multiple answers that we can’t isolate. Framing the question in hypothesis form can sometimes help narrow the focus of a why question.
- Comparison questions. Are there more species of bugs near the baseball field or the prairie garden on my school’s campus? Now we are getting somewhere! The question we have asked has an answer that we can obtain, has a narrow but useful focus, and can be written in hypothesis form. While not all science questions need to be comparison types, they are easier to formulate.
What’s this about Mad Libs?
Leonard Stern created Mad Libs, and you can read about their history here; I won’t rehash what’s already been written. I thought about the parts of a scientific question and asked can the Mad Libs concepts be used to design good science questions? As I reflected on science questions, I came up with this list of “types of words”
- Variable – something that you change in your experiment as you test the hypothesis
- Examples: sunlight, temperature, cooking time
- Process – something that changes with time
- Examples: Fading of colors, a chemical reaction, the growth of grasshoppers.
- System – similar to a process, but doesn’t change within the timeframe of your experiment
- Examples: fruit juice, M&Ms, soil
- Property – a characteristic of something (in this case the process or system)
- Examples: Vitamin C, food dye, sugar
- Material – A system with a particular property
- Examples: Paper towel, paint, coffee cup
- Quality – a property with a particular value
- Examples: thermally insulating, water resistant, transparent
Editorial note – If I ever make version two of this game, I will reflect further on these word types. There is clearly overlap, and the choices are based on my biases. It would be good to survey the scientific literature for a better classification.
With these types of words in hand, all that is left to do is have a story to fill in. I call these stories Question Blocks.
- What are the effects of <Variable> on <Process>?
- How do/does <Variable> affect <System>?
- Is there more/less <Property> in <System> than <System>?
- Does <Variable> make <System> more <Quality>?
Now we can put it all together. From the lists above, choose a Quality word and a Material word, then fill in the question block: Which <Material> is the most <Quality>? You should note right away that Mad Libs is terrible at grammar, so go ahead and fix it. Did you create a question that makes sense? Chances are, you’ll have to tweak the question a little bit, but the question that came up is most likely reasonable. How does it hold up to the “good science question” criteria? Is it testable? Can you make an hypothesis? Is it interesting?
I designed this activity as part of a program that I use to run for helping kids in Chicago’s South Side develop science fair projects. I printed out a bunch of labels with the various words and question blocks on them and went through pretty much the same speech as what I typed here. The documents can be found here:
You should print the cards file on labels that can fit on 3×5 index cards. To make it easier on the eye, I put the question block labels on colored index cards and the rest of the words on plain white index cards. I then place the question blocks on the table and we generate a bunch of questions. While the set of words/question blocks I have can in theory generate 1700 science questions, not all of them are good, and some of them are downright silly. That’s OK, because we can still critique the silly questions, even asking, “How do I make this question not silly?” Before you know it, you’ll be asking questions like a scientist.