This Month in Science – The Scientific Method

If you have ever fixed a broken appliance, you may have used the scientific method to determine what was wrong. The scientific method is a step-by-step process that helps us answer questions about the world in which we live. It works no matter how simple or complex a question is. It is a framework that any curious person can use to test a hypothesis—an informed idea to answer the question—in a standardized way. If the hypothesis is incorrect, a new theory must be proposed to answer the question. The scientific method isn’t just for complex research, it is useful in everyday life and can help you solve a problem.

The scientific method begins with an observation that leads to a question. For example, you notice the washer is jumping around at the end of each cycle and ask “why is the washer thrashing about on the spin cycle?” With this question in mind, you start researching the question. Research is necessary to develop a testable hypothesis. It’s clear the washer is unbalanced, but with a little research, you can propose a hypothesis about what’s causing the imbalance. The more background research you can gather, the easier it is to form a hypothesis that can be tested through experimentation. After thoroughly researching the washer issue, you form a hypothesis that a specific part needs to be replaced.

The key to the scientific method is designing the experiment to test the proposed hypothesis. When you design an experiment, it is essential to only change one component at a time, keeping everything else the same. If you changed two components at a time, you couldn’t be sure which change led to the produced results. By changing a single component, you will know that the results of the experiment are based on that one difference. Continuing the washer example, you only want to replace one part at a time, otherwise, you wouldn’t know what caused the imbalance in the first place. Because of the research you did, you have a pretty good idea of which part needs to be replaced, and you’re ready to test your hypothesis!

After making sure the experiment is well designed, it’s time to collect the data. Replace the part and run the washer. Is it still jumping around or does it now spin smoothly? If it’s still jumping around, your hypothesis was incorrect, and you’ll have to form and test a new hypothesis. If it spins smoothly, you can conclude that your hypothesis was correct, and that was the correct part to replace.

This is the same method that researchers use to answer complex scientific questions, like, how to develop an effective vaccine to protect against coronavirus? Scientists do a lot of research, carefully design controlled experiments, and meticulously analyze the data before drawing a conclusion. To develop the COVID-19 vaccine, scientists had to identify a piece of the virus that would activate the immune system, also called an antigen. To do this, the scientists researched how the virus interacts with the body to identify some potential antigens to test. Through careful experimentation, vaccine researchers were able to determine that the spike protein on the outside of the coronavirus generated a strong immune response and then proceeded to make a vaccine.

Researchers also used the scientific method to run clinical trials to test for vaccine safety and efficacy. Before any data can be published, it is scrutinized by the scientific community in a peer review process to make sure the experiments were well-designed and the conclusions are sound. By using the scientific method, scientists were able to develop a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine in less than a year.

Fresh perspective, advances in tools and equipment, and more specific questions can lead to new information that provides a deeper understanding of how something works. In 1546, Girolamo Fracastoro proposed the existence of “seeds of disease”, but it wasn’t until the first microscope was invented that Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was actually able to see these “seeds” or, bacteria, in 1676. Through continued research and experimentation, researchers discovered not just bacteria, but viruses and fungi capable of causing disease as well. Whether it’s asking a better question or using a new instrument, the process of using the scientific method remains the same. The next time you have a question, try using the scientific method to find the answer!

Previous Columns

January 2021: Static Electricity
December: Surviving the Winter Season
November: Marbled Salamanders
October: Controlling Wildfires
September: The Equinox and Changing Seasons
August: Perseid Meteor Shower
July: Plastic Free July
June: Sargasso Sea
May: Getting to Mars
April: Earth Day 50th Anniversary
March: Ghost Trees
February: Fire
January 2020: Biodiversity of the Cape Fear
December: Snowflakes
November: Carolina Bays
October: The Longleaf Pine
September: Jellyfish
August: What’s in Your Childhood Chemistry Set?
July: What Happened to the Dinosaurs?
June: Hurricane Season
April: Quantum Levitation
March: Venus Flytrap
February: A Shifting Magnetic Field
January 2019: Giant Ground Sloth


The scientific method is a step-by-step process used to answer a question.
Credit: Lumen Learning

Effective vaccines against the COVID-19 coronavirus use the spike protein as a trigger for the immune system.
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
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