What is the Scientific Method?

The scientific method is a process for experimentation that is used to explore observations and answer questions. Does this mean all scientists follow exactly this process? No. Some areas of science can be more easily tested than others. For example, scientists studying how stars change as they age or how dinosaurs digested their food cannot fast-forward a star's life by a million years or run medical exams on feeding dinosaurs to test their hypotheses. When direct experimentation is not possible, scientists modify the scientific method. In fact, there are probably as many versions of the scientific method as there are scientists! But even when modified, the goal remains the same: to discover cause and effect relationships by asking questions, carefully gathering and examining the evidence, and seeing if all the available information can be combined in to a logical answer.

The Scientific Method: Steps and Examples

Even though we show the scientific method as a series of steps, keep in mind that new information or thinking might cause a scientist to back up and repeat steps at any point during the process. A process like the scientific method that involves such backing up and repeating is called an iterative process.

Whether you are doing a science fair project, a classroom science activity, independent research, or any other hands-on science inquiry understanding the steps of the scientific method will help you focus your scientific question and work through your observations and data to answer the question as well as possible.

Flow chart of the scientific method

Diagram of the scientific method. The Scientific Method starts with aquestion, and background research is conducted to try to answer that question. If you want to find evidence for an answer or an answer itself then you construct a hypothesis and test that hypothesis in an experiment. If the experiment works and the data is analyzed you can either prove or disprove your hypothesis. If your hypothesis is disproved, then you can go back with the new information gained and create a new hypothesis to start the scientific process over again.

Teacher Tool Box

Video:

Try our lesson plans:

Assign a student quiz with Google Classroom:

Steps of the Scientific Method

1. Ask a Question

The scientific method starts when you ask a question about something that you observe: How, What, When, Who, Which, Why, or Where?

For a science fair project some teachers require that the question be something you can measure, preferably with a number.

For detailed help with this step, use these resources:

2. Do Background Research

Rather than starting from scratch in putting together a plan for answering your question, you want to be a savvy scientist using library and Internet research to help you find the best way to do things and ensure that you don't repeat mistakes from the past.

For detailed help with this step, use these resources:

3. Construct a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an educated guess about how things work. It is an attempt to answer your question with an explanation that can be tested. A good hypothesis allows you to then make a prediction:
"If _____[I do this] _____, then _____[this]_____ will happen."

State both your hypothesis and the resulting prediction you will be testing. Predictions must be easy to measure.

For detailed help with this step, use these resources:

4. Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment

Your experiment tests whether your prediction is accurate and thus your hypothesis is supported or not. It is important for your experiment to be a fair test. You conduct a fair test by making sure that you change only one factor at a time while keeping all other conditions the same.

You should also repeat your experiments several times to make sure that the first results weren't just an accident.

For detailed help with this step, use these resources:

5. Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion

Once your experiment is complete, you collect your measurements and analyze them to see if they support your hypothesis or not.

Scientists often find that their predictions were not accurate and their hypothesis was not supported, and in such cases they will communicate the results of their experiment and then go back and construct a new hypothesis and prediction based on the information they learned during their experiment. This starts much of the process of the scientific method over again. Even if they find that their hypothesis was supported, they may want to test it again in a new way.

For detailed help with this step, use these resources:

6. Communicate Your Results

To complete your science fair project you will communicate your results to others in a final report and/or a display board. Professional scientists do almost exactly the same thing by publishing their final report in a scientific journal or by presenting their results on a poster or during a talk at a scientific meeting. In a science fair, judges are interested in your findings regardless of whether or not they support your original hypothesis.

For detailed help with this step, use these resources:

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the six steps of the scientific method?

The six steps of the scientific method include: 1) asking a question about something you observe, 2) doing background research to learn what is already known about the topic, 3) constructing a hypothesis, 4) experimenting to test the hypothesis, 5) analyzing the data from the experiment and drawing conclusions, and 6) communicating the results to others.

What is a scientific method example?

A simple example of the scientific method is:
  • Ask a Question: Why does Greenland look so large on a map?
  • Background Research: Learn that Greenland is a quarter the size of the United States in land mass. Also learn that Mercator projection maps are made by transferring the images from a sphere to a sheet of paper wrapped around the sphere in a cylinder.
  • Hypothesis: If I make a Mercator projection map, then the items in the middle of the map will look their true size and the items at the poles will look larger than they really are.
  • Experiment: Use a sphere with 1-inch by 1-inch squares at each pole and the equator to make a Mercator projection map. Measure the squares on the Mercator projection map.
  • Analyze Data and Make Conclusions: The middle-of-the-map squares average 1 inch per side while the squares at the poles average 3 inches per side. In conclusion, the projection process used to make Mercator projection maps creates distortion at the poles, but not at the equator. This is why Greenland, which is close to the North Pole, looks larger than it is.
  • Communicate: Make a video, write a report, or give a presentation to educate others about the experiment.

Who invented the scientific method?

The scientific method was not invented by any one person, but is the outcome of centuries of debate about how best to find out how the natural world works. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was among the first known people to promote that observation and reasoning must be applied to figure out how nature works. The Arab Muslim mathematician and scientist Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (known in the western world as Alhazen) is often cited as the first person to write about the importance of experimentation. Since then, a large number of scientists have written about how science should ideally be conducted and contributed to our modern understanding of the scientific method. Those scientists include Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, John Hume, and John Stuart Mill. Scientists today continue to evolve and refine the scientific method as they explore new techniques and new areas of science.

Do scientists actually use the scientific method?

Scientists do use the scientific method, but not always exactly as laid out in the organized steps taught in the classroom. Just like a chef might make a few changes to a recipe because of the ingredients at hand, a scientist may modify the scientific method by skipping steps, jumping back and forth between steps, or repeating a subset of the steps because he or she is dealing with imperfect real-world conditions. But scientists always strive to keep to the core principles of the scientific method by using observations, experiments, and data to support or reject explanations of how a phenomenon works. While experimenting is considered the best way to test explanations, there are areas of science, like astronomy, where this is not always possible.
Free science fair projects.