While looking through some science articles I stumbled across pri.org‘s Six Science Experiments for Winter Days and I have to admit I found myself cringing.  The article is written to give parents ideas of what to do on days the kiddos are cooped up inside.  I love some of the ideas they had, such as the “Lemon Powered Clock” and “Frozen Bubbles,” but these aren’t science experiments.  They are activities with known results.  This is problem I face year after year in my science classroom. The term “experiment” has been loosely used for far too long and articles, such as these, textbooks and even educators who use demonstrations mislabeled as “experiments” are confusing students; and it’s a problem we need to fix.

Experiments are tests of a phenomena or question about the natural world that eliminates bias.  If there isn’t a question, then it isn’t an experiment.  In fact, many experiments that are performed don’t actually have a hypothesis.  That’s right, no ridiculous “if,then” statements; just, “I wonder.”  Student’s are being taught from an early age that mixing baking soda and vinegar is an experiment.  At the same time, students are being taught that experiments have a set sequence of approach; the beloved scientific method.  The problem with this kind of mislabeling is that when those students advance to secondary or higher education, they struggle with the reality of how science actually works.  Any scientist will tell you that the scientific method is…*brace yourself*…not exactly how science happens.

The notion that an “experiment” is an activity in which results are already known is so ingrained in the students’ mind that they struggle with the experimental design process. To add to that confusion, teachers ask students to “design” an experiment that has only one possible design.  Furthermore, the outcome of the “experiment” is already known and students are being tested on the accuracy of their work!  That is insane!  That is not an experiment.  That is a cookie-cutter lab which evaluates the understanding of a concept taught in class.  What message are we sending students if they are under the impression that scientist already know the outcome of their experiments?  Science needs creativity now more than ever to get at the root of cancer, water quality and alternative energy.  How are we “increasing our focus in STEM” when we aren’t cultivating the very essence of the STEM field?

So why do we teach like this?  Because of testing; pure and simple.  Someone somewhere, who wasn’t an actual scientist, came up with the scientific method as a way to assess or describe the process a scientist undergoes when investigating a question or natural phenomenon.  Since then, the “scientific method” has become common place in the classroom, so much so, that there are educators out there completely unaware of its flaws.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to teach your students the true approach to science.

1. Stop calling demonstrations experiments.  Call them demonstrations.

2. When performing a lab, preface the lab with its scientific relevance and how it contributed to the scientific community.  For example, when performing the flame test lab in chemistry to identify spectral fingerprints of elements, explain to your students that Neils Bohr performed this kind of test to discover photon emission; which lead to the planetary model of the atom.  In other words, explain that you are reenacting a true experiment from science.  You can even give them Neils Bohr’s original observations and questions.  Let the students relive the scientists’ revelations.

3. Explain to your students why the scientific method isn’t an accurate depiction of science.  Deb Farkas, Stan Hitomi, and Judy Scotchmoor from UC-Berkeley have studied different methods of recreating introductory science lessons for students.  Understanding Science is an incredible resource for educators and has fabulous lessons for teacher use.  Here is an awesome lesson with a revised scientific method flowchart that will get students thinking about how science works. (Believe me…this lesson is AMAZING!)

4. When you are at home with your kids, let them come up with things to discover.  If they can’t, then model the process by asking what if questions and get your kids to come up with ways to test it.  More importantly, if they come up with something that you know isn’t going to work…LET THEM TEST IT!  Some of our best discoveries came from mistakes.  (Need someone else to convince you?  Just watch Neil deGrasse Tyson answer a 6 year-old’s question to the meaning of life.)

5. Schools can start offering “Science Method” elective classes, which are independent study courses that let students create and design their own experiments.  Is this an expensive process due to the order of materials, providing professional mentors and dedicated educators?  Yes, but only if you believe that the knowledge they will gain from the creative design process won’t benefit the scientific community ten fold when those students continue on to cure cancer.

For more information on how you can encourage your students in the world of science, check out Harvard’s online Journal of Emerging Investigators at www.emerginginvestigators.org.