The Iterative Nature of the Scientific Method

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  • 0:01 Review of the…
  • 1:33 Iterative Experimentation
  • 3:53 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

The scientific method is a process of steps that scientists follow, but as you move through them you may want to repeat or revisit specific ones. In this way, we can see how both the scientific method and its components are iterative.

Review of the Scientific Method

We've learned a lot about the scientific method so far. This process involves several steps: making observations, asking a scientific question, formulating a valid hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, analyzing the data, drawing conclusions and communicating your results to the scientific community.

These steps work best when you go through them in order. For example, it's difficult to ask scientific questions if you haven't made any observations. You're also going to run into trouble if you try to formulate a hypothesis without a scientific question in mind - and good luck analyzing data without an experiment to generate them!

But while the order of the steps is important, this entire process is iterative, or repeatable. Once you run your experiment and gather and analyze your data, you may make some new observations that lead to new questions. If this happens, you may decide to rerun the entire experiment, certain parts of it or you may have an entirely new experiment in mind.

Or, perhaps your experimental results weren't clear or failed to answer your original question. In this case, you may not need to change your question at all, but instead you can just tweak certain parts of your experimental design to better address your hypothesis. Regardless of why you do it, you can go back to different steps and begin again from there, making this process an iterative one.

Iterative Experimentation

Let's look more closely at how this process works to better understand why scientists often return to certain steps and repeat them. Let's say that you have a dog, and you observe that she really likes the treats you give her. This leads you to ask, 'Using these dog treats, how long will it take to train my dog to sit?' You have a very smart dog, so you hypothesize that with these dog treats, you can train her to sit in an hour. Next, you'll run your experiment - train your dog to sit! You work with her, and in about an hour she understands that she will get a treat if she sits right away when you tell her to. Bravo!

As you were training your dog, you noticed that she followed your command more quickly as time went on. That is, at first, she didn't sit at all because she didn't know what you were saying, so you helped her through the motion. About half way through the training, it would take her about 15 seconds to sit after you gave her the command because she still wasn't quite sure about the connection between the word 'sit' and the action of sitting. But by the end, she sat right away because she understood you and really wanted that treat!

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