Nature of Science & Engineering
The Practice of Science

Scientific inquiry uses multiple interrelated processes to investigate and explain the natural world.

Benchmark: Conducting Experiments

Formulate a testable hypothesis, design and conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis, analyze the data, consider alternative explanations and draw conclusions supported by evidence from the investigation.

Benchmark: Reasons for Investigations Evaluating Explanations

Evaluate the explanations proposed by others by examining and comparing evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the scientifically acceptable evidence, and suggesting alternative scientific explanations.

Benchmark: Assumptions & Logic

Identify the critical assumptions and logic used in a line of reasoning to judge the validity of a claim.

Benchmark: Methods of Investigations

Use primary sources or scientific writings to identify and explain how different types of questions and their associated methodologies are used by scientists for investigations in different disciplines.


Standard in Lay Terms 

MN Standard in Lay Terms

Scientific inquiry uses multiple interrelated processes to investigate and explain the natural world.

Big Ideas and Essential Understandings 

Big Idea

Scientific inquiry is a means of using experimental systems and/or logic to reason through scientific problem solving.  It often involves a process of identifying problems, observing natural phenomenon and then researching the various applications and variations of the problem as studied by other scientists, formulating a hypothesis, and then sometimes running an investigative procedure, analyzing data and devising logical conclusions for the outcome.  Scientific inquiry is also a means of questioning the results and methodologies of those who have come before in an effort to expose the validity of a scientific claim or result.

Benchmark Cluster 

MN Standard Benchmarks  Formulate a testable hypothesis, design and conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis, analyze the data, consider alternative explanations and draw conclusions supported by evidence from the investigation.  Evaluate the explanations proposed by others by examining and comparing evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the scientifically acceptable evidence, and suggesting alternative scientific explanations.  Identify the critical assumptions and logic used in a line of reasoning to judge the validity of a claim.  Use primary sources or scientific writings to identify and explain how different types of questions and their associated methodologies are used by scientists for investigations in different disciplines.

The Essentials

See this page.


Understanding of the nature of science.

Skills necessary to become independent inquirers about the natural world.

The dispositions to use the skills, abilities, and attitudes associated with science.

Hypotheses are widely used in science for choosing what data to pay attention to and what additional data to seek, and for guiding the interpretation of the data (both new and previously available). 1B/H2

Sometimes, scientists can control conditions in order to obtain evidence. When that is not possible, practical, or ethical, they try to observe as wide a range of natural occurrences as possible to discern patterns. 1B/H3*

There are different traditions in science about what is investigated and how, but they all share a commitment to the use of logical arguments based on empirical evidence. 1B/H4*

Scientists in any one research group tend to see things alike, so even groups of scientists may have trouble being entirely objective about their methods and findings. For that reason, scientific teams are expected to seek out the possible sources of bias in the design of their investigations and in their data analysis. Checking each other's results and explanations helps, but that is no guarantee against bias. 1B/H5

In the long run, theories are judged by the range of observations they explain, how well they explain observations, and how useful they are in making accurate predictions. 1B/H6b*

To be useful, a hypothesis should suggest what evidence would support it and what evidence would refute it. A hypothesis that cannot, in principle, be put to the test of evidence may be interesting, but it may not be scientifically useful. 1B/H9** (SFAA)

Benchmarks of Science Literacy


Common Core Standards

Math:  Statistics and Probability - S-ID

Summarize, represent, and interpret data on a single count or measurement variable.

Summarize, represent, and interpret data on two categorical and quantitative variables.

Interpret linear models.

Understand and evaluate random processes underlying statistical experiments.

Make inferences and justify conclusions from sample surveys, experiments, and observational studies.

Understand independence and conditional probability and use them to interpret data.

Use probability to evaluate outcomes of decisions.

Language Arts


Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

For literacy in History/Social Studies

(1)Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the data and origin of the information.

(7) Integrate quantitative or technical analysis (e.g. charts, research data) with qualitative analysis in print or digital text.

For literacy in Science and Technical Subjects

(3)  Follow precisely a complex multi-step procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks: analyze the specific results based on explanations in the text.

(8)  Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author's claim or a recommendation for solving a scientific or technical problem.


Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.


Student Misconceptions 

Most high school students will accept arguments based on inadequate sample size, accept causality from contiguous events and accept conclusions based on statistically insignificant differences. (Atlas vol 1 pg 16)

Many students recognize these inadequacies in arguments after prompting. For example, "these data are incorrect, why???"  (Atlas 2061)

Science is a collection of facts.


Classic Science Project Biology

This is the classic way to do a science project but there are many possibilities for adapting it.  Although it is important for students to think through the process, the topics of the projects can have much variation.  Some projects may involve research in just one standard, or even in one benchmark over a limited time period.  Other projects may involve a full semester project with a great deal of possible topic choices.  Although formal competition is not necessary, it is important that students publicly communicate the results of the project.  The following vignette is an example of an extended open-ended project in a biology classroom.

On the first day of school, the students entered the biology classroom to find an assignment already posted on the board.  It simply read "make a list of questions you have about biology as you observe the world around you in the classroom and outside of the room."  For the next two weeks, students thought about questions as they were introduced to the world of biology.

At the end of the two weeks after much collaboration, students proposed a testable question based on their observations from the classroom and world around them.  It was then time to gain background knowledge.  At the end of the week, they had formulated a hypothesis about what might be the answer to their question.  They then devised an experimental protocol for the testable question they had written, while keeping in mind the need for as large a sample size as feasible, adequate controls, experimental design, equipment availability, and other practical concerns.

Students ran their investigations and collected their data.  They analyzed data with the use of school computers and the help of their peers.  The students reached conclusions and created presentation PowerPoints and wrote abstracts of their work.  Then they made posters.  They shared their results with other students, then with the general public at a science symposium where they were interviewed by older students.

Although this project can be done in a wide variety of ways, the important pieces that should be included are (according to

1.  Question formulation following observation

2.  Review of the literature and formation of a testable hypothesis

3.  Experimental procedure with variables

4.  Data analysis and conclusion

5.  Reporting of findings in a format fitting the project.  (


Instructional Notes 

Suggested Labs and Activities   Any laboratory experience can be designed in a manner which approaches the classic "scientific method."  Many lab experiences are done as "recipes" or "demonstrations" and the outcome is known prior to the experience.  Rather than giving students all of the details, give them the question and then (with a little bit of prior technology and some basic equipment) they can formulate the exploration of the question.  One warning: this will usually take a great deal more time than classical demonstration-type laboratories.  Teachers may want to include a mix of both types depending on the time frame and material availability. (See - Amoeba Activity as example)  (Physical Science -

Pendulum experiment.  Investigating pendulums is an outstanding project in which a student can ask a testable question, can set up the experiment with only one independent variable and control all of the variables that need to be controlled., and  (From All Strands)

Analysis of a project which has already been done.  Students analyze a scientific paper and point out the variables, controls, experimental results, and conclusions of the experiment. 

Example reference:  

Buskirk, R. & Gillen, C. (2008). Inqury in Action - Interpreting Scientific Papers. In Campbell and Reece, Biology. SanFrancisco: Pearson.

This is a collection of published scientific papers on a variety of topics.  Students are guided through analysis of the parts of the scientific process used in the experimental procedures and/or observational protocols.,,  Sequencing Events

Students  produce story boards with cartoon cards that can be shared with others.  They also complete two written assignments about the role of data, prior knowledge, and beliefs in making inferences. Additionally, there is a quiz that may be used to assess mastery of these concepts., and   (From all strands)

Students can analyze research from the most difficult to the simplest experiments as they compare evidence, identify faulty reasoning, suggest alternative explanations, and look at the logic, primary sources and methods used by scientists.  Good topics to pursue include many that can be found at the Magic Exploratorium Website.  This site has a section called "science snacks" where students can explore simple to complex science topics and follow the reasoning and explanation of the many types of science involved.  Be certain they identify the difference between observation and inference when making conclusions.

Another activity would be a class discussion involving groups that have come to different conclusions from observations of the same data or activity.  The teacher should ask, "Whose idea is supported with the best evidence?"  The teacher allows students to question their peers who had different conclusions and the others to reply.  The discussion is kept going until near the end of the period.  "Your homework," the teacher tells the class, "is to think of what might be done scientifically to determine which response is supported."  Students are to write down their answers in their journals with the rest of the activity for a "journal check" the next day. (Benchmark: Identify the critical assumptions and logic used in a line of reasoning to judge the validity of a claim, and Benchmark: Evaluate the explanations proposed by others by examining and comparing evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the scientifically acceptable evidence, and suggesting alternative scientific explanations.)

Instructional suggestions/options

It is important to give students the freedom to explore, reason, and gain confidence in their power of thought, if they are to learn to reason logically.  It may be useful to refrain from grading everything on a right/wrong basis as that may inhibit creativity, or the grading rubric may be modified to include the creative and logical reasoning portions until the final summative assessment.

An excellent website for ideas in inquiry and many testable questions is the

Exploratorium: the museum of science, art and human perception.

Students need practice in evaluating evidence before doing so in their own experiments.  Looking at popular claims (that claim to be scientific), students can look for the evidence or lack \of evidence.  Good descriptions are at this website.

Instructional Resources 

Additional resources

Scientific journals and magazines:  Science, Nature, Discover, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine and others.  Access to these publications allows student to explore the work of real scientists.  Although some of the actual science and protocols may be over their head, students will be able to identify the main idea of the research and find the basic pieces of the scientific process used in the research.  Discover and National Geographic are very "readable" for most students but may not be written in as "formal" a presentation.

Magic Exploratorium "SNACKS"  Exploratorium Science Snacks are miniature versions of some of the most popular exhibits at the Exploratorium.

For Referencing articles and/or background research sources

New Vocabulary 


  • Dependent variable: These are the factors that are measured in the experiment.
  • Hypothesis: This is the tentative explanation of the answer to the question which allows for investigation.  It is can be made after literature research has been done on the problem and background knowledge has been obtained.
  • Independent variable: This is the factor that is changed or manipulated in the experiment while everything else is kept the same.
  • Inference - the act of passing from one proposition, statement, or judgment considered as true to another whose truth is believed to follow from that of the former.
  • Law: A description of a relationship.  For example, the Law of Gravity provides a mathematical relationship between gravitational force, masses and distances apart.  It does not explain gravity.
  • Logic: A method of thinking in which there is a systematic method of thought that follows without interruption.
  • Observation: Recognizing and noting a fact or occurrence often involving measurement with instruments.
  • Peer review: The process of sending results and analysis of science research to a variety of experts in the field prior to publication.  In science journals, publishing is not possible until the research has passed this review and received approval.  It is a process of "quality control."
  • Sample Size: The number of data points in a sample.  The higher the sample size, the more statistically accurate are the data.
  • Theory: A theory is an explanation based based on a large amount of supporting data.
Technology Connections 

Computer and Internet is always useful for extended literature searches.

Well-maintained, commercial free websites:

Digital Library for Earth Science Education (DLESE)

National Science Digital Library (NSDL)

Science Education Research Center at Carlton College (SERC)

Understanding Science Website Flow chart showing the process of science

Cross Curricular Connections 

Virtually any subject can be incorporated into a science investigation.  In biology, subjects that have been conducive to this approach often involve the curriculum in family and consumer science (home economics), physical education, and psychology.

Supporting connections work especially well in the language arts classes.  Results need to be reported, conclusions drawn and background information written with appropriate citations.

Math connections abound.  Data need to be analyzed statistically (mean, median and mode) and appropriate graphs need to be drawn.  Extensions in statistical analysis (t-test, chi square etc) may be done in special cases.


Assessment of Students

What is the difference between a law and a theory?

A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing.  A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it.  A law generalizes a body of observations.  At the time it is made, no exceptions have been found to a law. Scientific laws explain things, but they do not describe them.

Design an investigation to test the hypothesis that eating animal crackers prior to taking a test will improve student scores.  Include variables (identify independent and dependent ), controls and discuss how the results would be analyzed.

Read a journal article and pick out the question, hypothesis, independent variable, dependent variable, controls, sample size, results and conclusion of the experiment.

Does science always need an experiment?  Why or why not?  What would be one way of doing science without setting up a controlled experiment?  What is one discipline that frequently uses observation for investigation?

ANSWER:  May include: Biology is a science which commonly is unable to control all of the variables.   Working with life does not always permit a classically designed and controlled experiment but rather data must be observed and collected in the field under less than ideal conditions.  The social sciences are another good example of this, as controlled experiments are rarely possible.  Observations must be made in the field and then commonalities deduced.

Assessment of Teachers

What is a theory in scientific terms and how is it related to the term "theory" in everyday conversation?  In science, how accurate are theories?

ANSWER:   In science, theories are backed up by repeated experiments and observations that lead to the same conclusion over and over again.  In science, where the next observation may lead to a new revelation, a theory is as close to truth as it is possible to get.  However, a theory may be challenged, modified, or changed by the next observation.  Nothing in science is absolute.  Science is always falsifiable.

Can science be done without controlled experiments?  Give an example.

ANSWER:   The social sciences are a particularly vivid example of an observation-only science.  Variables are only controlled on a very minimal basis when working with humans (and most living organisms) and the variation can be enormous.  In these situations, observations are made and commonalities and correlations are sought.

What is random sampling, what factors are involved in it, and how is this important to reliable scientific investigation and valid conclusions?

ANSWER:  A random sample implies that there was no bias in choosing the test subjects.  This is vital if the sample is to be representative of the population.  The larger the sample size, the closer the approximation to the average characteristics of the whole population and the closer the experimental outcomes will represent the entire population.


Struggling Learners 

Struggling and At-Risk:

Struggling and at-risk students may have the most challenges, as these types of projects and experiences tend to be long-term and their lives are not always stable enough for that.  Shorter term projects on the order of a week or two are often a good compromise.

In addition, minds that are under great emotional stress tend to have difficulty with logical reasoning.   Some students (example Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) may have more difficulty than others.

English Language Learners 

Vocabulary concerns may be the most prominent here.  However, unlike other areas of science (such as biology), the vocabulary is much more authentic for the student and the thought process itself takes precedence.

Extending the Learning 

Scientific discovery, inquiry, and scientific inquiry can be modified to any level of student ability, background, or interest.  Gifted students may want to pursue mentorships at outside companies, medical institutions, veterinarians offices etc.  Students can pursue the intricacies of scientific thought and complexity at any level they choose.


Immigrant students and those born into non-traditional cultures have much to offer in the arena of scientific problem solving and inquiry.  Their varied experiences can often shed new light and unique ideas and twists on the problem-solving experience.  Their experiences have demonstrated ideas on topics ranging from ethnic food and cooking techniques to gardening variations to clothing styles and materials.  A recent example is a student who wanted to find out if her mother's traditional method of tenderizing meat using a special radish root really broke down proteins.  In a process involving Biuret's solution, a spectrophotometer, and egg whites, she was able to create an outstanding project and does indeed have evidence that the radish root is effective.

Special Education 

Scientific inquiry can seem intimidating to students with learning disabilities.  This is often due to some of the background reading involved and can be alleviated with a little guidance into the information needed to formulate a hypothesis.  This may involve one-on-one discussions and guidance.


Classroom Observation 


Administrators should expect to see students questioning, researching, and exploring a variety of different topics in every area of the room.  Collaboration occurs naturally and questions and some answers flow freely.  More questions will be asked than answers given, as students strive to discover for themselves.


Parental involvement is important in science project work.  Because students do not own their own homes, putting something long term, smelly and nasty in the basement will need parental cooperation.  Parents often have excellent ideas for practical solutions to many problems.  However, be careful that the projects remain the work of students and that parents do not "take over."  A parent science project competition could always be set up for them at a later date.