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JiTT-Scientific Method

This page authored by Jeff Bell, California State University, Chico
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This page first made public: Jan 16, 2007

This material was originally developed through Merlot
as part of its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Summary

Students read about the scientific method and then design an experiment to test a hypothesis based on some common pseudo-scientific or alternative health treatment. In class groups of students compare their experiments and decide on which experiment is the best designed scientific experiment.

Learning Goals

Context for Use

This is a good excercise for any introductory biology class and could be modified for other science courses by choosing other topics besides health the health related ones. This works well at the very beginning of the course as it is not dependent on any specific content knowledge. The healt topic does work well, however, as many students are curious about the various treatments they have heard of or tried themselves. This should take a studetn only about an hour or less out of class and takes up about 30 minutes during class.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students should first be assigned some reading about the scientific method, either in the text book or a web site such as Scientific Method. Before the next class meeting the students are given the writing following writing assignment, which is either due at the beginning of the next class meeting, or shortly before the next class meeting.

Question: After reading about designing experiments, think about some example of pseudoscience or alternative science (astrology, palm-reading, accupuncture, intelligent design, echinacea, etc.) you've heard about, come up with a scientific hypothesis based on the idea, and then design an experiment that could be done to test the hypothesis. Your experiment should have a clear question, a hypothesis, a prediction, and an experimental design that would test your prediction.

In class: After a brief discussion about how to determine which experiments are "best" the students are split up into groups of three or four where they each present their experiment and then they decide which one is the experiment that would be most deserving of funding. Some (or all, depending on the class size) of these are then shared with the rest of the class. This is then followed by a class discussion about frequent problems in the experimental designs proposed.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students really enjoy this assignment and come up with some creative ways to test their ideas. The most common problems in their experimental designs are the use of too small a sample - one person will get Echinacea, one won't, etc.; a failure to control for bias or placebo effects with human experiments - no placebo group; and a willingness to do obviously unethical experiments.

I have them turn the assingment in by pasting their experiment into a quiz question in WebCt, but they could just as easily turn it in at the beginning of class.

Assessment

While I give full credit for any honest attempt at doing the assingment, the written reports and the class discussion will usually give the instructor plenty of information about how well the students understand and can use the scientific method. I usually ask a follow up question on the next exam, such as the one below, to see if the class discussion helped.

Last semester's exam question over the scientific method:

"A current popular alternative health treatment for reducing pain is the use of magnets. It has been estimated that over 150 million dollars a year are spent in the US for magnet therapies, where magnets are worn over the region of the body that is hurting. It has also been claimed that they aid in circulation of the blood (because red blood cells have iron). Design an experiment to test the effectiveness of magnetic therapy in reducing pain. Be specific about your hypothesis, your experimental design, how many subjects you would need, what data you would collect, how you would control for other things that might effect pain perception, your predicted results, and any potential problems with your experimental design. (15 pts.)"

References and Resources

Scientific Method

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