SCIN 137 AMU week 2 lesson lab THE USE OF INQUIRY AND DISCOVERY IN OBSERVATIONS AND QUESTIONS Introduction to Meteorology American Military university
Topics to be covered include:
- How to observe the natural world within the context of inquiry and discovery
- The importance of background research for formulating a question
- The process of asking scientific questions
- Analysis of case studies to determine the observations and questions that shaped the field of biology
In the first lesson, we introduced the concept of science and the seven steps of the scientific method. For the rest of this course, we’re going to dive into those steps in more detail. This week will focus on making good observations that lead to thought-provoking scientific questions. First, we will define applications of science based research on how we use observations and discuss the importance of gathering and reading reputable background research when formulating a question. Then we will describe the qualities of a high quality scientific question that will ultimately guide us in proposing a hypothesis and experimental design. Finally, we will analyze case studies from historically famous scientists to practice critical thinking and emphasize the close relationship between scientific observations and questions. This exercise will show us how scientific observations and questions have built off each other to shape our current understanding of biology.
The Connection Between Observation and Discovery
Have you ever wondered how we invented the first vaccine? Like so many discoveries, vaccinations began with observations that led to questions about how we can use infectious diseases to protect ourselves from debilitating, often fatal illnesses. Humanity first began experimenting with developing an immunity to smallpox as early as 1000 CE. Evidence exists that the Chinese used small doses of smallpox material to develop immunities, and the practice spread to Africa, Turkey, and eventually Europe and the Americas (The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 2017).
In 1796, Edward Jenner made the first step towards completely eradicating the disease. For years, he had heard tales that dairymaids who contracted cowpox were protected from smallpox. He built off these observations by inoculating an 8-year-old boy, James Phipps, with material from fresh cowpox lesions on a dairymaid named Sarah Nelms (Riedel, 2005). The boy developed a mild fever and temporarily lost his appetite but quickly recovered. Two months later, Jenner inoculated him with matter from a fresh smallpox lesion, but he did not develop the disease (Riedel, 2005). Word of Jenner’s work spread throughout Europe and led to the routine practice of vaccination against smallpox and a global effort to eliminate the disease. By 1980, the World Health Assembly announced that smallpox had been eradicated around the world (Riedel, 2005).
Every discovery we make in science, no matter how significant or minor, ultimately began with an observation that led to a question. In Jenner’s case, the development of the smallpox vaccine inspired a global movement to develop additional immunizations against other infectious childhood diseases. American children today typically follow a comprehensive vaccination schedule that conveys immunity against diseases such as whooping cough, measles, mumps, and chickenpox (CDC, 2016). We can also greatly reduce our risk of contracting influenza during the winter cold and flu season by getting an annual flu shot.
Science allows us to investigate our innate curiosity about how the world works in a systematic repeatable way. Every scientific study begins when someone is curious enough about an observed phenomenon to ask a relevant question. This concept applies to any field of research, from biology to geology to chemistry. For now, let’s define the characteristics of an observation and explore the connection between observations and scientific questions.
What is an Observation?
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- Definition of ObservationWe define an observation as scientific data or evidence that we collect directly with our own senses or indirectly through tools to increase our knowledge of natural phenomena (Understanding Science, 2012). We make observations about our environment constantly, often without conscious thinking, such as judging the distance between our car and the one in front of us when driving, hearing birds while walking across campus, or determining what someone is cooking in the kitchen based on smell. Observations can begin the scientific method by inspiring a question, and test a hypothesis through experiments.Observations provide the foundation for research across multiple fields of science, including physical sciences and life sciences, and can vary greatly in terms of the information that they provide. However, observations for any scientific study must adhere to the following guidelines:
Pure and Applied Science
We can further define science based on how we use observations. Sometimes scientists conduct research simply to gain new knowledge, while others conduct studies for a specific application. Campbell, Simon, Dickey, Hogan, and Reece (2016) define discovery science as a method to describe nature through verifiable observations and measurements. For example, Jacques Cousteau gained worldwide recognition for his voyages aboard the Calypso, his oceanographic vessel. After World War II, Cousteau traveled around the world to locations such as the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Amazon River Basin to explore and describe the underwater world (Biography.com editors, 2017b). His exploits were produced as a nine-season television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, that drew millions of viewers and raised awareness for ocean conservation and the impact of human activities (Biography.com editors, 2017b).
Discovery science often closely correlates with pure science. You can probably think of a friend or family member who enjoys learning new things and asking questions. He or she may not have a particular goal in mind but seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Pure science, also called basic science, simply seeks to increase the knowledge base of a particular field of study (Boundless, 2016). For example, Jacques Cousteau’s voyages aboard the Calypso primarily focused on discovery and increasing our knowledge of oceanic ecosystems.
Applied science, on the other hand, seeks to use science to solve real-world problems and often results in developing new technology (Boundless, 2016). Applied science will often use the results and theories generated by basic science. As an example of applied science, we currently use applied science to improve humanity’s quality of life by increasing crop yields, researching potential cures for diseases, and developing the necessary technology to advance these fields of research. Jacques Cousteau, for example, co-invented the Aqua-Lung, a breathing device for scuba diving, in 1943, which greatly expanded our options for conducting underwater research (Biography.com editors, 2017b).
Scientific Questions Deal with Facts, not Morality
When you were a child, you probably asked numerous questions beginning with “why” to try and make sense of the natural world. Maybe you asked “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why does my stomach growl when I’m hungry?” Questions phrased in this manner are called existence questions and usually require someone to recall existing facts to provide an answer (Mansfield Middle School, n.d.). For these types of “why” questions science has or can provide answers.
“Why” questions also often deal with issues of morality or legality. “Why is it against the law to litter?” or “Why should I respect my parents?” represent common moral and legal questions that can guide human behaviors. We can also phrase these questions as “Should humans pollute their environment?” or “Should I obey my parents?”
Scientific questions cannot apply to personal preferences or moral values. We can, for example, use the scientific method to determine the effects of pollution on a species or ecosystem and possibly inform policy makers about pollution laws, but this information alone cannot tell us whether it is morally or legally acceptable to pollute.
Scientific Questions Should Ask How, What, If, etc.
In casual conversation, people often ask simple questions to receive simple answers, but scientific questions require more detail. Scientific questions should be specific to the issue at hand, yet open enough to allow the formation of a specific hypothesis with multiple predictions which can be tested. For example, a fisheries biologist could ask, “Does fishing pressure damage fish populations?” and probably answer in the affirmative. However, such a question is difficult to expand into a well-designed hypothesis and experiment. A better question would be, “How does fishing pressure affect fish populations?” Your hypothesis could include predictions that about the response of specific fish species in a particular area or areas to fishing pressures. Then other steps of the scientific method would follow, such as counting the number of a specific species of fish in a population before and after fishermen have visited at specific times throughout the year. This data would serve as an indicator as to the effects of fishing pressure on fish populations.
Scientific Questions Should be Based on Background Research to Contribute New Knowledge
Once a researcher has proposed an initial question, he or she typically conducts background research to determine what other scientists have already learned in that field. This is done by collecting and reading research paper published in reputable scientific journals. Often, this process allows scientists to also more fully understand the theoretical basis of the research area. As a rule of thumb, scientists avoid asking the exact same question more than once. Doing so contributes little, if any, new knowledge unless the purpose of the study is simply to verify an established relationship (demonstrate repeatability). Repeating questions can also lead to accusations of plagiarism. A scientist who has published a study on a particular question typically receives professional credit for that research and is considered an expert in the field. If another scientist attempts to publish the exact same study without giving due credit to the original author, he or she could lose her reputation for credible research. Academic and professional integrity is yet another way that scientists reassure the general public about the credibility of their research.