Scientific Investigations: tips to do them, how to think like a scientists, and questions for the MARE Community

Science is both a body of knowledge about the world we live in and the processes used to understand that world. The trick is to help students learn both the content and the process, and student-directed scientific investigations can help!

First, scientific investigations involve more than just experiments (manipulating some factor in a system in order to see how that affects the outcome) because for many ideas experiments are impossible, inappropriate, or only part of the picture. Instead scientific investigations are often centered on making observations and comparisons. Therefore, there are many ways that scientific investigations can be incorporated into your classroom.

Tips about Scientific Investigations:

1. Remember there are no set steps or order of activities that define “good science.”
2. The question being investigated should 1) be connected to scientific concepts and methods and 2) provide opportunities for students to connect their knowledge, experience, and interests with the subject.
3. Effective investigations should be organized, structured activities that guide students in using scientific methods to work on meaningful problems.
4. Investigations typically unfold over weeks to months.
5. Use effective questions to subtly guide students toward certain insights and self-reflection about their previous and acquired knowledge throughout the investigation.
6. Try to encourage ideas to flow freely, students to articulate their “first draft thinking” and then revisit the ideas later in their investigation, and students to think critically about their classmates’ ideas.
7. The process of science is iterative, any point in the process leads to many possible next steps (known or unknown), and science lacks tidy endpoints.
8. Investigations generate raw data but those data must be analyzed and interpreted to develop a scientific argument about the investigation/question.

Thinking Like a Scientist:

A key part of a scientific investigation in the classroom is teaching the students how to think and act like scientists. The “Understanding Science: How Science Really Works” website ( created by the University of California – Berkeley has some great suggestions of what it looks like for students to be scientists:
1. Question what they observe. First they should ask general questions, and then limit the arena they explore by defining the problem to develop a question that can drive their investigation.
2. Investigate further. They should research what is currently known about the topic/question.
3. Articulate their expectations of the results. They should be skeptical and try to refute their own ideas of what will happen.
4. Seek out more evidence and make observations. They should choose a way to investigate their question, gather or create the materials, and collect the data.
5. Be open-minded. They should examine the raw data and process/analyze the data and change their mind if the evidence warrants it.
6. Think creatively. They should try to come up with alternate explanations for what they observe and reflect on their findings by thinking about what the results mean.
7. Communicate with others. They should talk with others about their ideas, questions, expectations, methods, raw data, analyzed data, and results (aka at many points during the investigation).

Also, on the “Understanding Science: How Science Really Works” website there are Teaching Resources broken out by grade level (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12, 13-16). The resources range from tips & strategies to lesson plans to educational research. Check it out and let us know what you think.

Questions for the MARE community:

1. What do scientific investigations look like in your classroom?
2. What are some techniques that you use to help students to act and think like scientists?
3. What helps you direct scientific investigations?
4. What hinders you from directing scientific investigations?
5. What was your favorite scientific investigation you have done with your students?

Let us know what you think…

* This year at Rutgers Ocean Days, we are asking MARE classrooms/clubs to complete a marine or aquatic related science investigation. For more information visit

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