K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

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Although you may not know it, you think like a scientist every day. Questions come up, and you try to answer them. For example, has something happened today that you didn’t understand or wanted to know more about? Maybe it was a math question; maybe you wanted to know what they weather could be so you could decide what to wear to school.

When you try to answer questions and solve problems, you are using many of the same skills that scientists use in their jobs. Read more details about these important skills below.

Observing

When you use one or more of your five senses to gather information, you are observing. When you hear a dog bark, count twelve green seeds, or smell smoke, you are making observations. Scientists are fortunate because they can sometimes use special tools to enhance their senses. Microscopes, telescopes, and other special instruments help them make more detailed observations than they could make with their senses alone. A microscope, for example, can make your vision powerful enough to see tiny hairs on a caterpillar that you could never see without assistance.

The key to observation, though, is that it must be accurate and factual. It cannot be made up in order to help solve a problem. It must be exact, and to do this you must keep careful records of your observations in science class. You can do this by writing or drawing on paper or in a notebook. This information that you collect is sometimes called evidence, data, or feedback.

Inferring

After you see or observe something in the world, you try to interpret it or make a prediction about what it is based on the details you observe. This interpretation or explanation is not necessarily correct; it is an educated guess. Scientists call such educated guesses inferences. You are inferring when you draw a conclusion based only on what is observed and what you already know, without searching for additional information. For example, if you hear a rooster crowing while you are partially asleep in bed, you would infer that the sun has come up and it is early morning. To make this inference, you combine the evidence – the crowing rooster – and your experience or knowledge of sunrise. You know from early elementary school that roosters typically crow in the morning at sunrise. To infer without looking that it is morning and sunrise is logical.

Remember though, that an inference is not a fact; it is only one of many possible reasons or explanations. For example, the rooster could be crowing because there is an intruder in his pen or because he is injured. An inference may turn out to be incorrect even if it is based on accurate observations. The only way to confirm whether an inference is true or false is to conduct a deeper investigation.

Predicting

Do you watch or listen to weather forecasts? Even if you don’t, you probably know that weather forecasts are predictions about what the weather will be like later today, tomorrow, or next week. Weather forecasts may predict the amount of rain that will fall, wind speeds, paths of hurricanes, or whether there will be a snowstorm that keeps you out of school! In order to make these predictions, weather forecasters — also called meteorologists — observe the weather and use their observations and their knowledge of weather patterns to predict what will happen. The skill of predicting involves making an inference about a future event based on current evidence and past experience.

Classifying

Every year your picture is taken and placed in your school’s yearbook. You find your picture in the yearbook by looking first for your class by grade and then for your name alphabetically. Can you imagine if your picture was just placed randomly in the book? It would take you a long time to find your picture! Organization or grouping by similarities is called classifying. You are grouped onto a certain page with your classmates because you are in the same grade and class. You can classify items in all kinds of ways, using size, shape, purpose, color, and so on. Scientists use this skill to organize information and objects. As a scientist solving a problem you are collecting data, and when you group similar data together, it is easier for you to understand how they relate or connect.

Making models

Have you ever played the game where you draw a picture and another person guesses what you are drawing without talking? If so, you were drawing a type of model. You use and make models all the time – a hand-drawn sketch, a diagram or illustration in a textbook, or a three-dimensional, physical object that is smaller than the object it represents. A good model can help you to understand something very complex in a simpler way. For example, if you read a description of the solar system, your might have trouble understanding how the planets rotate around the sun. A diagram of the solar system or a three-dimensional model that you could touch would make the concept easier for you to understand. Another example is putting a toy together. Often the instructions include pictures as well as words to help the person who buys the toy understand the process step by step. Scientists also use models to help them simplify complicated information and ideas. Scientists’ models are often generated by computers, and sometimes they are only mental models made up of mathematical equations, but these models, like the ones you use, help scientists to simplify and make sense of complicated processes.

Communicating

Every day you talk to friends, listen to what other people have to say, and write messages or even letters. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are all part of communicating. Communication is simply sharing ideas and information with other people. Scientists communicate to share information, data, results, and opinions. They often use formal methods of communication such as meetings, reports, and the Internet. By communicating, they can help one another find answers to questions and problems.