magnifying glass Observation: The First Step in the Scientific Method

To observe means to examine something. Good observers focus on the details. When people observe things they often wonder why it is that way. Scientists try to answer that question. They make observations as the first step to the scientific method.

Observations are also called data. There are two kinds of data.

- Qualitative data are descriptions that do not have numbers.

The sound of the passing train is so loud it wakes Sebbie and makes his bedroom windows rattle. - is qualitative data.

- Quantitative data are obtained by measuring and have numbers. Scientists use instruments (tools) to obtain numbers based data.

The truck traffic noise was over 80 decibels at 1800 hours - is quantitative data.

It is important to be a careful observer. The smallest detail could be important to finding the answer to a question.

Practice observing by looking at this photo. How many details you can find?

Facing North

West pink washed sky East
Click here for a larger view. Use the Back Button of your browser to return to this web page.

1. Write your observations - one per line - on a piece of paper. Make as many observations as you can.


Imagine - If you were standing in the scene:

What tools (instruments) would help you to be a better observer?

What tools (instruments) might a scientist use to measure what you are observing?


2. Write at least two hypothesis about what you have observed. (What is a hypothesis?)


Make a prediction about this phenomena. Explain your prediction.


"Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science."
~Edwin Powell Hubble, The Nature of Science, 1954


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Pennsylvania Academic Standards - The Nature of Science
Processes, Procedures and Tools of Scientific Investigations
• Apply knowledge of scientific investigation or technological design in different contexts to make inferences to solve problems.
• Use evidence, observations, or a variety of scales (e.g., time, mass, distance, volume, temperature) to describe relationships.

National Science Education Standards:

CONTENT STANDARD G: As a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of:
Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, they must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature, and must make accurate predictions, when appropriate, about systems being studied. They should also be logical, respect the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, and make knowledge public. Explanations on how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.

Because all scientific ideas depend on experimental and observational confirmation, all scientific knowledge is, in principle, subject to change as new evidence becomes available. The core ideas of science such as the conservation of energy or the laws of motion have been subjected to a wide variety of confirmations and are therefore unlikely to change in the areas in which they have been tested. In areas where data or understanding are incomplete, such as the details of human evolution or questions surrounding global warming, new data may well lead to changes in current ideas or resolve current conflicts. In situations where information is still fragmentary, it is normal for scientific ideas to be incomplete, but this is also where the opportunity for making advances may be greatest.