magnifying glass Observation: The First Step in the Scientific Method

To observe means to look at something. Good observers carefully note the details. When scientists observe things they ask questions. Scientists then seek to answer their questions. These observations are the initial step in the scientific method.

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

- Qualitative data are descriptions that do not have numbers.

Example: The clear, cool waters of the stream begin on a mountain side in Alleghany Township and flow through the watershed for hundreds of miles to the Ohio River.

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

At 1700 hours GMT on April 2, 2009 observed: 03007800 Allegheny River at Port Alleghany, PA. River station Lat 41`49'07", long 78`17'35", elevation 1,454.88 ft (443.4m). Gage height 2.94ft (89.6112 centimeters). Discharge 257 cubic feet per second.

Practice making observations:

One summer morning I saw this on a sidewalk. As I watched, the dark shape changed repeatedly.

 ants on sidewalk

Click on the photo for a closer view. Use the Back Button of your browser to return to this web page.

1. Write your observations.


magnifying glasses Imagine - If you were standing there, looking at the sidewalk:

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


What tools (instruments) would you use to make measurements?


How might you document/record this phenomena?


2. Fire up your imagination or curiosity. What is shown in the photograph?


3. What variable could you introduce or change to observe for a change in the species behavior?


Develop a hypothesis about what would occur when you introduced or changed the variable.


4. TAI (Think About It) Which fields of science would be interested in studying this phenomena?



About Units of Measurement - IB Biology | Observing Biology how to's

Observation Skills Builders | What is a hypothesis?

Steps of the Scientific Method - Science Buddies | Learn about the Scientific Method Activity

Emergence - How does the "intelligence" of an ant colony or the stock market arise out of the simple actions of its members?

"People only see what they are prepared to see." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Water Study Unit | Bluebirds Project | Wetland EcoStudy Unit | Fields, Meadows and Fencerows Ecostudy Unit | Cicadas

meter ruler

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Posted by Cynthia J. O'Hora 2/2009, released for noncommercial use by nonprofit organizations

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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.