Inside: Asking scientific questions is a super important skill. Most of us begin learning to ask these questions in kindergarten. Asking good scientific questions is part of being science literate but it takes some practice.
Asking scientific questions is a really important skill. Good science means asking good questions. What do I mean by good questions? Haven’t we always been told there is no such thing as a bad question? Well….that is partially true. But in science there are good and bad questions. Discoveries of all kinds come from questions that can be tested. If a question does not lead to a procedure for study and experimentation, then its not a very good scientific question.Millions saw the apple fall but Newton was the one who asked why. - Bernard Baruch Click To Tweet
Good scientific questions have led to a lot of important discoveries over the centuries humans have asked them. In a perfect world, these discoveries would be used for the benefit of a better Earth and for the benefit of mankind. That hasn’t always been the case, but that is a topic for another discussion.
In terms of science and the scientific method, good questions describe a problem in a way that can be tested using accepted methods.
Scientific Questions Come in Three Types
There are three types of scientific questions. These questions begin simple and move towards creating an experimental question:
- verification questions – are basic data collection questions that are useful for accumulating knowledge about a subject; mostly yes or no answers
- Is it hot outside? Is it snowing?
- theory questions – are broad questions that need prior knowledge about a subject as well as some explanation
- Why is milk kept in the fridge? Why do I get a fever when I have the flu?
- experimental questions – these are the really good questions used by researchers to create a hypothesis and testing is required to answer them
- If I use light with only green wavelengths, will a plant grow? Are teens always better at math than adults?
Take this short quiz and see how well you are able to identify these three types of scientific questions:
Asking Scientific Questions Takes Practice
Practice makes perfect is not just true when talking about getting better at a sport. Asking good science questions must begin early. That’s why most school curriculum contains science studies. Making science literacy important from the beginning creates adults who ask critical questions about the world around them. There are four crucial guidelines for asking and writing good scientific questions.
- If it can be tested and produce an answer, it is a good scientific question.
- ‘Why is it snowing?’ is not as good a question as ‘What conditions are needed for it to snow?’
- A good scientific question can be tested with an experiment that measures very specific things.
- ‘Will sunscreen stop my skin from burning?’ is not as good as ‘If human skin is covered with SPF 30 sunscreen, will it burn after 30 minutes of exposure to the sun?’
- A good scientific question is based on information you’ve already collected.
- Most of us know that fertilizer make plants grow better. So, ‘Will adding fertilizer to my orchid make it grow better?’ is not as good as “What kind of fertilizer will make my orchid grow best?’
- Good scientific questions lead to even more good questions, especially after experimentation.
- ‘What kind of virus causes Covid 19?’ leads to ‘How does Sars-Cov-2 enter human cells?’ or ‘Which human cells does this virus infect?’ and/or ‘How fast does this virus mutate?’
Ultimately, good scientific questions are well defined and can be measured and controlled.
Being a good scientist means asking good questions. Being a great scientist means learning to ask the tough questions that are SMART based – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based. The goal of your question is to develop it into a hypothesis for a study or experiment. Your experiment must focus on a very specific idea. You must be able to collect data in the form of measurements or observations. Your question must be something that can realistically be tested – in other words achievable. The relevance of your question refers to it being something that adds to the knowledge of a similar idea. Or if completely new, something that adds value to the human condition. Finally, you need to be able to give a time frame within which your question can be answered. Good goals are framed as SMART goals and great scientific questions are SMART questions.
Tips on Asking Good Scientific Questions
- Once you have a topic ask as many questions as you can think of about that topic.
- Look at those questions and cross out the ones that cannot be answered directly by observation or through background research.
- Break down the questions left into smaller ones that you can answer with a study or experiment.
- Word those smaller questions in a way that makes them SMART questions.
- Your questions should look at, for example, the relationship between two things; the effect of one factor on another.
Asking scientific questions is a skill that takes time and practice just like any other skill. Take the time to observe the world around you and start asking those questions. You’ll improve your science literacy and have a better understanding of the world around you.