Teaching the Scientific Method to 3rd Graders

The post I wrote about teaching scientific observation skills has been making me think more about the importance of going back to basics with science in our digital age.  We live in a time when kids think it’s better to take digital pictures in the forest than to draw.  They think technology has to be made of circuits and silicon and that every question can be answered with a Google search.

But none of that is true!  Drawing teaches us to see.  Technology includes the buttons on your shirt and the laces in your shoes.  And Google searches will tell us the knowledge of the day, but not the answers we need for tomorrow.

That’s why we have to teach the scientific method.  So students have the tools they need to ask questions and find answers that are factual, verifiable, and provable.  Answers that stand up against critical review and analysis and reveal larger truths about our world.

Today, I’ll share one approach to teaching the scientific method to elementary students.  I wanted to incorporate it into our animal classification unit, so I redesigned the unit, applied for a grant from our local education foundation, and got funding.

You could create a unit like this around any number of natural, observable phenomena.  The key is that we give kids opportunities to ask questions that they don’t know the answers to.  Kids should be scientists and engage in a rigorous process to make their own discoveries.

First, some background information.  I began this unit with three weeks of observing, classifying, drawing, and even banding birds.  We went bird watching at our local forest.  We learned about birds’ physical and behavioral characteristics and the keys to identification.  An artist came and taught us how to draw birds that were anatomically correct.  We went to our local Audubon Sanctuary to see how birds were caught, measured, classified, and banded as part of the North American Bird Banding Program.

Our Audubon sanctuary director holds a tufted titmouse as she explains bird banding to my 3rd grade ornithologists

Then came the best part: our own bird study.

Faced with the challenge of explaining the scientific method to third graders, I got a lot of help from this terrific Brain Pop video.  It clearly illustrates each step of the process.  Then, I made a packet to help students plan their experiments using screen shots from the video.

As a class, we brainstormed questions we had about birds.  By this point, we had several feeders outside our windows.  Together, we decided to ask, “What will attract more birds to our courtyard?”  We agreed that if we could answer this question, it would help us and other people in our town who liked to watch birds.

We split into four small groups, and each small group chose a different variable they wanted to test.  For example, one group hypothesized that we’d get bigger birds with a bigger feeder.  Another group thought new birds would come if we offered worms.

I was in charge of the control group, which we decided would be the bird feeder we’d had outside for a few weeks.  It was the baseline against which we’d compare all of our other results.

The previous year, we had used a single bird cam to capture pictures like this one, of a downy woodpecker interacting with a house sparrow.

Each group designed an experiment to test their hypothesis, controlling as many variables as we reasonably could.  (It was only later that I learned about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Sleuth curriculum, which does an even better job of controlling variables.)  With our grant funding, we purchased feeders and seed, mealworms, birdbaths, and more.  We also purchased four Audubon Bird Cams that we would use to gather data.  Bird Cams are motion-activated, weather-proof cameras that take pictures every time birds visit.  They cost just $100 and are simple and durable enough for third graders to use on their own.

In our courtyard, the groups set up their experiments and their Bird Cams.  Then we waited.  Every other day, the kids would take down their Bird Cams, hook them up to their laptops, and download their pictures.  Painstakingly — just like adult scientists — they counted, recorded, and graphed how many visits there were from birds of each type.

Kids’ science can and should be rigorous.  For example, there was a real danger that kids would over-count the birds they saw in their pictures.  Our goal was to count the number of bird visits each experimental set-up received.  But if a bird visited for several minutes without leaving, it might have its photo taken 5 or 10 times.

As a class, we discussed the problem and defined a procedure that everyone would follow.  There had to be a three-minute lag between photos to count them as unique visits.  So, if a house sparrow appeared in two photos and the second photo was taken only 30 seconds after the first one, the two photos would be counted as one visit.  But if the second photo was taken 3 minutes after the first one, the two photos would be counted as two visits.  That may sound exacting, but my third graders understood it — and understood why, as scientists, they all needed to follow the same rules.

After two weeks, we ended our experiment and discussed our findings.  Together, we wrote our conclusions and our new questions.  We also discussed the limitations of our experiment and what we would do if we were to repeat it.

Finally, working collaboratively on a Google presentation, we recorded our findings and conclusions (with accompanying charts, graphs, and photos) and presented them to the whole school.  We learned so many fascinating things: big bird feeders do, in fact, attract big birds (we got huge crows at a bird bath turned into a feeder).  And who knew?  Squirrels love to eat dried worms!

After this unit, the kids in my class were ornithologists for life, and several were determined to be scientists when they grew up.  A Bird Cam was the hot toy at Christmas, and parents reported that kids would spend hours bird watching while on playdates.  A year later, my former students still come to me and talk about the birds they’ve seen.

It makes me think back my experiences with science as a student in high school, when all I did was recreate experiments to reach previously-discovered conclusions.  Our kids deserve more than that.  They deserve to ask authentic questions and pursue the answers using the tools of real science.  To have “eureka!” moments that stick with them for life.  There is so much we don’t know about the world, and we should empower our students to discover it.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching the Scientific Method to 3rd Graders

  1. Abbie, I discovered your blog via NEF’s post on Facebook–thanks for doing this, and I hope lots of elementary teachers are reading it. Nora, mom to an ornithologist for life!

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