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A Model For Scientific Inquiry

November 10, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 45

I want to commend Richard N. Zare on his excellent editorial, “The Power of the Question” (C&EN, July 14, page 3). He raises the issue of how science is really done. As part of that process of scientific inquiry, Zare indicates that the central component is asking the big questions. His work with molecular frontiers encourages young people to get into the game of doing science by starting with big questions that interest them about the natural world.

This idea of questions at the center of the process of scientific inquiry is one that my research group addressed; in our case, looking for the answer to the question, “How do scientists really do science?” We know that the scientific method does not describe how science is actually done. My former students Becky Reiff and Teddie Phillipson and I interviewed more than 50 scientists and developed an initial model. After vetting the model with a larger number of scientists at several research universities, the model has been refined and is now referred to as the Activity Model for Scientific Inquiry, which is illustrated with a graphic shown below.

The Activity Model consists of 10 activities that scientists do. They can occur in any order, and some activities will likely be repeated during the course of a scientific study. “Investigating the Known,” for example, is a key step where scientists explore the literature not only to help them design their study, but also to refine their question and as part of their formal reporting for how their results fit or modify current thinking. It is here that scientists also consider models and theories to articulate an expectation for their study, design their study, or help them reflect on their findings.

Bill Harwood
Cedar Falls, Iowa



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