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Scientific investigation misconceptions and concepts
Inquiry & experiment Ethnographic & experimental)


Is the process people and scientists do when they raise questions about the world around them and seek answers to them by making observations in the natural world, or experiment by trying things out. In both cases they observe and think about those results. The thinking connects the observations with reasoning to make conclusions, which explain the natural world.

Two kinds of scientific investigation or inquiry are known as:

1. Ethnographic and 2. Experimental

Both for the purpose to understand the world.
Both should be thought of as general procedures to implement in diverse ways and multiple directions to better understand our world.
Neither, needs to be thought of as a strict recipe that must be followed.

Initial perceptual naive misconceptions (any age)
(Explanations, Naive understanding, Misconceptions, or Perceptual responses)

  1. Ideas for understanding the world just come to people without systemtic thinking through a mysterious creative process that is inherited not learned.
  2. Scientific ideas are created solely with creativity and intellect (missing observation as critical element).
  3. Inquiry is a collection of information that explains how the natural world functions.
  4. A cookbook approach of following a receipe is scientific inquiry.
  5. The world exists according to human's needs, interests, and/ or desires.
  6. The natural world exists in a state that has not changed much since its creation and will exist in a similar state forever.
  7. Natural processes/ events are initiated and controlled by spiritual entities.
  8. Understanding comes from just watching everything in a natural state.
  9. Science is done in labs and not in the real world.
  10. Personal status by itself confers authority to define, interpret, and change knowledge.
  11. Knowledge is static and unchanging.
  12. There is always an explanation for everything.

Beginning concepts (preschool - 7 years)


Young students many times experiment to confirm their prejudices and beliefs. They generally use no logical experiment, no attempt for a fair test or no attempt to control variables. They tend to focus on one aspect that may or may not relate to what they are trying to confirm and use illogical or transductive reasoning to support their beliefs.


  1. Observations can be used to answer questions about the world.
  2. All people can invent ideas and things.
  3. When doing science it is helpful to work with other people.
  4. When working with other people each person should reach their own conclusions.
  5. We can learn from observing objects: living and non-living (plants and animals).
  6. Care must be taken to care for living organisms in the classroom.

Intermediate concepts (7 years - 11 years)


As students mature they are more able to identify variables and develop an understanding for the need to control variables for a fair experiment or for a fair test. This is a good time to introduce the idea of an investigation as a "fair-test". This may start with the idea of fair play and is a useful analogy to introduce experimental science in the primary grades.


  1. Observations are used as evidence to create explanations as answers to questions.
  2. Learning better ways to observe and procedures to collect observational information, thinking about objects, their properties, and how they interact can suggests ways to identify and manipulate variables to collect evidence to think about when creating explanations.
  3. Investigation is an adventure that has been enjoyed by people everywhere and for all time.
  4. Investigation involves all kinds of people.
  5. Investigative discoveries can become available to everyone in the world.
  6. Scientists are employed by colleges, universities, businesses, industries, hospitals, and government agencies.
  7. Scientists work in offices, classrooms, laboratories, farms, factories, and in natural settings from space to the ocean floor.

Literate concepts (11+)


About sixth grade students begin to see the need for identifying and controlling all variables and to provide for a control in some experiments.

Example: Experiment to investigate the affect of dairy products on growth in mammals. An experiment is designed where two litter mate rats are raised in exactly the same conditions (heat temperature, light, sound,...), except one is feed a balanced diet including dairy products, the other has no dairy products but is substituted sugar water with the same amount of calories as the amount of dairy products fed to the dairy rat. Observational data is collected about the rats fur, mass, tail length, behavior, and x-rays of bone structure at the end of the experiment. Results are used to logically support an answer to the question, "Does dairy products affect the growth in mammals?" Contact the National Dairy Council for details.

Concepts: classified by essential elements of investigation

A person designs and conducts the scientific investigation.

Create a question / hypothesis, a procedure to implement, that result in observations to use as results.

Results are observable evidence that are used with reasoning to predict and explain.

Results are recorded and communicated.

Results / data / descriptions are analyzed and interpreted to create explanations.

Conclusions are determined.

Mathematics and other tools that are frequently useful in scientific inquiry.

Scoring guides and rubrics

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes &