Tag Archives: experiments

Maybe it’s time to stop teaching “the scientific method” in 1st year biology

Recently, my department held a search for a new instructor to oversee our 1st year labs. An important part of our search process is a “teaching talk”, in which we pretend (poorly) to be students, and the candidates give a lecture they might deliver in one of their assigned courses. We set the topic (so it’s the same for all candidates), and this time, we asked them to deliver a lecture for 1st-year biology on “the scientific method”.

We were lucky to interview three wonderful candidates (I’d have been happy with any of them), and I think they did the best job possible with that lecture topic. But the experience crystallized something that’s been bothering me for many years. I’m becoming convinced that even the best job possible of teaching “the scientific method” to first year biology students simply isn’t worth doing. Or, to be a bit more forceful: it probably does more harm than good. I know, that’s nothing short of heresy. Continue reading

Writing the Methods as a plausibility check

Image: Rube Goldberg design by Stivi10 CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org.

There are many reasons for “writing early” – for starting to write up a project before data collection and analysis are complete, or even before they’re started.  (I discuss this in some detail in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.)  This is particularly true for the Methods section, which is far easier to write when you’re doing, or even proposing, the work than it is when you’re looking back on the work months or years later.  But one use for early writing often surprises my students: early writing as a “plausibility check” for methods I’m trying to decide about using.

Here’s what happens.  I’ll be sitting with a student (or sometimes, just with myself) and we’ll be trying to decide on an experimental method, or perhaps on a point of statistical analysis.  We’ll wonder, “should we do X?”  And I’ll say: “OK, let’s imagine writing a Methods paragraph describing X.  How would it feel?” Continue reading

Are two years’ data better than one?

Photo: Two giraffes by Vera Kratochvil, released to public domain, via publicdomainpictures.net. Two giraffes are definitely better than one.

Ecologists are perennially angst-ridden about sample size.  A lot of our work is logistically difficult, involves observations on large spatial or temporal scales, or involves rare species or unique geographic features.  And yet we know that replication is important, and we bend over backwards to achieve it.

Sometimes, I think, too far backward, and this can result in wasted effort. Continue reading

Creativity, play, and science

Photo: Mushroom arrays on the forest floor in a “play” experiment (S. Heard).

Much of science is a craft: doing it well involves the application of practiced skills, which can be honed (if never completely mastered) by anyone with time and experience. In an experiment, for example, we have powerful experimental design, meticulous repetition and recordkeeping, appropriate statistical analysis, and clear writing to report the results – all things we can become objectively better and better at with practice.

But there’s creativity in science too, and it lies in the source of our ideas. This part of science is more mysterious. Continue reading