magnifying glass Observation: The First Step in the Scientific Method

"Science is a process of trying to figure out how the world works by making careful observations and trying to make sense of those observations." Science for All Americans

To observe means to look at something and to notice the details. When people observe things they often wonder why it is that way. Scientists try to answer that question. They make observations as the first step to the scientific method.

Observations are also called data. There are two kinds of data.

- Qualitative data are descriptions that do not have numbers.

It is so hot "you could cook an egg on the sidewalk" is an example of qualitative data.

- Quantitative data are obtained by measuring. Scientists use instruments (tools) to obtain numbers based data.

It is 43° Celsius at 1300 hours on 6 JUL 2008. is quantitative data.
Notice the number and unit of measure - "° Celsius".

It is important to be a careful observer. The smallest detail can be important to finding the answer to a question.

Practice observing by looking at this photo. How many details you can find?


If you click here, a closer view will appear. Use the Back Button of your browser to return to this webpage.

1. Write your observations - one per line - on a piece of paper.

Make as many observations as you can.


2. Imagine - If you were standing in the scene:

What tools (instruments) would help you to be a better observer?

What tools (instruments) might you use to measure what you are observing?


3. Your brother wants to do a science fair project based on what you have observed.
What variables could he consider?


"You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished,
you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird ...
So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts.
I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something
and knowing something." Richard Feynman


Extend your knowledge:

Watch the video: Bird Brains at Nova ScienceNow | Watch Ravens at PBS Nature.

Explore the website Absolute Zero @ PBS. | Observing Biology how to's

Proportions - Measuring Shadows, Measuring Heights | Learn about the Scientific Method Activity

About Units of Measurement - IB Biology | Temperature facts and figures - IB Biology

Steps of the Scientific Method - Science Buddies

Observation - Science Skills Builders > 44


Milkweed and Monarch Butterfly Mania Journal Entry | Winter's Story | Bluebirds Project | Cornell Citizen Science

meter ruler

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FAQ Posted 8/2005 by Cynthia J. O'Hora utd 2/2007 Aligned with Pennsylvania Academic Standards

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Pennsylvania Academic Standards - The Nature of Science
Processes, Procedures and Tools of Scientific Investigations
• Apply knowledge of scientific investigation or technological design in different contexts to make inferences to solve problems.
• Use evidence, observations, or a variety of scales (e.g., time, mass, distance, volume, temperature) to describe relationships.

National Science Education Standards:
CONTENT STANDARD G: As a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of:

Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, they must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature, and must make accurate predictions, when appropriate, about systems being studied. They should also be logical, respect the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, and make knowledge public. Explanations on how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.

Because all scientific ideas depend on experimental and observational confirmation, all scientific knowledge is, in principle, subject to change as new evidence becomes available. The core ideas of science such as the conservation of energy or the laws of motion have been subjected to a wide variety of confirmations and are therefore unlikely to change in the areas in which they have been tested. In areas where data or understanding are incomplete, such as the details of human evolution or questions surrounding global warming, new data may well lead to changes in current ideas or resolve current conflicts. In situations where information is still fragmentary, it is normal for scientific ideas to be incomplete, but this is also where the opportunity for making advances may be greatest.