magnifying glass Observation: The First Step in the Scientific Method

To observe means to examine it carefully. Good observers notice lots of 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 very bright outside today even though it is cold - is an example of qualitative data.

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

The student's light meter read 30,000 lux, on the playground, at noon is quantitative data.

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

Practice observing by looking at this photo.
I observed this on Falls Trail, at Ricketts Glen State Park, Benton, Columbia County, Pennsylvania on Sept. 30, 2007.

pool in rock

Click here for a closer view. Use the Back Button of your browser to return to this webpage.

pencil right1. Write your observations.



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

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

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


3. Fire up your imagination or your curiosity.
Write at least two hypothesis
about what you have observed.
(What is a hypothesis?)


4. TAI (Think About It) Do you expect that this will be the same from one day to the next day or a week later?

What circumstances might change what you see?


Journey further:

Watch Mystery of the Megaflood - PBS Nova program

Describe the role observation played in the discoveries.

Do you think the explanation for the giant potholes might apply to the rock in the photo?

About Units of Measurement - IB Biology | Observing Biology how to's

Observation Skills Builders index

Steps of the Scientific Method - Science Buddies | Learn about the Scientific Method Activity


"Observation more than books, experience rather than persons, are the prime educators." Amos Bronson Alcott


Geology of Pennsylvania | Water and Air - NASA | Bluebirds Project | Rocks for Kids | Rockhounds

meter ruler

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Posted by Cynthia J. O'Hora 10/2008, released for noncommercial use by nonprofit organizations
Aligned with Pennsylvania Academic Standards Science & Technology, Reading & Writing, Career Education and Work

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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.