“What’s a hypothesis?”

Dinosaur Train Preview
Dinosaur Train Preview (Photo credit: tweenina)

Echoing one of the most quotable lines from my new favorite show, Dinosaur Train, a hypothesis is stated to be “an idea that you can test.”  Arguably, I do not fit the 3-6 year old demographic that the show is intended for. But who can’t help but love animated dinosaurs singing and dancing to inspire children to “get up, get outside and get into nature” (Watch the ‘Get Into Nature Song’ under Music videos).

However, what I’m really impressed with is the simplicity with which the show explains the process of scientific discovery.  Most of us were taught that proper research is only accomplished by following the scientific method. In fact, most children are still taught that today in their school science curriculum. The problem with this formal approach is that it is too formal.  As a science researcher, my experiments didn’t begin with a formal hypothesis.  They always began with my principal investigator asking me a question that I couldn’t answer.  To get the answer, I did the experiment. It was a direct cause and effect relationship, not a step-by-step process.

So, what can each of us learn from “Dinosaur Train”?  For children, it is teaching them that science doesn’t have to be a set of formal steps that you have to follow. It removes the intimidation factor and reinforces the fact that everyone can do, and is doing, scientific work. Science is just about asking questions and figuring out how to answer them.  Plus, if the Scientific Method is taught the same way as it was when I was in school, starting with a hypothesis means that you’re already predicting the outcome of the experiment.  In my education, the Hypothesis statement included the question and the answer.  This, I believe, leads to an inherent bias in the experiment. Although scientists are meant to be objective, any predictions as to the outcome of the experiment can influence the analysis stage of the experiment.  It can also influence the way in which the data are presented. Tis better to do the experiment and be pleasantly surprised by the outcome than to predict what you might see.

For scientists, “Dinosaur Train” takes us back to the basics. It reminds us of the time when science was fun. Now, it’s easy to get weighed down by the ‘publish or perish’ mentality or the demands of having to find grant funding. It also reminds us that science is about the question, whatever it may be. Children are the ultimate scientists. As much as parents might hate the never-ending ‘Why?’ question from their children, it is only through asking questions that children are able to gain knowledge.  The same applies to scientists.  If we focus on the question then it makes the act of performing the experiments so much more enjoyable. Answering the question is what got us involved in science in the first place.  We need to remember that.

For more information on childhood learning, see the NSF press release, ‘Babies are Born Scientists’ and the ‘What Do Babies Think?’ TED talk.

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2 thoughts on ““What’s a hypothesis?”

  1. Shraddha Desai, Ph.D. says:

    Interesting article Kristin. You have so aptly put my thoughts in words. I am sure there are hundreds of scientists around us who feel the same way. Fun in science seems to have vanished in this environment. I wish we could think like children and have fun in discovering things. But unfortunately, that is not the case.
    Science should not be structured but as a matter of fact it is!!!
    Thanks.

    Like

  2. Donna Kridelbaugh, MS says:

    Thanks for reminding us that science is suppose to be fun! However, I do have a comment in regards to the purpose of “doing” science, which I think is a major divide between basic and applied research. As you stated, “Science is just about asking questions and figuring out how to answer them”, which is so true, but the reason behind asking the question is very important, too. I think science education is too academia-centric with inclusion of routine, structured science labs (and I think you agree.)

    Yes, it is valuable to do such labs to learn the basic skill sets but at some point, it seems the focus should shift to “how can I ask a question that will solve a real-world problem” and then design an experiment to explore possible solutions. From grade to graduate schools, so much science is focused on basic research but little attention to the applied side with a lack of training students to think as solution creators. I am sure other disciplines (e.g., engineering) do a better job in preparing students for the applied research world, and I think the life sciences need to adopt some of these approaches. But for now, I will fall asleep counting dinosaurs and hopefully dream about the days when science was indeed a fun adventure…..

    Like

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