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Working Scientifically

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The Combined Science: Synergy course contains eight topics, split into Life Science and Physical Sciences. But there's also a ninth topic. Unlike the others, it's not focused on learning content and mastering concepts. Instead, it's about how science works. It's incorporated within all the other topics, so you'll have mastered what it means to work scientifically by the end of your course. Working Scientifically is about the process and application of science. Knowing how to work scientifically is a valuable, transferable skill.


Working Scientifically: Meaning

Working scientifically comprises all the activities that scientists do.

Working scientifically isn't about content and remembering facts. Instead, it's built into every other topic. It is about the application and process of science. The activities that follow this process and the skills which you will gain are as follows:

  • Research - compiling existing information to find new conclusions and ideas

    • This encompasses scientific thinking, and the following skills will be gained:

      • Understanding how scientific methods and theories are developed and how they change over time

      • Understanding the differences between models, predictions and explanations

      • Being aware of any limitations and ethical issues in scientific experimentation

      • Understanding the everyday applications of science, including the implications of new discoveries and how this may affect decision-making

      • Evaluating risks associated with science

      • Understanding the importance of peer review and communication

  • Designing, planning, and carrying out experiments - using the scientific method to establish facts through testing

    • Experimental skills and strategies are learned during this part of the scientific method; other skills that you will adopt are:

      • Understanding the scientific process, from a hypothesis to an established theory

      • Planning experiments to make observations, synthesise materials, test hypotheses or explore a theory

      • Applying knowledge of scientific techniques and apparatus

      • Being aware of experiment health and safety concerns

      • Using a range of appropriate sampling techniques

      • Recording accurate observations

      • Evaluating your experiment and suggest improvements for the future

For more information on the scientific method, check out our article on hypotheses and predictions.

  • Analysing and presenting data from their experiments - the use of statistics and appropriate charts

    • Evaluating your experiments and the data from this is an important skill any scientist should have; additional skills obtained are:

      • Presenting data by creating tables and plotting graphs

      • Translating data from numerical to graphical form

      • Analysing your data

      • Acknowledging the distribution and uncertainty of your data

      • Interpreting observations, trends and conclusions

      • Writing reasoned explanations for your results

      • Being objective - acknowledge errors, accuracy and precision

      • Communicating your findings

  • Writing reports - communicating their findings to the rest of the world

    • Learning the correct nomenclature (system of terms used in a particular science) is a valuable skill to have that will help with scientific communication; other skills are:

      • Using suitable scientific vocabulary

      • Understanding quantities and their determination

      • Using appropriate SI units and chemical nomenclature

      • Using prefixes, powers of ten, and orders of magnitude

      • Interconvert units

      • Using an appropriate amount of significant figures

        SI is an abbreviation for the International System of Units. This standardised metric system is used around the world.

Importance of Working Scientifically

Incorporating scientific applications and processes into your studies can help you better understand science. Public knowledge of science is essential. It helps people make informed decisions about their health, purchases and habits. Furthermore, a deeper understanding will help you appreciate new scientific innovations and be aware of their limitations. Science doesn't come with guidelines, so any moral or ethical concerns must be considered before an experiment. Knowing how to work scientifically has benefits in the exam hall and outside of education.

Academic Benefits

Working scientifically is tightly woven into the Synergy course. Your exam papers will contain questions about the scientific process and experiments. Additionally, you'll need to interpret, analyse and present data. So, understanding the scientific method will help you get those extra marks during your exams!

Career Benefits

The skills you pick up when studying science are transferable - they can be applied to various types of careers. Problem-solving, presentation and teamwork are essential skills in the workplace.

Common Errors When Working Scientifically

A few terms related to working scientifically often present a challenge for students.

Determining Reproducibility and Repeatability

These terms are similar but have an important distinction.

An experiment is reproducible if it is repeated by another person (or differing equipment or techniques) and the same results are obtained.

An experiment is repeatable if the original scientist repeats their investigation using the same equipment and techniques and obtains the same results.

To summarise, your experiment is repeatable if you carry it out again, but it's reproducible if someone else carries it out.

Mixing up reproducibility and repeatability could affect the experiment's precision. If the results of an investigation are not precise, the hypothesis may be rejected incorrectly.

Variables in Science

A variable is any factor that can affect an experiment. There are three types of variables in science.

The independent variable is the factor that you change.

The dependent variable is the factor that you measure.

The control variables are the factors that you keep the same.

Every experiment has an independent variable, a dependent variable, and multiple control variables.

You are investigating how salt concentration affects osmosis. Identical chunks of potato are placed in salt water of various concentrations. After a fixed time, they are weighed to assess the effects of osmosis.

  • The independent variable = salt concentration
  • The dependent variable = mass of potato
  • The control variables = initial mass and shape of potato chunk, volume of water, time period

If you can't tell your variables apart, you might measure the wrong factor!

It's essential to keep your control variables the same. Otherwise, they may impact your results. Furthermore, it's important to know your variables when plotting a graph.

When plotting a suitable graph, the independent variable always goes on the x-axis.

Working Scientifically temperature control variable StudySmarterTemperature is an important control variable that is often forgotten, unsplash.com

Examples of Different Types of Scientific Enquiry

What is a scientific enquiry? Well, the term refers to the methods that scientists use to find answers to their questions. There are five different types of scientific enquiry.

Scientific EnquiryDefinitionExample QuestionExample Method
Observation Over TimeA material or organism is observed over a fixed period, and any changes are monitored.How do shadows change during the day?Measure the dimensions of a shadow every hour to see how they change over the course of a day.
Pattern SeekingScientists gather lots of data and then analyse it to find patterns.Do taller people have longer noses?Measure the heights and nose lengths of a large group of people.
Identifying, Grouping and ClassifyingMaterials or organisms are categorised and then analysed within these groups.Does an animal's food preference affect its teeth?Categorise animals into groups (herbivore, omnivore and carnivore) and study the teeth of these three groups.
ResearchSometimes your scientific question has already been answered. Information is available in books, journal articles and online.Why is the sky blue?Head to your local library or log onto the internet.
Comparative TestingScientists perform an experiment. A variable is changed to see how it affects another variable.Do plants grow taller when they are kept in the dark?
  1. Grow two plants.
  2. Keep one in the light, and one in the dark.
  3. Measure their height every week.

Working Scientifically - Key takeaways

  • Working scientifically comprises all the activities that scientists do. Understanding how to work scientifically will improve exam performance and provide transferable skills.

  • Students often mix up reproducibility and repeatability. Make sure that you know the difference.

  • There are three types of variables in science: independent variables (which are changed), dependent variables (which are measured) and control variables (which are kept the same).

  • A scientific enquiry refers to how a scientist answers a question. There are five types of scientific enquiry: observation over time, pattern-seeking, identifying/grouping/classifying, research and testing.

  • In Combined Science: Synergy, Working Scientifically is split into four sections. Each will provide you with the skills and knowledge to ace your exams!


1. Anne Marie Helmenstine, What Is a Variable in Science?, ThoughtCo, 2020

2. AQA, GCSE Biology: Required practical activities, 2015

3. AQA, GCSE Combined Science: Synergy Specification, 2019

4. AQA, Subject Specific Vocabulary, 2022

5. Diedre Ribbens, 10 real-world skills scientists bring to the workplace, ASBMB Today, 2017

6. St John Fisher Primary, Types of Scientific Enquiry, 2020

7. Steven J. Breckler, Public understanding of science, American Psychological Assocation, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions about Working Scientifically

Thinking and working scientifically is a useful skill. It covers a variety of activities and will help you get extra marks during your exams.

The five main types of scientific enquiry are observation over time, pattern seeking, identifying/grouping/classifying, research, and comparative testing.

An experiment is reproducible if it is repeated by another person, and they obtain the same results. An experiment is repeatable if the original scientist carries out their experiment again, and they obtain the same results.

Working scientifically will help you achieve good grades in your exams. It will also provide transferable skills that are useful in later life.

No - scientific enquiry is the method that scientists use to answer their questions. Working scientifically comprises all the different activities that scientists do.

You can repeat your own experiment several times to determine repeatability. To determine reproducibility, let other people carry out your experiment.

Final Working Scientifically Quiz

Question

An experiment is considered repeatable. What does this mean?

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Answer

If you were to perform the experiment again, you would get the same results.

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Question

What do valid results do?

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Answer

Valid results answer the original question or prediction.

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Question

What is a variable?

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Answer

A variable is a feature or quality that varies in an experiment.

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Question

This variable is changed by the researcher.

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Answer

Independent variable

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Question

This variable is measured by the researcher.

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Answer

Dependent variable

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Question

This unwanted variable is regulated to prevent it from influencing the results.

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Control variable

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Question

Why are control groups used?

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Answer

It can be difficult to regulate all control variables, especially in the field.

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Question

What is a placebo?

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Answer

A placebo is a fake treatment, often made to resemble the drug being trialled.

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Question

When plotting a graph, which axis does the independent variable go on?

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Answer

X-axis

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When plotting a graph, which axis does the dependent variable go on?

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Answer

Y-axis

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Question

The y-axis goes across and the x-axis goes up. True or false?

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Answer

False

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Question

Which of these is a useful guideline for planning an experiment?

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Answer

Use of appropriate apparatus, equipment and scientific techniques

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How many independent variables should an experiment have?

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Answer

1

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Experiments should produce accurate and precise results. True or false?

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Answer

True

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Can experiments have more than one dependent variable?

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Answer

Yes

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Question

What is a hazard?

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A hazard is something that could potentially cause harm.

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What is risk?

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Risk is about the possibilities associated with a hazard. 

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How can you estimate the size of a risk?

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Estimating the size of a risk is based on how frequently the problem occurs in a big sample over a given period.

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What is a risk factor?

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A risk factor is something that increases the chances of developing a disease.

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Question

Name some risk factors for cancer.

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Answer

Smoking, obesity, genetic predisposition, age.

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Name some risk factors for heart disease.

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High cholesterol and blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, and age.

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What is osteoporosis?

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Answer

Osteoporosis is a condition that weakens your bones, making them fragile and more susceptible to breaking.

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What should we consider before taking part in hazardous activities?

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Answer

The chance of the hazard causing harm and how serious the consequences would be.

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People are more willing to accept risks if they do not have a choice. True or false?

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Answer

False

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Question

What are the potential risks associated with chemicals during a science experiment?

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Answer

Chemicals can damage your skin and eyes. They can also ignite easily.

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How could you prevent chemical burns during a science experiment?

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Answer

Eye protection and gloves

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Question

What is geoengineering?

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Answer

Geoengineering is the use of technology to alter the Earth's climate.

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What is synthetic biology?

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Answer

Synthetic biology is the creation of biological tools and systems.

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What is the major risk associated with distributed manufacturing?

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Answer

Security concerns

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Question

People often underestimate the risk of activities with long-term or invisible effects. True or false?


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True

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What is communication in science?

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Communication in science refers to the transmission of ideas, methods and knowledge to non-experts in an accessible and useful way.

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Which of the following is not a key principle of science communication?

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Career enhancement

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Question

Where do scientists publish their articles?

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Answer

Scientists publish their articles in academic journals.

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What is bias?

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Answer

Bias is a movement away from the truth at any stage in the experiment process. 

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Bias is always intentional. True or false?

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False

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How do scientists reduce bias?

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Answer

Scientists peer review each other's articles to check the work and look for bias.

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Why are scientific discoveries often misinterpreted in media?

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Answer

The presentation of discoveries in media is often oversimplified or inaccurate.

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Question

Which of the following charts displays the frequency of categorical data?

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Answer

Pie chart

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What are significant figures?

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Answer

Significant figures are the first important digits after zero.

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What is the mean?

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The mean is the average of a set of numbers.

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What is the range?

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The range is the difference between the smallest number and the largest number in a set.

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What is a hypothesis?

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A hypothesis is an explanation that leads to a testable prediction.

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What is an anomalous result?

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An anomalous result doesn't fit with the rest of your results

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What does precision measure?

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Answer

Precision measures how close measurements are to each other.

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What chart is suitable for displaying continuous data?

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Answer

Scatter plot

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Question

What is observation in the scientific process?

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Answer

Observation is the research stage.

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Question

What is a hypothesis? 

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Answer

A hypothesis is an explanation that leads to a testable prediction

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Question

What is a prediction?

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Answer

A prediction is an outcome that is expected if the hypothesis is true.

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Question

What words are typically used in predictions?

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Answer

If

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Question

What comes first?

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Answer

Hypothesis

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