Thinking Like a Scientist

The R.E. Mountain Science Department is implementing an authentic experimentation theme in all classes at all levels.   The unofficial slogan has been “Thinking Like a Scientist.”  The primary focus of this initiative has been on Science processes, not only outcomes.  We are trying to help students learn to work as a scientist, not simply use the results of the past.  Labs are open ended rather than followed like a recipe. Problems are presented and equipment provided. Students have to use their scientific skills and knowledge to solve these problems. This differs significantly from providing students with a list of resources and an instruction sheet that might lead the into determining an outcome. As this is a new initiative for us and many of our students and many of our teachers have not done this in a class before there have been some successes, some things to work on and modifications along the way.

The department has excellent support from our administration.  We were finding that the unscripted nature of the students experiments, and that many classes were conducting more experiments was putting a great strain on our equipment and resources.   Our budget has been increased to help us meet these challenges.  The Lab Technician at our school has been a significant advantage in this work.

We are working with rubrics that are trying to emphasize process and academic attitude. In addition, testing is done in a cumulative manner building on previous knowledge in each unit.


A survey was taken of 250 students asking them about their experience with being given open/self-designed experiments.

For self designed experiments, the comments of the positive, neutral and negative students were very similar. Positive comments centered around creativity, freedom and challenge:

  • In self-designed experiments, research is involved. Because of that, we can self-teach ourselves things that weren’t mentioned in class.
  • Self-designed experiments provide an open application of knowledge in your own unique way. It’s one of the few things we have in our current program that allow for a lot of flexibility and application in ones own way allowing for them to reach further.
  • With premade experiments, it’s easy to get an ‘A’ without actually knowing what you are doing. On the other hand, self-designed experiments force you to understand and know what you are doing for that ‘A’. Also, the major concepts of the lab sticks in your head better during tests.
  • They help us to work both independently and in groups by making us use our problem-solving skills.
  • A student gets the chance to explore and get an even further hands-on experience while learning something.
  • Allows a person to test their own hypothesis and design the procedure of the experiment
  • Students can learn how to construct something that they can get a lot of information out of, and for some people physically making an experiment helps them understand what they are learning much better.
  • Instead of relying on the textbook, making our own benefits our ability to build and understand the concept of what is expected and what is needed.
  • It’s exciting!
  • You get to decide on what the experiment focuses on
  • They help you to better understand the content taught in a more hands-on learning style that allows you to work out what you don’t understand about the material better than what is in a pre-designed lab.

Students also had some complaints.  It was a lot more work and things didn’t always work out.   We need to communicate better that this is the scientific experience.  Things usually don’t work out, and that’s how we learn.  Many students are still thinking that to be successful, an experiment has to confirm the hypothesis.  As teachers, we need to reinforce the importance of process over results.  We need to emphasize that part of science is learning what others have figured out, but a bigger part is figuring out new things.  That is a difficult skill that takes a lot of work and practice. Comments:

  • I don’t want to do the work
  • Very confusing to begin with. Direction of experiment might be quite cloudy when beginning
  • You won’t know if it will be helpful for the exam
  • May not know where to start.
  • It’s hard to design a lab from scratch
  • There isn’t a criteria. You are free to do what you want as long as it relates to the topic. But you aren’t sure if the teacher will agree and sometimes you just want them to tell you want they want to get a perfect score
  • If you aren’t as creative and you can’t think of any ideas, no matter how smart you are it will hold you back.
  • It’s hard and doesn’t always work

Looking at the results as a whole, the department is quite happy for a first year, where the majority of the science teachers are trying this approach.  We are fine with students complaining that things are too hard and that they are required to think.

In the future, we will have to look at how we are presenting the rationale for what we are doing.  It will be interesting to see if the survey shows a difference in future years as students have been exposed to this for several years.

Recommendations for our department:

  • Become more explicit in explaining to students what we are trying to accomplish.
  • Keep working to make testing a more formative, teaching process.
  • Show in our explanations and in our assessment that we are trying to examine science skills and experimental process, not results in our authentic experiments.


R.E. Mountain Secondary

7633 202A Street, Langley
BC, V2Y 1W4
Phone: 604-888-3033
Fax: 604-888-2873