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Professional scientists tend to be strongly motivated by curiosity.
If you tell a scientist something new and intriguing such as, “Your skin is covered with beneficial bacteria,” immediately the scientist will have several questions including:
- Is that really true? (Scientists often question facts. They like to see proof! Non-scientists sometimes find this to be an obnoxious trait in scientists. However, other scientists are accustomed to being doubted and expect to have to supply proof.)
- What kinds of bacteria?
- What are they doing?
These questions could be the first steps of a scientific study. However, really unusual, creative, original scientific questions are what advance progress in science. These often come about by focusing single-mindedly and intensely on a topic. Try this by using an exercise called “Twenty-five Questions,” which is used by tropical field ecologist Barbara Bentley when she and her students want to come up with new ideas for research in Costa Rica.
- Open a new page of your lab notebook and number the lines 1-25.
- Look at the clock. You have fifteen minutes!
- Start writing down questions about the bacteria on your skin.
- It is OK if you use the three questions suggested here. (Is it true? What kind? What are they doing?)
- Keep going! You may have to ask something really specific. Don’t worry about not knowing what might be true about body bacteria.
- Keep going! If a question sounds a little crazy such as, “Can my body bacteria communicate with each other?” go ahead ask it anyway!
- Look at the clock and keep going. Getting to question 18 might be possible. Push hard to get past that number. You MUST get to 25!
- Your last few questions may be out of desperation! How creative can you be?
- Fifteen minutes are over. Get into a small group of 4-5 students and take turns reading out loud the questions. (For example, everyone reads their question #1 and then #2, etc.). If you like another student’s question, write it down in your notebook.
- Look at your list and choose the 4-5 most interesting questions. Let one or more of those be the starting point for inquiries and research. On a new page in your notebook, start some reading notes. Then get onto the Internet or go to the library or talk with your teacher.
Here are some examples:
- Can my body bacteria communicate with each other?
- What do I mean by “communication”? With sounds? With smells?
- Sound is a sort of vibration. Can bacteria detect vibrations? Can they produce vibrations?
- Smell is a sort of detection of chemicals. Can bacteria identify any chemicals? Can they produce chemicals?
- Food is a chemical material. Waste products are too. Could there be any communications between my body bacteria concerning foods and wastes?
Some of your questions will generate search words that may be used to look up information either with search engines or in the index of a book.
Some of your questions may generate ideas for lab experiments. For example, “Can I find something in the lab that generates vibrations? A tuning fork, perhaps?”