What are the Science Skills?

To be honest, I’m not sure anyone could ever make a comprehensive list of science skills. However, the skills I list below (and talk about in more detail in my book) are fundamental to thinking and operating like a scientist; furthermore, all of them can be mastered by anyone, not just those with a scientific bent.

Here is my list:

Logical thinking. You should be able to pick out patterns and relationships, cause and effect; but you should also be aware that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. You should be aware of good logic as well as logical fallacies.

Observation. As I say in my book, good observation is the starting point for all scientific inquiry.

Unless you are a careful observer, you will never ask, “Why are things the way they are?”—you won’t really notice the way they are in the first place!”

Classification. This helps you make sense of your observations.

People often make the mistake of thinking that classification skills are used only in biology for the taxonomy of living things. Actually, there are examples in all branches of science. In earth science, we often classify rocks, minerals, landforms, and clouds. In chemistry, we classify chemicals by their functional groups, properties, and/or position on the periodic table. In physics, we classify sub-atomic particles, simple machines, and so on.

Record Keeping.You have to learn to keep good records so that others can reproduce what you’ve done. Reproducibility is an essential part of science because the principles of science are true for everyone.

This is where accurate record keeping comes into play. In order to reproduce an experiment, researchers have to be able to do exactly what the original researcher did. If they don’t get exactly the same result, they can go back over the records of what the first scientist did (and what they did themselves—they will be keeping records too!)and figure out what went wrong.

I've come up with five skills related to the Scientific Method—Asking Questions, Researching, Forming Hypotheses, Analyzing Data, and Drawing Conclusions.

The first, asking questions, can either be very easy or very hard. Kids doing a science fair project, for example, frequently have trouble figuring out what they want to study. They might come up with a topic—“I like mushrooms” for example—but what, exactly, do they want to study about mushrooms? Sometimes you have to observe your topic of study for a while before you can ask a good question about it.

Next you need to know how to research to find out what is already known about the topic. Learning how to search the literature is a skill that every graduate student struggles to master. Not only do you need to read what others have written about the topic, you need to be able to analyze their studies critically to see how much merit you can give to their conclusions. (Indeed, my father once told me that an in-depth literature search is a great way to come up with questions to be answered.)

Once you have a question and some background information you can attempt to form a hypothesis (Note that when you are at the cutting edge of science you sometimes just have to experiment blindly until you get some data to base a hypothesis on!) A hypothesis is not just a guess; it’s an educated guess.

Now you need to know how to analyze your data with a critical eye. The fundamentals of this are taught in statistics and other similar classes, but the best way to learn this is to work in partnership with a more experienced scientist. (In fact, this is a lot of what you do in a Ph.D. program!) Have you controlled all of your variables as explained below? How do you know if that one “weird point” is a fluke you can write off or something statistically significant? Can you really trust your numbers?

Finally, you get to draw a conclusion. What is your data really trying to tell you? Does it answer your question, once and for all? Or, more likely, does it just give you an approximate idea of the answer and tell you what your next experiment needs to be?

When you understand the basics of how the scientific method works, you can move on to trying to master the basic skills involved with Experimental Design: Controlling Variables (and using control groups), Sample Selection, and Eliminating Bias.

I address how to learn (and teach) these skills in my book.