How to be a scientist

Australian Curriculum Year Level: Foundation (Prep)

Strand: Science Inquiry Skills

Content descriptors:

Pose and respond to questions about familiar objects and events (ACSIS014) 

Participate in guided investigations and make observations using the senses (ACSIS011) 

Engage in discussions about observations and represent ideas (ACSIS233) 

Share observations and ideas (ACSIS012)

I was visiting one of my nephews recently for his 10th birthday, and we got chatting about science. For the last few years, despite his mixed feeling about school in general, TJ has made many comments to the effect of wanting to be a scientist when he grows up. 

An admirable aspiration, to be sure, but I was curious to find out his interpretation of what a scientist actually does. So, I questioned him a little about what he thought all scientists had in common. His immediate response was that they were all really smart. TJ was obviously disheartened by his own response and it was not the line of thinking I was after, so I changed tack.

“While it does help to be smart, it’s actually not the most important thing about being a scientist,” I said. “What do you think scientists do?”

“They discover and invent things,” TJ replied.

Now we were back on track, it was easy to lead him with questions to deconstruct the idea of being a scientist from discovering things, to making predictions (very happy he knew about predictions!), to wanting to “know stuff”. From there it only took a tiny nudge for him to recognise the importance of asking questions as a scientist. 

Curiosity and the drive to find out more is a key personality trait of every scientist I have ever met. Every great discovery, and all of the little ones too, starts with a question. Sometimes one question turns into a rabbit hole of research, each answer turning up a dozen more questions begging for investigation. 

Why is the male Superb Fairy-wren more brightly coloured than the female?

Kids are naturally curious and full of questions. “What is it?” “Why is it like that?” “What would happen if…?” Most scientific research starts with something similar. Sure, the grownups refine their questions and phrase them in such a way as to test them in a valid and reliable manner, but the essence is the same.

Why is the mud green? Is it alive?

Once you have a question, being a scientist becomes about finding out the answer. The simplest way of getting an answer is to ask someone. But the person you ask does not always know. Sometimes you need to be able to find the answer out for yourself. And when you’re not sure, sometimes, the best way to figure it out is just to try some things and see what happens. While this method requires some refinement before it would be considered scientific, it is the basic idea behind experimentation. 

But there is more to being a scientist than just finding the answer. You need to be able to back up your discoveries and show others what happened, so that your discovery is credible. And what is the point of making a credible discovery if you don’t share that information with others?

What are the similarities and differences between dogs and dingos?

The Australian Curriculum has recognised these fundamental scientific skills and introduces them at the foundation (prep) level. To paraphrase the content descriptors above, to be a good scientist you need to be curious and ask lots of questions about the world (and universe) around you. You need to be able to find the answers to your questions through investigation and experimentation and be able to present what you found out in a meaningful way. You must also be able to share your discoveries and new ideas with others so that your findings are open to scrutiny as well as providing new knowledge and understanding for others. 

While it pleases me that the fundamentals of being a scientist are introduced in the classroom at the very beginning of schooling, these core traits can be encouraged in kids of all ages (even the grownup ones) at home and when they are out and about. No special equipment is required. All you need is the ability to go outside and look and listen. And when you notice something, listen to the question that pops briefly into your head. Listen, remember it and then try to find the answer to that question.

Happy questioning!