June 12th, 2010
Experimenting with Experiments
Lesson Overview

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Grade Level: 5-8

Time Allotment: Two 45-minute class periods

Overview: Using segments from the PBS program: The Human Spark, students learn how to design and critique experiments with living subjects.  In the Introductory Activity, students explore the steps involved in designing and conducting an experiment and view a video segment of an experiment with rhesus monkeys. Students discuss the steps involved in the experiment, the ways in which the researchers controlled for variables and how the experiment could be modified. In the Learning Activity, students explore several experiments conducted with human children and chimps and compare the methodology used in each. In the Culminating Activity, students design and conduct their own experiments, present their findings to the class, and share their reflections on the process.

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to:

  • Describe the steps involved in conducting an experiment.
  • Critique other experiments.
  • Discuss how researchers control for variation in an experiment.
  • Explain the difference between controlled, dependent and independent variables.
  • Design, conduct and discuss their own experiments.


New York State Standards:

Standard Area: Math, Science & Technology/Standard MST1: Analysis, Inquiry & Design

Students will use mathematical analysis, scientific inquiry, and engineering design, as appropriate, to pose questions, seek answers, and develop solutions.

  • Key Idea MST1.SI2: Scientific Inquiry: Beyond the use of reasoning and consensus, scientific inquiry involves the testing of proposed explanations involving the use of conventional techniques and procedures and usually requiring considerable ingenuity.


  • Performance Indicator MST1.I.SI2A: Students use conventional techniques and those of their own design to make further observations and refine their explanations, guided by a need for more information.

Major Understandings: 2.1a:Demonstrate appropriate safety techniques; 2.1b: Conduct an experiment designed by others; 2.1c: Design and conduct an experiment to test a hypothesis; 2.1d: Use appropriate tools and conventional techniques to solve problems about the natural world, including: measuring, observing, describing, classifying, sequencing

  • Performance Indicator MST1.I.SI2B: Students develop, present, and defend formal research proposals for testing their own explanations of common phenomena, including ways of obtaining needed observations and ways of conducting simple controlled experiments.

Major Understandings: 2.2a Include appropriate safety procedures; 2.2b Design scientific investigations (e.g., observing, describing, and comparing; collecting samples; seeking more information, conducting a controlled experiment; discovering new objects or phenomena; making models); 2.2c: Design a simple controlled experiment; 2.2d: Identify independent variables (manipulated), dependent variables (responding), and constants in a simple controlled experiment; 2.2e: Choose appropriate sample size and number of trials.

  • Performance Indicator MST1.I.SI2C: Students carry out their research proposals, recording observations and measurements (e.g., lab notes, audiotape, computer disk, videotape) to help assess the explanation.

Major Understandings: 2.3a Use appropriate safety procedures; 2.3b Conduct a scientific investigation; 2.3c Collect quantitative and qualitative data.

National Science Education Standards

Grades 5-8:
Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Abilities Necessary To Do Scientific Inquiry
    • Identify Questions That Can Be Answered Through Scientific Investigations. Students should develop the ability to refine and refocus broad and ill-defined questions. An important aspect of this ability consists of students’ ability to clarify questions and inquiries and direct them toward objects and phenomena that can be described, explained, or predicted by scientific investigations. Students should develop the ability to identify their questions with scientific ideas, concepts, and quantitative relationships that guide investigation.
    • Design And Conduct A Scientific Investigation. Students should develop general abilities, such as systematic observation, making accurate measurements, and identifying and controlling variables. They should also develop the ability to clarify their ideas that are influencing and guiding the inquiry, and to understand how those ideas compare with current scientific knowledge. Students can learn to formulate questions, design investigations, execute investigations, interpret data, use evidence to generate explanations, propose alternative explanations, and critique explanations and procedures.
    • Use Appropriate Tools And Techniques To Gather, Analyze, And Interpret Data. The use of tools and techniques, including mathematics, will be guided by the question asked and the investigations students design. The use of computers for the collection, summary, and display of evidence is part of this standard. Students should be able to access, gather, store, retrieve, and organize data, using hardware and software designed for these purposes.
    • Develop Descriptions, Explanations, Predictions, And Models Using Evidence. Students should base their explanation on what they observed, and as they develop cognitive skills, they should be able to differentiate explanation from description—providing causes for effects and establishing relationships based on evidence and logical argument. This standard requires a subject matter knowledge base so the students can effectively conduct investigations, because developing explanations establishes connections between the content of science and the contexts within which students develop new knowledge.
    • Think Critically And Logically To Make The Relationships Between Evidence And Explanations. Thinking critically about evidence includes deciding what evidence should be used and accounting for anomalous data. Specifically, students should be able to review data from a simple experiment, summarize the data, and form a logical argument about the cause-and-effect relationships in the experiment. Students should begin to state some explanations in terms of the relationship between two or more variables.
    • Recognize And Analyze Alternative Explanations And Predictions. Students should develop the ability to listen to and respect the explanations proposed by other students. They should remain open to and acknowledge different ideas and explanations, be able to accept the skepticism of others, and consider alternative explanations.
    • Communicate Scientific Procedures And Explanations. With practice, students should become competent at communicating experimental methods, following instructions, describing observations, summarizing the results of other groups, and telling other students about investigations and explanations.
    • Use Mathematics In All Aspects Of Scientific Inquiry. Mathematics is essential to asking and answering questions about the natural world. Mathematics can be used to ask questions; to gather, organize, and present data; and to structure convincing explanations.
  • Understandings About Scientific Inquiry
    • Science advances through legitimate skepticism. Asking questions and querying other scientists’ explanations is part of scientific inquiry. Scientists evaluate the explanations proposed by other scientists by examining evidence, comparing evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations.
    • Scientific investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or procedures for an investigation, or develop new technologies to improve the collection of data. All of these results can lead to new investigations.

Media Resources

The Human Spark, selected segments

A look at an experiment where monkeys take food from humans when the humans are not looking.

A look at experiments which compare the abilities and reactions of human children and chimps.


For use by students in this lesson:

  • Neuroscience for Kids/ The Senses
    This section of the University of Washington’s website includes descriptions of different experiments involving the 5 senses, which students could use in the Culminating Activity.
  • Science Experiments for Kids
    This website provides a variety of ideas for experiments. Students could conduct the “taste without smell” or “dominant side” experiments in the Culminating Activity.

Related Resources:

    This page defines the terms “dependent,” “independent” and “controlled” variables.

  • Science Fair Experiment
  • This page outlines the experimental process in a clear and concise manner.

  • Thinking Like a Monkey
    This article on Smithsonian.com provides more details about the research presented in the Introductory Activity, highlighting Professor Laurie Santos’ experiments with monkeys.
  • Computers with internet access
  • Computer, projection screen and speakers (for class viewing of online/downloaded video segments)
  • 1 copy of the “Human vs. Chimps Discussion Guide


For the class:

Before the Lesson

Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Print out one copy of the “Human vs. Chimps Discussion Guide.”

Preview all of the video segments and websites used in the lesson.

Download the video clips used in the lesson to your classroom computer(s) or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

Bookmark all websites which you plan to use in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as delicious or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.

Inside This Lesson

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