In science, an experiment is simply a test of a hypothesis in the scientific method. It is a controlled examination of cause and effect. Here is a look at what a science experiment is (and is not), the key factors in an experiment, examples, and types of experiments.
Experiment Definition in Science
By definition, an experiment is a procedure that tests a hypothesis. A hypothesis, in turn, is a prediction of cause and effect or the predicted outcome of changing one factor of a situation. Both the hypothesis and experiment are components of the scientific method. The steps of the scientific method are:
- Make observations.
- Ask a question or identify a problem.
- State a hypothesis.
- Perform an experiment that tests the hypothesis.
- Based on the results of the experiment, either accept or reject the hypothesis.
- Draw conclusions and report the outcome of the experiment.
Key Parts of an Experiment
The two key parts of an experiment are the independent and dependent variables. The independent variable is the one factor that you control or change in an experiment. The dependent variable is the factor that you measure that responds to the independent variable. An experiment often includes other types of variables, but at its heart, it’s all about the relationship between the independent and dependent variable.
Examples of Experiments
Fertilizer and Plant Size
For example, you think a certain fertilizer helps plants grow better. You’ve watched your plants grow and they seem to do better when they have the fertilizer compared to when they don’t. But, observations are only the beginning of science. So, you state a hypothesis: Adding fertilizer increases plant size. Note, you could have stated the hypothesis in different ways. Maybe you think the fertilizer increases plant mass or fruit production, for example. However you state the hypothesis, it includes both the independent and dependent variables. In this case, the independent variable is the presence or absence of fertilizer. The dependent variable is the response to the independent variable, which is the size of the plants.
Now that you have a hypothesis, the next step is designing an experiment that tests it. Experimental design is very important because the way you conduct an experiment influences its outcome. For example, if you use too small of an amount of fertilizer you may see no effect from the treatment. Or, if you dump an entire container of fertilizer on a plant you could kill it! So, recording the steps of the experiment help you judge the outcome of the experiment and aid others who come after you and examine your work. Other factors that might influence your results might include the species of plant and duration of the treatment. Record any conditions that might affect the outcome. Ideally, you want the only difference between your two groups of plants to be whether or not they receive fertilizer. Then, measure the height of the plants and see if there is a difference between the two groups.
Salt and Cookies
You don’t need a lab for an experiment. For example, consider a baking experiment. Let’s say you like the flavor of salt in your cookies, but you’re pretty sure the batch you made using extra salt fell a bit flat. If you double the amount of salt in a recipe, will it affect their size? Here, the independent variable is the amount of salt in the recipe and the dependent variable is cookie size.
Test this hypothesis with an experiment. Bake cookies using the normal recipe (your control group) and bake some using twice the salt (the experimental group). Make sure it’s the exact same recipe. Bake the cookies at the same temperature and for the same time. Only change the amount of salt in the recipe. Then measure the height or diameter of the cookies and decide whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.
Examples of Things That Are Not Experiments
Based on the examples of experiments, you should see what is not an experiment:
- Making observations does not constitute an experiment. Initial observations often lead to an experiment, but are not a substitute for one.
- Making a model is not an experiment.
- Neither is making a poster.
- Just trying something to see what happens is not an experiment. You need a hypothesis or prediction about the outcome.
- Changing a lot of things at once isn’t an experiment. You only have one independent and one dependent variable. However, in an experiment, you might suspect the independent variable has an effect on a separate. So, you design a new experiment to test this.
Types of Experiments
There are three main types of experiments: controlled experiments, natural experiments, and field experiments,
- Controlled experiment: A controlled experiment compares two groups of samples that differ only in independent variable. For example, a drug trial compares the effect of a group taking a placebo (control group) against those getting the drug (the treatment group). Experiments in a lab or home generally are controlled experiments
- Natural experiment: Another name for a natural experiment is a quasi-experiment. In this type of experiment, the researcher does not directly control the independent variable, plus there may be other variables at play. Here, the goal is establishing a correlation between the independent and dependent variable. For example, in the formation of new elements a scientist hypothesizes that a certain collision between particles creates a new atom. But, other outcomes may be possible. Or, perhaps only decay products are observed that indicate the element, and not the new atom itself. Many fields of science rely on natural experiments, since controlled experiments aren’t always possible.
- Field experiment: While a controlled experiments takes place in a lab or other controlled setting, a field experiment occurs in a natural setting. Some phenomena cannot be readily studied in a lab or else the setting exerts an influence that affects the results. So, a field experiment may have higher validity. However, since the setting is not controlled, it is also subject to external factors and potential contamination. For example, if you study whether a certain plumage color affects bird mate selection, a field experiment in a natural environment eliminates the stressors of an artificial environment. Yet, other factors that could be controlled in a lab may influence results. For example, nutrition and health are controlled in a lab, but not in the field.
- Bailey, R.A. (2008). Design of Comparative Experiments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521683579.
- di Francia, G. Toraldo (1981). The Investigation of the Physical World. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29925-X.
- Hinkelmann, Klaus; Kempthorne, Oscar (2008). Design and Analysis of Experiments. Volume I: Introduction to Experimental Design (2nd ed.). Wiley. ISBN 978-0-471-72756-9.
- Holland, Paul W. (December 1986). “Statistics and Causal Inference”. Journal of the American Statistical Association. 81 (396): 945–960. doi:10.2307/2289064
- Stohr-Hunt, Patricia (1996). “An Analysis of Frequency of Hands-on Experience and Science Achievement”. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 33 (1): 101–109. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1098-2736(199601)33:1<101::AID-TEA6>3.0.CO;2-Z