Drowning in information? Stay afloat with these tips on scientific research

The two most basic approaches to scientific research are to find and use only credible sources and to think critically about any source of information. These approaches are vital life rings in the ocean of information.

The dreaded “research paper” is the bane of many youth and their parents. In this age of the Internet, today’s youth are bombarded with online information. The Internet contains over 800 million individual web pages, but only about 6 percent of them are educational or academic. However, the credibility of even some of the so-called educational sources is very questionable. When engaging youth in science, we need to help them find credible resources or determine if a resource is credible.

Before beginning any research, youth should determine their purpose. Research papers today are not strictly limited to informational topics. They could be assigned to support a certain viewpoint, explore new ideas or show various opinions about a topic. Determining the purpose indicates the kind of information needed. Research for informational papers should focus on websites ending in .org, .gov or .edu while a paper exploring opinions may include commercial or .com sites that are likely to have a specific slant or bias; after all, they are generally designed to promote themselves.

Regardless of the direction of the research paper, it is vital to think critically about any source of information you find. Many universities, for example the University of Maryland or UC Berkeley, have designed criteria for evaluating websites. These checklists or criteria can be a great way to help youth think critically about Internet sources. After determining that a particular website is a good resource, it’s time to analyze the actual article or information.

First, check out the author. Are they an authority on the topic they are addressing or simply writing about the topic? Just because someone has a Dr. or Ph.D. attached to their name does not make them an authority in all fields. Would you trust a doctor of entomology (bug doctor) to diagnose a heart attack? No! Remember, think critically. Second, read the article to identify the assumptions the writer has made. What information is implied, but is not really there? Next, try identifying the author’s bias. How does the writer approach the topic? Is he or she for or against the premise? Then consider the parts you agree or disagree with and why. Lastly, think about what the article makes you want to do. Do you want to become a vegetarian after reading one article about how chickens are raised? If so, you have likely read an article written with an emotional bias.

The two most basic approaches to scientific research, especially in this Internet age, are to find and use only credible sources and to think critically by identifying assumptions, emotional bias and the “authority” of the author. These approaches are vital life rings in the ocean of information.

For current science information written for middle school students, check out the Student Science page of Science News. For high school students, try Scitable from Nature Education. For more information about websites, read “Finding accurate information on the Internet” by Michigan State University Extension.

To learn more about helping youth develop science understanding, visit the National 4-H Science Building Understanding, Inquiry-Based Learning and the MSU Extension Science & Technology websites. 

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