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Get Started with Scientific Protocols

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Scientific Protocols for research

Why Protocols?

Protocols are methods used by scientists to collect data. Scientists share information and data with each other. In order to easily compare and use data collected by others, scientists must follow the same protocols.

Protocols ensure that your data can be used for future scientific study

Initial data that you collect and record will help ecologists understand what happens over time. Your data will be used by CAP LTER scientists and other students, and you may want to use their data too. So it’s REALLY important to follow the protocols. That’s what professional scientists do.

Research follows a cycle

Ecology Explorers follows this scientific research cycle. Your first step is to use the protocols, observing and recording what’s in a particular location over a particular period of time. After looking for patterns in the data, you will ask questions, write hypotheses, and design experiments to test your hypotheses.

Ask your own questions based on the data from your protocols

To ask the most relevant questions, all scientists need some background information, including initial data. In ecology, initial data can come from doing surveys of particular areas. Once they know what’s out there — what’s flying, crawling, growing, and creeping about the area — ecologists ask, “What has caused these things to be here?” “What explains the patterns among living and non living parts of the environment?” Sometimes questions can be very specific such as, “Why is there more vegetation on the north side of the school than on the south side?”

A hypothesis is a possible explanation for what you’ve observed, It is a statement that can be tested. It is an answer to your question. For example, one might hypothesize: “More vegetation grows on the north side of a building because there is less evaporation from direct sun, providing more water for the plants.”

To test their hypotheses, ecologists design experiments focusing on particular organisms and environmental factors that might explain certain patterns in their initial data.. In our example, a good experiment would try to compare the north and south sides of the school building, focusing on the amount of sun exposure and evaporation.

Good experiments include replication to increase confidence in the results. In our example experiment, ecologists would measure sun exposure and evaporation several times in various places, perhaps at different times of day or year. They could then analyze their results by considering the average measures (mean), as well as the variation in these measures (range).

From the experimental data, scientists can draw conclusions. Can you reject your hypothesis? Do the data support your hypothesis? What further testing should be done? What new questions arise from your investigation? The end of one experiment may be just the beginning of a new scientific research cycle.

 

Map Your Research Area

Map your schoolyard or backyard

Ecologists map research sites as a first step in documenting the living and non-living aspects of an ecosystem. The map also establishes the boundaries of the research site. You’ll use your map for a variety of projects: showing your data collection locations; comparing features of your schoolyard to other schoolyards; and comparing changes to the schoolyard over time.

Obtain a preliminary map from your teacher

Obtain an aerial photograph of your school and compare it to your map.

Ground verification

Make sure your preliminary map contains the major structures (buildings, parking lots, etc.) and vegetation (trees, shrubs, etc.) at your school. You’ll need to go outside and verify that the structures and vegetation included on the preliminary map still exist and whether new ones have been added.

Try to include the following information:

  • Direction (usually north)
  • Human-made structures (sidewalks, playing fields)
  • Water sources
  • Topography
  • Traffic patterns of wildlife, people, and vehicles
  • Path of sun and wind exposure
  • Plant locations
  • Scale

For a detailed map, carefully measure the distance from known locations to new objects and then plot the new objects on your map.

 

Describe Your Research Site

Describe the past and the present condition of your research site

Why think about the past?

Ecologists study the history of a research site as they investigate why current ecological conditions exist. For example, knowing when the last fire occurred would explain certain vegetation patterns. Urban ecologists also investigate the impact of past human decisions on current ecological conditions. For example, few mature saguaro cacti are found on ASU’s “A” mountain. Without considering past human influence, you might base your explanation on natural phenomena (like soil type or exposure). By ignoring human factors, you would overlook the main reason for the lack of mature saguaro cacti: they were removed by people.

Historic events you might document

  • What was at your site before it became a school?
  • Is there a written site history?
  • When was your site transformed from desert landscape to some other use?
  • When did it become a schoolyard?
  • Who decided what plants and vegetation to plant?
  • Have parts of the schoolyard changed from the original design?

Next, think about the present

Why should you look at how your schoolyard is used and maintained? Your answers to these questions will be useful when you decide to collect data. For example, you’ll want to schedule data collection at times when pesticides are not in use. The answers also will be useful when you start analyzing data. When you describe your schoolyard, include both physical descriptions (most of these will be on your map) as well as how the schoolyard is used.

What should you know about the present?

  • Who takes care of the schoolyard?
  • Can you describe your school’s maintenance schedule?
  • How often is the grass watered and mowed?
  • How often are herbicides/pesticides used?
  • Which teachers currently use the schoolyard for class projects?
  • What areas are used by the students at recess and/or breaks?
  • Which areas are used more during specific times of the school year?
  • How do the staff and faculty use part of the schoolyard during their breaks?
  • What after-school activities use part of the schoolyard?
  • How is the schoolyard used over the school vacations?