The methods section should describe in detail how your study was performed. Ideally, after reading your methods section another student should be able to duplicate your study. According to the JEI website, a methods section should
“describe the methods in enough detail such that a different scientist could perform the same experiments and obtain the same results.”
Remember when writing your methods section that the main purpose of this section is to help you answer your research question and refute or support your hypothesis. This purpose should be clear to your readers.
It’s a good idea when writing the methods sections in middle school to use sub-headings. For example, you might have a sub-heading for “Study Site,” which describes the areas (or areas) where your research took place. You might also have a sub-heading for “Subjects,” which describes the animals or plants used in the study. You might have a sub-heading for “Reagents” if your study requires the use of many chemicals. You might also have a separate sub-heading for “Equipment” or “Apparatus” if your study requires the use of different types of specialized instruments. Many studies also have a sub-heading for “Procedures” for when specific step-by-step procedures are to be followed during the research.
About the Procedures
You don’t have to go into detail about standard, well-understood actions such as measuring a temperature with a thermometer or finding the mass of a substance on an electric balance. Also, if you find or think of a way do something in your procedure to minimize an anticipated errors, it’s a great idea to mention this. For example, if a student is planning to record the change of temperature of a beaker of hot water left inside of a room kept at 20 degrees C, he/she might be worried about someone opening a window if it’s a particularly cold day outside. Therefore, in their method section this student might write: “Be sure to close all doors and windows to reduce the affect of cold air on temperature of the water inside of the beaker.” Finally, be sure to clearly state how you will collect all of your data. Try to specify what measuring device(s) you will use, what data you will record, and when (and where) you will record it? Try also to specify what observations will you look for (e.g., a color change) and what will you do when you see this observation happen?
Materials: To list or not to list?
Many middle school students like to list the materials used during the study separately, for example, as lists or in bulleted points. However, whenever possible, the different materials used during the experiment should instead be mentioned within the description of the context of the experiment itself. For example, a scientist might write a sentence like this in his/her methods section: “Seeds were placed in standard plastic Petri dishes lined with two layers of moistened paper towel and kept for 24 hours at 20C.”
Sometimes in middle school, it is a good idea to include a special section devoted to safety concerns, especially when things like dangerous chemicals, glassware, hot plates, electricity and/or boiling liquids are being used.
Here’s an example of a Methods section from the Blackawton Bees Experiment, which was designed, performed and written up by 10-year-old science students in England…
(a) The bee arena
The bee arena, which was made out of Plexiglas, had six sides. The arena was 1m high, 1m wide and 1 m deep, and two of the side panels had three doors each. It had a vertical lightbox at the end opposite the side through which the bees entered by a small hole. The lightbox was made out of aluminium, with a Plexiglas screen in front of the six fluorescent lights. An aluminium cross was placed in front of the Plexiglas screen, and this cross had grooves in its sides so that we could slide four black aluminium panels into the cross. Each panel had 16 cut-out circular holes in four rows of four circles each. Each circle was 8 cm in diameter. The holes were covered by the Plexiglas screen. In the centre of each circle was a Plexiglas rod with a small hole in the middle in which we put sugar water, salt water or nothing. Behind each hole there were slits so that squares of coloured gel filters could be slotted in, making the light shining through each hole coloured. It was like putting a piece of coloured see-through paper on a light to let the colour of the paper shine through.
(b) The bees
The bees had black and yellow stripes with white bottoms. The type of bee was Bombus terrestris. The beehive was delivered from Koppert (UK).
(c) Training phase 1
To teach the bees to go to the Plexiglas rods as if they were flowers, all the circles in every panel were kept white, and all the rods had sugar water in them. Once the labelled foragers learned that the flowers contained a reward, which took four days, we marked the bees, and then set up the puzzle.
(d) Marking bees
We let the foragers into the arena and turned the lights off, which made the bees stop flying (because they do not want to fly into anything). We picked the bees up with bee tweezers and put them into a pot with a lid. We then put the tube with the bees in it into the school’s fridge (and made bee pie ). The bees fell asleep. Once they fell asleep, we took the bees out, one at a time, and painted little dots on them (yellow, blue, orange, blue-orange, blue-yellow, etc.). We put them into the tube and warmed them up and then let them into the arena. No bees were harmed during this procedure.
(e) Training phase 2 (‘the puzzle’ . . .duh duh duuuuhhh)
We set up a puzzle for the bees as in the following. Imagine having a panel with 16 circles, with a large square of 12 yellow circles on the outside and a small square of four blue circles in the middle. This was the case for two panels, but the other two panels were the opposite, and instead of yellow on the outside as the larger square and blue on the inside as the smaller square, we had blue on the outside and yellow on the inside. The sugar reward (1 : 1 with water) was only in the middle four flowers inside each panel of 16 flowers. Every 10–40 min, we swapped the locations of the panels around the different quadrants so that the bees could not learn the locations of the rewarding flowers. We also cleaned the Plexiglas stems so that the bees could not use scent to tell the other bees that flower had the reward. Instead they had to learn: if there was blue on the outside ring of each panel of 16 circles, then they had to go to the inner four yellow circles. If, however, there was yellow on the outside ring, then they had to go to the inner four blue circles. During the first 2 days of training, sugar water was placed only in the four middle flowers in each panel and nothing in the outside ring (so that they would get the hang of it). During the second 2 days we added salt water to the flowers in the outside rings. We did this so that they would learn not to go just to the colours, but had to learn the pattern. Otherwise they might fail the test, and it would be a disaster. After training, we tested the bees to see if they solved the puzzle.
(f) Testing the bees
We tested the bees using the same pattern of colours, but without sugar water or salt water, to see which flowers they would go to. We also moved the locations of the panels so that the layout was different from when they were just trained. We let the labelled foragers into the arena one at a time so that they would not copy each other (as humans might). We tracked their flower choices using a sheet of paper with the 64 circles marked into the four quadrants. Whenever the bees landed on a flower and stuck their tongue (proboscis) into the Plexiglas rod, we would mark the matching circle on the sheet. We marked each circle with a ‘1’, a ‘2’ or a ‘3’ and so on, to track where they went to see how their behaviour might have changed with time. After a while, the bees might have got annoyed because they were not getting a reward, and might have started making mistakes or searching randomly. So we let each forager make only around 30 choices before stopping the test. Each bee was tested three times (see §3).