Tools for Undergraduate Research in Environmental Science and Field Biology:
(Note: Though still works-in-progress, Units I, II and III all contain content. Unit IV will become available sometime in the future!)

I. Scientific Inquiry: How to identify a research topic, question and hypothesis

II. Fundamentals of Field Sampling: How to design a field study

III. Graphing and Statistics: How to interpret your data using MS Excel

IV. Communicating Your Results: Tips for writing effective papers and making clear presentations

Scientific Motivation (SCM)

Scientific Motivation refers to the specific idea(s) behind your study: the question or hypothesis (or possibly set of questions and/or hypotheses) that you're investigating.

Itís tricky to generalize because scientific inquiry can be motivated by a variety of types of questions or hypotheses, but in every case a clearly defined Scientific Motivation is critical for determining the type of data to collect or descriptive observations to make. And, regardless of the question or hypothesis you're investigating, make sure your dependent and independent variables are clearly idenitified.

Below are a few questions to ask yourself followed by general tips about how to turn your preliminary ideas into a focused question or hypothesis. You will also find some suggestions for whether to choose a question or hypothesis as your Scientific Motivation.

Questions to Ask Yourself

If you're stuck trying to shape your preliminary ideas into a focused question or hypothesis, try asking yourself each of these questions. If the answer is yes, try exploring the tips!

  • Are you really not sure how to narrow your focus, you just know of a specific organism, habitat type, ecosystem, or even an abiotic factor that interests you? If YES, try these Tips for a preliminary investigation.

  • Are you following up a study that has already been conducted, or designing your study based on a review of the scientific literature? If YES, try these Tips for a follow-up study.

  • Are you exploring the relationship between variables, like soil moisture and plant abundance or prey abundance and predator abundance? If YES, try these Tips for exploring relationships between variables.

Tips for a preliminary investigation

If you're simply starting with some organism, habitat, ecosystem or abiotic factor of interest, it might be most appropriate for you to conduct a preliminary investigation motivated by a question. See if one of the following approaches or example questions works for you.

Approaches and Example Questions
  • Investigating variation with an environmental factor

    How does the abundance of (insert your organism of interest) vary with (insert an environmental variable that you think might be appropriate)? For example, how does the abundance of Cinnamon Fern vary with soil moisture? In this case, the abundance of Cinnamon Fern is the dependent variable and soil moisture is the independent variable.

  • Comparing abundance in different habitat or ecosystem types

    Is the abundance of (insert your organism of interest, or tweak wording and insert an abiotic facture) affected by (insert what you are comparing). For example, is the abundance of porcupine affected by forest type? (In this case, abundance of porcupine is the dependent variable and forest type is the independent variable.) Here, you may need to focus even more, such as choosing two specific forest types to compare.

  • Documenting a pattern of distribution within an area where organism occurs

    Within a specific habitat patch (you would need to specify) where is (insert organism of interest) most abundant? For example, on Sugar Maple trees, where in the canopy are spindle gall mites most abundant? In this case, you would then need to further specify what canopy factors (independent variables) to include, such as canopy height, canopy edge vs. interior, distance along branch out from tree, etc.

If you choose one of the approaches listed above, you will be exploring a possible pattern in nature. This exploration can be thought of as working on Step I of the Scientific Method, observation. Your results may well lead to Step II, generating hypotheses.

IMPORTANT: Run your question by your professor or advisor - science is a collaborative process. Professional scientists share and refine ideas to get them right . . . clearly it makes sense for students and professors to do the same! Also, in some cases, hypothesis testing may be required for your project, so you might need to do some more refining of your ideas.

(Back to Questions to Ask Yourself)

Tips for a follow-up study

There are many possible ways to follow up a study that has already been conducted.

If the results from the first study are preliminary, but not very conclusive, it might be appropriate to simply repeat the original study with little or no modification.

In some cases, it might make sense to repeat the study, but use a much large sample size. After all, you should have extra time and effort available since you didnít have to come up with the project from scratch!

If the results from the first study tested the effect of one independent variable on an organism (such as the effect of tree aspect [North vs. South] on suitability for bat roosting sites), maybe you can choose another independent variable to test (such as tree height).

IMPORTANT: Run your ideas by your professor - make sure your study is sufficiently different from the original study!

(Back to Questions to Ask Yourself)

Tips for exploring relationships between variables

If you have several variables in mind to test, great, you potentially have a lot to work with! A useful first step is to figure out what your dependent variable is. The dependent variable is the one that you are trying to explain, the one that might be influenced by the independent variable(s).

If you can make a list of possible dependent variables and independent variables, this can be a great way to focus your interests and turn your ideas into a specific question or hypothesis. The following simple example might help to clarify.

Imagine youíre interested in studying crayfish. An approach for beginning could be to make a list of variables that you can reasonably measure (some in this example list might be pretty tricky):

density of underwater logs
density of water vegetation
abundance of crayfish
substrate type (rocky vs. sandy)
abundance of largemouth bass

Now, list the dependent variable (what you are trying to explain that might be influenced by the other variables) and the independent variable(s).

Dependent Variable:
abundance of crayfish

Independent Variables:
density of underwater logs
density of water vegetation
substrate type (rocky vs. sandy)
abundance of largemouth bass

You should be able to come up with at least four specific questions and possibly four specific hypotheses.

For substrate type, hereís an example question:
Does crayfish abundance vary with substrate type (rocky vs. sandy)?

and an example hypothesis:
In Pearly Pond, crayfish abundance is greater in areas with sandy substrate than areas with rocky substrate.

IMPORTANT: Run your ideas by your professor. In some cases, you may be required to test hypotheses, so the question approach may not be appropriate. Also, itís great to get input and make sure you arenít confusing your variables!

(Back to Questions to Ask Yourself)

Which to choose, question or hypothesis?

If you have little or no preliminary information and really have no reason to make a specific prediction (but have reason to suspect you're investigating a relevant variable or variables), a question might be most appropriate. One way to think of your study is that youíre working on Step I of the Scientific Method, observation. Your focused observation and data collection guided by your question may well lead to a specific hypothesis to test. On the other hand, if you have preliminary information based on observations or based on other studies about how the independent variable might influence the dependent variable, go with an hypothesis.

(back to top)

This site created and maintained by
Dr. Rhine Singleton
Associate Professor of Biology & Environmental Science
Franklin Pierce University, Rindge, NH 03461
You can contact me at: singler at franklinpierce dot edu