Expedition 3: How Do Scientists Know What to Research?

Throughout our journey, we will be getting more familiar with the things that scientists and engineers do. Not only are these practices central to the life of a scientist but also to your own experiences in the science classroom and beyond. We’ll start by asking questions and defining problems.

Despite the various work settings of science, one thing is certain: no matter where science is happening, questions are trying to be answered. Lynn describes her team’s mission to study the Ross Ice Shelf and determine how stable it will be in the future, but why did they choose to go to Antarctica and how do they know what to study?

Exploring Antarctica

Twice the size of Australia and 98% covered in ice, Antarctica has captured the imaginations of adventurers, explorers and scientists for centuries. 1897 marked the beginning of an era known as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration,” during which the continent became a major focus for scientific investigation[i].

Today, around 82 research bases in Antarctica are collectively home to 5000 scientists during the summer time, and 1000 during the winter season[ii]. Much of the current focus of research is on global climate change and its impact on the continent over time. Because of the enormous amount of ice, the effects of changes in Antarctica will be experienced around the globe, particularly, rise in sea level.

Building on the Work of Others

Lynn didn’t know what questions she was trying to answer before she started. She did not wake up one day and say, “Hey! I’m going to Antarctica to study changes in the Ross Ice Shelf!” Instead, her work is in response to previous events, such as the collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, and the work of other scientists. Likewise, Lynn’s research will inform future studies. Scientists often get ideas from one another, which speaks to the importance of sharing their information with other researchers so that someone else might pick up where the first left off.

In order to begin research, you need to figure out what you know through making observations and learning from the knowledge of others. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information is another practice that scientist engage in during their work. These were the steps that Lynn took by talking to others and reading science articles and research papers to develop the questions that still needed to be answered.

Investigating the Ross Ice Shelf

As Lynn showed in the video, ice that is already in water, such as the Ross Ice Shelf, will not affect water level from breaking up or melting. However, from observing past ice shelf collapses, we know that without the ice shelf, glaciers and other ice will be able to move into the ocean more quickly, increasing sea level. This knowledge led Lynn to the following testable research questions she will be trying to answer:

  1. Is the Ross Ice Shelf speeding up or changing its flow pattern;
  2. Are there indications of crevassing within the ice that can tell us more;
  3. What areas of the ice shelf are most important in pushing back glaciers?

Lynn and her team are using these questions to help them decide what data they will need to collect and how to collect it.

[i] Larson, E. J. (2011). An empire of ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the heroic age of Antarctic science. Yale University Press.

[ii] Davies, B. (2014). Living and working in Antarctica. http://www.antarcticglaciers.org/antarctica/living-and-working/ (accessed 10 October, 2016).

What do you think?

Specific questions:

  • What sort of data would you collect?
  • How would they help answer Lynn’s questions?
  • How would you collect them?

Broader questions:

  • How does a scientist choose what they want to study?
  • What is something that you would like to study?
  • What other interesting questions do you think might develop about Lynn’s adventure?

Have more questions?

Join the next live chat on Thursday, October 19 at 1:00 PM (EDT) by searching the hashtag: #umainefar. Subscribe to 4-H Follow a Researcher® calendar: iCal HTML