Problem solving is one of the most critical aspects of any scientific discipline. Whether it is the determination of an unknown material, comparing questioned and known materials, determining how a product has failed, engineering new products, determining how other products are made, or developing novel testing methodologies - the science of problem solving plays a critical role in all today’s scientific disciplines. A solid scientific approach is important when evaluating these scenarios.
For hundreds of years, a basic methodology has been utilized and characterized as a “scientific method”. This method is just as important to young students learning to apply scientific principles to solve a problem, or the most seasoned professional investigating the most difficult problems in industry. The scientific method is simply a systematic, organized, analytical process applied to a problem.
Identify the Problem
First, one must identify the problem. This is accomplished by defining the specific questions one wishes to answer. As is often the case, there are many questions that arise from a specific problem, but separating out the specific questions and pursuing the scientific method for each one in a systematic approach often proves most valuable.
The second step is to define how the problem can be solved. Gather all relevant information and resources available and make initial observations about the problem at hand.
Analyze all collected data by inductive reasoning. Your analysis should be supported by facts you observed or experiments conducted.
Develop & Test Hypotheses
The next step is to develop a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. In a scientific method, the hypothesis should based on your facts at hand and information gathered following your collection of relevant information. The hypothesis should be based on empirical data, not a gut feeling.
Test the hypothesis to see if it is supported by the facts. This is done by performing experiments and collecting data in a reproducible manner. It is imperative that reproducibility of environmental factors and instrumental parameters/methods remain constant to avoid variability to the experiments. At the conclusion, one should analyze the data.
Select a final hypothesis. The interpretation of data is critical is problem solving analytical problems. Data is evaluated and the hypothesis is challenged based on fact. If a final hypothesis cannot be supported by fact, additional testing methods can be employed to retest or other hypotheses can be formed and again tested. It is critical in the scientific method that only those hypotheses that can be proven by fact be supported. At this final point, results of a problem can be disseminated. However, as with all science, retesting is critical for continued support of a hypothesis.
Example: Identifying an Unknown Particle
An unknown particle is submitted to the laboratory for identification. The particle is less than a millimeter is size, clear and is solid. The initial questions are what is the material? Did it come from the process or product itself? Can it be dangerous to the end consumer? These are several questions, but as defined in the scientific method, each question must be isolated and investigated independently.
The first and most important question is: what is the material? Initial observations indicate it is a solid, clear material. The material originated in a closed manufacturing environment and is suspected to be from either manufacturing material or possibly agglomeration from a biological product. Based on initial observations, the particle is not malleable, sticky and appears to be crystal like in nature. Several possibilities exist such as polymer, mineral or glass in nature. Based on the evaluation of initial macroscopic evaluation of morphology, the particle appears to be glass.
A hypothesis is formed that the particle is glass. The hypothesis is tested by evaluating the particle by optical microscopy, polarized light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy coupled to an energy dispersive spectrometer (SEM/EDS). Optical and polarized light microscopy indicate an isotropic material possessing conchoidal fractures. This eliminates numerous minerals, polymers and plastic. SEM/EDS analysis confirms the sharp edges and presence of Silicon, Oxygen, Calcium and Sodium. The analytical testing methods confirm the physical and optical properties of glass which are again confirmed by the elemental composition of the material. The hypothesis has been tested and confirmed for the presence of glass.
Above is simple example of applying a standard scientific method to determine the identification of an unknown. Additional testing would be needed to compare to exemplars within the manufacturing and packaging process to address the additional questions. However, the example demonstrates a thorough approach to the question at hand.
Whether you are identifying uknown materials, comparing one material to another or determining mechanism of failure, a solid scientific approach to your investigation to solving sciences easiest and most difficult questions.