Planning an investigation

An Advanced Higher Investigation or an Extended Project will probably be your first chance to try out a real scientific investigation, and to “write your own question” as well as find out the answer. Choose something that fascinates you, and your research will be enjoyable, rather than a chore. This article will help you start to plan your project.

The Projects section of this website is full of protocols to help you get started with practical scientific investigations – but don’t forget that these are just a starter. You will need to put much more thinking and research in yourself to make them a successful project.


What can I do for a project? How to choose your idea

Is there an area of biology which particularly interests you?

You may already be thinking about a career in medical research, nature conservation, ecology, horticulture, molecular biology, agriculture, agronomy, crop science, or one of the many other subjects related to plant science.

Alternatively, you may have an interest in a particular area of plant science, such as medical plants, seaweeds, gardening, fungi, wild flowers, plant physiology, biochemistry etc.

If this appeals to you, try to find something in your chosen area. This will be more interesting for you and it could be useful as a topic for discussion when you go for an interview, or when filling in your applications for a job or training.

Is there a topic in biology which puzzles you?

Some of the best projects are often those which try to find the answer to questions or comments which have been made by people who know little about biology, such as ‘Why do some plants close their petals at night?’ These broad questions can make a great starting point to develop a specific question to investigate in your project. Don’t be frightened of tackling difficult questions: try to break them down into simple stages. Discuss it with your teacher, they may be able to help you to design an experiment to get you started.

Are you an expert in a specific area of biology?

If you already have an interest in a specific area, such as medical plants, ecology, plant propagation, sea weeds etc., you will already have considerable information on which to draw. Perhaps this knowledge can give you an idea.

Is there someone you can ask, to help you think of a project?

  • Do you have a family friend who works in a relevant profession or may have an interest in plants, and who you feel you can speak to, to ask advice?
  • You could visit a nature reserve and talk to the warden, talk to staff at a garden centre, or you may know a researcher in plant sciences or a farmer who you can talk to.
  • Your own teacher will be able to help you once you have an idea of your own.

Are there other projects that you can look at?

If they’re available, have a look at projects from previous years’ students at your school. Sometimes these give ideas for follow up work, or for investigations in a related area. You will also be able to see what sort of standard you are aiming for and what sort of equipment is available.

Other possibilities

  • Journals such as School Science Review, Biological Sciences Review and Journal of Biological Education include new techniques which are suitable for use in schools. Sometimes a new technique will suggest questions which you could answer using that technique. Talk to your teacher to see if they have copies available.

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How can I find out about a topic that I am interested in?

Remember that you will need to keep a list of sources of information to put in your reference section or Project Log, so keep a careful note of the reference (author, title, publisher and date), as well as the information gleaned from it.

  • Your ordinary textbook will make a good place to start looking. Use the index to look up related topics.
  • There may be other relevant books in the biology or school libraries; the latter will probably have British Lending Library forms.
  • Don’t forget encyclopaedias, magazines etc.
  • The Internet is be a vital resource, but make sure that the websites you use are reliable and up-to-date. Check who wrote the information, what their qualifications are, and when they wrote it.

When you have exhausted these sources, you can go to:

  • The Public Library. If you do not find what you want, ask at the desk and they may be able to guide you to a suitable book. If you know the title of a book you want to read, the library will try to get a copy for you through their inter-library loan service (you may have to pay a small fee for this).
  • If there is a university or college near where you live, you could ask if you could use the library and ask them to direct you to the best section to look in.

You can also ask people you know.

  • Sometimes there will be a teacher who has a special interest in your topic area.
  • Ask a student in the year above you.
  • Do you know somebody studying a biological science at university?
  • Your teacher will know what books and journals are available in your library and will try to answer your questions, but they will have to be careful not to give you too much help or it may have to be declared on your final project report.

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How do I start?

This is probably the most difficult part, because you feel you have committed yourself once you have started the first experiment. When a group of students, who had finished their projects were asked what advice they would give to students who were starting, they said “Don’t waste time worrying about it – just get started! ”

  • Plan your first experiments carefully. If you can, carry out a pilot experiment and time how long it takes to make your measurements so you can then plan your time effectively.
  • Write down the hypothesis you are testing (eg “Daisies will continue to open and close their petals in a 24 hour cycle if they are kept in a dark cupboard.”).
  • Avoid changing more than one variable at a time. Remember you need data to analyse and comment on.
  • Ask yourself what you will measure and how you will get numerical data out of the experiment? Even qualitative differences can be ‘scored’ by awarding a mark out of 5 for any visible differences. (For example, if assessing the colour of plants, they could be given a mark out of 5 for greenness, with 0 as the yellowest and 5 as the greenest. These marks should be awarded by someone who does not know the treatments, so the marks are awarded ‘blind’, without any bias. )
  • Ask yourself how many “replicates” or repeats you will need (or you can manage) to add more validity to the results. Make sure you have included controls wherever necessary.
  • Think about testing your data statistically, to prove its reliability. This will probably affect what measurements you take and how you take them so you will need listen carefully to the Statistics Lessons and then consult your teacher or a friendly statistics book such as Maths for advanced biology by Alan Cadogan and Malcom Ingram (Nelson 2002).
  • Write down the details of your experiment so that anyone else could repeat it from your instructions.
  • Keep a diary of how your project developed, so that you can write a clear report and tell others about what you have done.

Author: Dr John Hewitson