Utilizing the Scientific Method to Solve a Problem

It was in the end of the summer in the year 2005 and I was merely driving myself to work, when at approximately 40mph I feel my car begin to sputter as it attempted to reach the cruising speed of 50mph that I commanded it to. The car is a 2000 Ford Focus and has 75,000 miles but in the year that I have owned it, this sputtering had never occurred. It happened again a few days later and then I began to wonder what was going on and what the fate of my car would become. I recall checking the gauges and saw that the car had enough fuel, providing the gauge was operating properly.

On the drive home from work one late evening, the sputtering happened once more and I then went into my logical and problem solving mindset, which is reserved for special occasions of course. I decided I should stop by the gas station, fuel up, and check the level of the oil in the engine to disprove a few of my initial explanations of what was causing the sputtering. After completing the tasks I set forth, I decided to test the explanation and drove back to the highway and sped up to the observed speed of the prior occurrences of the sputtering. When I reached 40mph, the sputtering was again present. As I had feared, I now knew that I had a real problem indeed that would not just go away by itself.

Over the next few days my mind debated the problem and possible solutions. I asked myself, aloud of course, a few questions:

1. Could the heat from the late summer sun during the day or the coolness of the late summer night be causing this problem?

2. Could the problems be from a clogged fuel line or fuel filter?

3. Could uneven roads with bumps and cracks have caused this?

4. Was the oil bad and need to be changed?

5. Did the car need new spark plugs and a tune-up?

After deciding to eliminate this educated guesses “working hypotheses”, I decided to conduct more testing in the following days. First, I waited until the temperature outside was really warm and then when the temperature was really cold, and then drove back to the highway to speeds above 40mph. The outcome was a simple and effective one in that I observed that the car did indeed sputter in both of those instances, despite my half-asleep pleas to it to work “just this one time”. Fortunately the first hypothesis was eliminated but unfortunately I was still left with a problem. What matters worse was that my job requires that I have a good working and reliable car, and now this sputtering was beginning to cause me to have a headache.

I decided to skip the second hypothesis because of the level of difficulty in checking the fuel filter and fuel line, and decided that I would move this one to the end of my list. I then set out to test hypothesis #3 and located some smooth and rough roadways in which I could drive just over 40mph. Fortunately for me, I lived near a particularly winding Highway that was perfect for this on account that the highway is unstable and inconsistent to say the least. The results did not bring me any satisfaction as they were the same as the first two tests I conducted.

I then felt relieved to learn that the test for hypothesis #4 was going to be able to be done from home by inspecting the oil in the engine and by checking the last date that the oil had been changed. The results again did not help other than eliminating this hypothesis, as the oil was indeed in good shape and full.

I now had two hypotheses left to check and I had previously decided to leave #2 until the end, which left #5 for the next testing round. I decided that I would be lazy and made the call to the repair shop and scheduled an appointment with them to diagnosis the problem. Over the phone, I gave them my observations, hypotheses, and the results of my various tests. I then left them with my “theory of the sputtering car at just over 40mph” which was that either there was a clogged fuel line or a fuel filter that needed to be replaced, or that the car needed a tune-up (hypotheses #2 & #5).

I was relieved when I received a call back from them, telling me that my car was sputtering simply because I needed a tune-up. I instructed them to perform the maintenance and picked my car up a few hours later after paying them their fee.

As it turned out, in the end, hypothesis #5 was the correct one. Granted I had a little help from a community reliable resource for a price, but it was all in a day’s work.

Recap: Scientific Method

1. Observation
2. Hypothesis
3. Test/Experiment
4. Theory
5. Conclusion