The point of an experiment is to help the experimenter define the relationship between two parts of a natural process or reaction. The factors that can change value during an experiment or between experiments, such as water temperature, are called variables, while those that stay the same, such as acceleration due to gravity at a certain location, are called constants.
Experimental constants are values that do not change either during or between experiments. Many natural forces and properties, such as the speed of light and the atomic weight of gold, are experimental constants. In some cases, a property can be considered constant for the purposes of an experiment even though it technically could change under certain circumstances. The boiling point of water changes with altitude and acceleration due to gravity decreases with distance from the earth, but for experiments in one location these can also be considered constants.
The independent variable in an experiment is the variable whose value the scientist systematically changes in order to see what effect the changes have. A well-designed experiment has only one independent variable in order to maintain a fair test. If the experimenter were to change two or more variables, it would be harder to explain what caused the changes in the experimental results. For example, someone trying to find how quickly water boils could alter the volume of water or the heating temperature, but not both.
A dependent variable is what the experimenter observes to find the effect of systematically varying the independent variable. While an experiment may have multiple dependent variables, it is often wisest to focus the experiment on one dependent variable so that the relationship between it and the independent variable can be clearly isolated. For example, an experiment could examine how much sugar can dissolve in a set volume of water at various temperatures. The experimenter systematically alters temperature (independent variable) to see its effect on the quantity of dissolved sugar (dependent variable).
A controlled variable is a variable that could change, but that the experimenter intentionally keeps constant in order to more clearly isolate the relationship between the independent variable and the dependent variable. For example, an experiment examining the relationship between how much sunlight plants receive (independent variable) and how tall they grow (dependent variable) should make sure none of the other factors change. The experimenter should control how much water the plants receive and when, what type of soil they are planted in, and as many other variables as possible.
About the Author
Benjamin Twist has worked as a writer, editor and consultant since 2007. He writes fiction and nonfiction for online and print publications, as well as offering one-on-one writing consultations and tutoring. Twist holds a Master of Arts in Bible exposition from Columbia International University.