Science Notebook: Write and Draw About Science

With the implementation of the Next Gen Science Standards, more attention has turned to what tasks students are asked to do in elementary and middle school science classes. Increasingly, teachers ask students to write about projects in a notebook. The science notebook has been talked about but few have laid out a strategy for teaching kids to write in a science notebook.

Our February release, MY STEAM NOTEBOOK, takes the actual notebooks from American scientists and looks at how they used the notebook to record, explain, question and work with their material.

Observing historical science notebooks

Argentinian scientist, Donna Maria and American scientist, Agnes Chase at the top of the highest mountain in Brazil. | MimsHouse.com. Smithsonian. Acc 000229, Box 20, Folder 1; Photographs documenting Mary Agnes Chase's field work in Brazil, 1924-1925.
Argentinian scientist, Donna Maria and American scientist, Agnes Chase at the top of the highest mountain in Brazil. | MimsHouse.com. Smithsonian. Acc 000229, Box 20, Folder 1; Photographs documenting Mary Agnes Chase’s field work in Brazil, 1924-1925.
To write this book, I looked at hundreds of different notebooks from a variety of American scientists. Most came from the Smithsonian Field Book project and the National library of Medicine. Notebooks from biologists and doctors are different. Throw in the notebooks from the Silicon Valley engineers housed at the Computer History Museum, and scientists’notebooks expressed many different goals and approaches. Some emphasized one step of the scientific process more than another. Each notebook looks different because scientists were trying to accomplish different goals. Even the shapes of the physical books varied. Engineers tended to emphasize idea generation, the design phase, or drawings of how to build something. Biologists tended to tell a narrative of observing or collecting specimens in the wild. In the laboratory, notebooks tended to be more procedural, or “this is what I did and how I did it.” Medical research included be exact chemical procedures in a laboratory. Notebooks for those researchers held pages of mathematical figures, dense tables of data, and little narrative. Doctors involved in public health, however, traveled to sites with disease outbreaks,worked with community organizers to make changes, or worked on public education campaigns. Their notebooks are often travelogues with notes on disease scattered throughout.Some scientists were compulsive about writing down everything, while others merely jotted things now and then. Overseas travel often inspired a detailed diary, and then the scientist wrote nothing for a decade. But through the varied experiences of American scientists, the notebooks are there. Why?

Scientists felt compelled to keep a notebook for many reasons. For engineers, a notebook could be a legal document, the basis of a patent filing. Other scientists seemed to have a sense of destiny and wanted to record something for later generations to read. Others were just bugged by an idea and wanted to work it out on paper. Essentially, they all had to address the basic question of all writing: who is your audience? Yourself or others?

Process v. Product based Notebooks

Most notebooks I looked at took a process-based approach, which means the notebook was a record of the process of exploring science. These notebooks were written by the scientists for themselves. Even when there was a sense that this record might be historically important, scientists often skipped days in recording data.

By contrast, most recommendations about student science notebooks take a product-based approach. Students must complete a project with certain required elements, and the teacher grades the notebook. Scientists are focused inward on their own goals, experiences, and projects.

Students, because they produce a product-based notebook, must look outward. Scientists write for themselves; students write for their teacher. Like any writing project, audience is a key consideration of what and how something is written.

One element almost universally required in student notebooks is a question. Often called a focusing question, it serves to guide the rest of the inquiry. After examining historical examples of notebooks from scientists, I rarely found a focusing question. That’s not to say that the question wasn’t in the scientist’s mind, but it wasn’t expressed on the pages of notebooks.

Scientists were usually clear in their inquiry goals and didn’t need to state the question so others could evaluate it. Again, it’s the difference between inward or outward facing purposes for a notebook.

Another way to say this is that process-based notebooks are best used for formative assessment, those which monitor student understanding and then modify the course work to aid understanding. Product-based science notebooks are best for summative assessment such as when the teacher evaluates and assigns a grade.

150 Years of American Scientists

Bird Scientist Alexander Wetmore, age 15, with a stuffed bird and the magazine with his first published article. | MimsHouse.com
Bird Scientist Alexander Wetmore, age 15, with a stuffed bird and the magazine with his first published article. | MimsHouse.com
The scientists whose notebooks are included here span about 150 years of American scientific study, from the mid-1800s to the end of the 1900s. In the process of researching available historical notebooks, I concentrated on seeking examples that would help students learn to use their own notebooks to record questions, observations, and conclusions. The historical notebooks are arranged here in a progression that will help students understand the potential for what a notebook can do for their scientific understanding.

If you pare it down to essentials, the only things recorded in a notebook are words and drawings. Of course, photographs, worksheets, or other memorabilia can be fastened inside the notebook, but what students will actually write are words and drawings. Students need to explore a variety of ways to use text and art. The scientists are presented in a logical order that develops a student’s skills with text, art, or a combination of text and art.

  1. Student Task: WRITE A LIST. Alexander Wetmore, nicknamed Alick (pp. 16-17), is presented first because his first recording of a bird occurred at age eight while in Florida on a vacation. He described the pelican as a “great big bird that eats fish.”5 Throughout his teen years, he kept a monthly record of all the birds he saw. By age 15, he had published his first article in 1900 in Bird Lore magazine, “My Experience with a Red-headed Woodpecker.” (See pp. 148-149 for a reproduction of that article.) Wetmore’s notebooks show that observations can be done at any age. Lifelong passions can begin in an elementary school science notebook.
  2. Student Task: Draw and Label the Drawing. Martin H. Moynihan (pp. 28-29) presents a variety of options: text only, drawings only and a combination of text and drawing. Sometimes, text dominates, and other times drawings
    dominate.
  3. Native Alaskan woman drawn by William Dall on an exploration expedition. From Dall's field book. Example of original source documents in MY STEAM NOTEBOOK. | MimsHouse.com
    Native Alaskan woman drawn by William Dall on an exploration expedition. From Dall’s field book. Example of original source documents in MY STEAM NOTEBOOK. | MimsHouse.com
    Student Task: Draw, then write an explanation that can’t be understood from the drawing alone. Likewise, William Healey Dall (pp. 40-41) gives students a look at additional options possible in a notebook. He drew maps, native people, and interesting objects while he kept a careful record of his travels to Alaska. Look especially at his drawing of native pottery. While it’s interesting, the drawing alone doesn’t tell enough because we don’t know the scale. Only the text explains the size of each pot. Students need to learn to use text and drawings together to give a more complete understanding of what is observed.
  4. Student Task: Describe with words. A basic skill that students need is the ability to make a careful observation. Joseph Nelson Rose’s cactus example (pp. 52-53) is excellent because he includes descriptions of color, size,shape, and number. Notice too that he uses scientific vocabulary. As students write in notebooks,observations will be more exact as they learn the scientific names for objects, anatomy,and so on. For that, use My Glossary in the back of this book. However, remember that studentsmay also choose to define words in context.
  5. Student Task: Describe with a narrative (time-order) essay. Lucile Mann (pp. 64-65) was the wordsmith in the family, leaving the public speaking to her husband, William “Bill” Mann, Director of the National Zoo. Because she worked first as an editor, her diaries are carefully typed and edited. One type of writing found over and over in science notebooks is a narrative, or a description of something that happened to them.
    Mann’s narrative writing skills are shown by her use of sensory details in her travel descriptions.
  6. Student Task: Write with voice. Fred Soper (pp. 76-77) also recorded narratives in his diaries kept during public health work in Brazil. He not only records scientific observations, but does it with humor. His writing voice was warm, sarcastic and funny.
  7. Shifting focus to the drawings, several scientists were especially adept at sketching.

  8. Student Task: Draw something that you couldn’t capture with a photograph. Mary Agnes Chase (pp. 88-89) originally worked as a botanical illustrator. Early in her career, she learned to use a microscope which helped her make observations that brought her work to life. She also used photography extensively later in her career, and it’s interesting to discuss with students the role of a botanical illustrator as compared with a photographer. Illustrators are free to combine elements from different seasons: for example a flower and a fruit. Photographers are restricted to only what their cameras can record. Also look at how carefully her type-written pages are edited.
  9. Student Task: Draw and use color to add information. While many of the scientists included drawings, Donald S. Erdman (pp. 100-101) took them to a new level with color (although shown in b/w here). But he didn’t use color just to use color. Instead, he describes the reason for color: that preserved fish quickly lose any color.For proper identification and understanding of the fish, color was required. Students should learn to use whatever tools are necessary to record observations.
  10. Student Task: Draw a map. Robert E. Silberglied (pp. 112-113) had an amazing eye for visual details. Notice the elaborate key and compass indicating north that he used on his map of Gomez Farias in Mexico. Silberglied also specialized in photography. He used ultraviolet light in his studies and photographed flowers in ultraviolet light. Optical microscopy allowed him to zoom in close on a butterfly’s wing. Though he didn’t use it, we introduce the idea of aerial or satellite photography and electron microscopy in the discussion questions.
  11. Student Task: Describe physical location and conditions. Almost all these American scientists collected specimens. Throughout, you’ll see discussions of objects that are sent back home for further study. From Chase’s grasses to Wetmore’s bird skins, collecting items for further study is an important part of observation. Scientists were careful to record exactly when and where the items were collected. Often the descriptions involve a physical location (e.g. Silberglied’s “. . .2 miles off Mexican Highway 85”6)Temperature, weather, elevation and other conditions are often reported. Students need to learn to record these type of variables.
  12. Example of original source documents in MY STEAM NOTEBOOK. Watson Perrygo prepares a snake for display in the Smithsonian Museum. | MimsHouse.com
    Example of original source documents in MY STEAM NOTEBOOK. Watson Perrygo prepares a snake for display in the Smithsonian Museum. | MimsHouse.com
    Student Task: Write an informative essay about objects or results of an investigation. Watson M. Perrygo (pp. 124-125), as a taxidermist and museum curator, shows one of the final stages of observations and collection of specimens. The objects are available for various scientific studies, and they are also made available for the general public to view in a museum setting. The specimens are important historical snapshots of an ecosystem and can be compared to contemporary conditions. But they are also an entertaining way to learn more science. Museums write informational materials to help the public understand what they are seeing.

This amazing interactive notebook for kids has fascinating info. Diaries, drawings, and much more to help kids learn how to use a scientist's notebook. Useful and interesting. | MmsHouse.com
This amazing interactive notebook for kids has fascinating info. Diaries, drawings, and much more to help kids learn how to use a scientist’s notebook. Useful and interesting. | MmsHouse.com
MY STEAM NOTEBOOK: 150 Years of Primary Source Documents from American Scientists shows original drawings, writings, maps, photographs and more. From that students should learn to write in their notebooks in ways that help them record and understand scientific observations. Available on February 21, 2017.

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