Who Would Love This Task:
- Do you struggle getting your children to notice the difference between the words “patch” and “pitch?”
- Do your kids refer to objects as “thingy” or “cosita” instead of using precise words to describe them?
- Does the typical writing of your students lack elaboration, or use general versus specific details?
- Do you wish your students would stop and notice things when they are outside playing?
If any of these apply to you and your students, then you would all benefit from this learning task on observation. Observation is a skill used in all learning, and is the foundation of inquiry.
In inquiry-based learning, explorations provide opportunities for students to have conversation and ask questions prior to starting a new topic, to that they can activate their prior knowledge about the topic, and begin to formulate questions to help them guide further investigations. The teacher can use this opportunity to find out what students already know, as well as any misconceptions they have about the topic. To foster these experiences, teachers carefully choose the materials they provide, so that they draw the students to the learning goal. They resist the “temptation to tell,” instead providing an environment that leads students toward the desired logical conclusion (the “big idea”) instead.
This guided exploration is included as an introductory learning task for a unit on seed dispersal mechanisms. Before students can understand the various methods that plants use for dispersing their seeds, they must begin to see that the structures of plants are connected with their functions. The first step of this process is identifying and describing plants and plant structures from their locale. Although this task uses wildflower seeds and flowers as materials, you can adjust the materials freely to use whatever natural or interesting materials you have available when you do the task.
This learning task also explicitly teaches students how to use a Bubble Map as a way of recording their observations, in preparation for its use independently. The Bubble Map is a thinking map designed to focus specifically on the cognitive process of describing an object using adjectives.
Teach students to notice and wonder about things all around them [Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012]
Essential Questions —
- What is inquiry?
- How do scientists use observations in scientific work?
- How do wildflowers disperse their seeds?
Enduring Understandings —
- Scientists use observations to better understand the world around them.
- Observing plants and seeds gives us clues about how they are dispersed in nature.
Focus for This Learning Task:
- Focus Strategy: Describing Using a Bubble Map
- Targeted Skill: Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information
- Key Concepts: Attributes
- Core Ideas: Structure and Function
The Learning Task:
Guiding Questions for Students:
- What do you notice?
- What do you wonder?
- Stems of burdock, including fruits (one for each pair of students) [Another interesting, textural fruit can be substituted for burdocks: horse chestnuts, maple samaras, black locust pods, milkweed pods, etc.]
- Observation pages (one per student) and one copy of directions (for teacher)
- Writing tools
- Hand lenses
- Styrofoam trays or plates
- Chart paper and markers OR SmartBoard (for teacher)
Safariology™ My Bug Box Exploration Kit with 4 Compartments. Includes one set of tweezers, one magnifier, and an idea booklet. $10.98, HearthSong.
Procedure (Day 1):
- Organize students in partners – pair students to foster conversation.
- Pass out one burdock stem, one pair of tweezers, one Styrofoam tray, two hand lenses, and two Observation Pages for each partnership. Students will also need pencils. Have students label their trays with their initials, for future days.
- On chart paper or the SmartBoard, recreate the chart from the Observation Page. In the center, write the words, “I notice…” At the bottom of the page, write “I wonder…”
2. Define observation: “When you notice details about something, you are making observations. Scientists use observations to understand the world around them, and to help them ask good questions.”
3. Model observation.
- “Hmmm… I’m looking at my stem. I know it’s a burdock – you might not know that. I notice that it’s mostly brown.” [On the chart, make a bubble connected to the center bubble. Label the new bubble “mostly brown.”]
- “Let’s see. I notice that the stem has some streaks of green in it, too. I’ll connect that to the color bubble I already have.” [Draw a new bubble, and label the bubble “streaked with green.”]. “I wonder if the whole thing started out green, then turned brown?” [At the bottom of the Observation Page, write the question, “Did the whole branch start out green, then turn brown?” under, “I wonder…]
- “Ok. There are these round balls on the stems. I think they’re seeds or seed pods or something. I notice that they’re really prickly – they stick to my fingers!” [Add new bubbles, “very prickly,” “round things.” Add the question, “I wonder what these round things are?” to “I wonder…”]
- Give students a minute or two to copy what you have written so far onto their own Observation Pages.
[Teacher’s Note: A Bubble Map is a brainstorming tool, so don’t worry about categorizing the responses right now – that can be done in another step. This step is focusing on describing with adjectives. If student’s response is not in the form of an adjective, paraphrase it to make it an adjective (with the student’s permission).]
4. Shared Practice– Observation.
- Invite students to share observations that they can make about their own specimens, adding them to the class display as above.
- Add additional observations to the class Observation Page.
- Collect trays and tools for the next session.
Procedure (Day 2):
- Have students find their partners.
- Pass out materials, or have a helper pass them out.
- Post class Observation Page.
- “What is observation? Why is it important in science?”
- “What observations did we make about our burdock specimens yesterday?” – (Review class chart – have student volunteers read or report – add new observations as necessary).
- Introduce the word attributes. Define attributes as the kinds of things we noticed about the burdock specimens (“We said the burdocks were mostly brown, and streaked with green. Those are all words that describe the attribute, color.”).
3. Guided Practice – Observation
- Next, give students several minutes to explore their specimens using the hand lens [Teacher’s Note: Encourage students to closely examine the barbs on the fruits with the hand lenses, but don’t tell them what they’re for.]
- [Support: Be prepared to guide students to put their responses in adjective form. It is also very important to encourage students to include questions at the bottom. Paraphrase their statements to form questions, if needed (E.g. “Look at those tiny things inside! Maybe they’re seeds” becomes “I wonder if those tiny things inside are seeds?”]
- As students are ready, invite them to next use the tweezers to dissect one of the seed pods, continuing to add to their observation sheets.
4. Independent Practice – Observation
- Provide interesting specimens in the Nature Corner Center for independent observations by the students. Provide any tools that would help the students make observations (hand lenses, tweezers, scissors, plastic knives, etc.), as appropriate. Include sufficient copies of the Observation Page for all.
- Post the class Observation Page in the Center, for reference.
- Post the vocabulary words, “observation,” “observe,” “attribute,” “notice…” and “wonder…” in the Center.
- See “The Nature Corner” for more details on setting up a nature study center in your classroom.
See the photo gallery, below, for ideas for seeds and other plant materials to put in the Nature Center, in order to help students develop their observation skills.
Students can observe the flower head and the seed head of cinquefoil to find analogous structures.
Give students hand lenses to study the tiny, daisy-like flowers of fleabane, a common roadside wildflower.
Hand lenses will reveal the tiny flowers that comprise the flower heads and seed heads of goldenrod.
Provide seed heads of several wild grasses. Guide students to decide what is sometimes true, always true and never true about the flowers and seed heads of grasses.
Students can use plastic knives and tweezers to dissect milkweed pods, revealing the downy seeds within. Alternatively, put the green pods in a clear, lidded, plastic container — eventually, they will burst, releasing the seeds.
With a hand lens, a student can observe that the “flower” of Queen Anne’s lace is actually many tiny flowers.
Students can infer the sequence of events in the maturation of red clover seeds if you provide a fresh flower head, one beginning to brown, and a mature, dried seed head.
Little fingers can pull apart the giant seed heads of sunflower, to reveal the familiar sunflower seeds. A side benefit – bird feeding experiments can follow!
Wrap-up (Day 3 and ongoing):
- Students place Observation Page in their science journals.
- Teacher continues to use “I notice… I wonder…” in multiple contexts.
- Students continue to use “I notice… I wonder…” in multiple contexts.
How could you use “I notice… I wonder…” when you’re reading? How could you use your powers of observation when you go into the cafeteria at lunchtime? When you return from recess today, be ready to share 3 things you noticed, and one thing you wondered, about the weather today.
- Observe, observation
- Which of your five senses did you use the most when making your observations? Which did you use the least? Why?
- Read over your questions, under “I Wonder…” Which can you answer by more observation? Which of your questions must be answered by doing some kind of research or experiment first? Why?
- Why do you think it is important to ask questions in science?
- Why do scientists make observations about things?
Let’s Go Outside! Outdoor Activities to Get You and Your Kids Closer to Nature. Paperback, $14 (HearthSong)
Students who are very young are learning that objects have properties, some which can be observed directly, using their senses, others which can be determined using simple tools and tests. The focus for them is on honing their observational skills, and sharing their observations orally.
When sharing this learning task with little ones, ask them questions, like the ones below.
- What did you notice? Which of your senses did you use to notice that?
- What word could you use to describe _____? Can you think of another word that means the same thing?
- How did using scientific tools help you make different observations?
- Why do scientists observe things?
- If you were a world-famous scientist, what would you want to observe next? Why?
- What other things did you observe today? Explain.
Common Core State Standards Connections:
Focus on conversation with preschool and kindergartners [Image credit: kjarrett 2012 via Creative Commons]
As students enter the primary grades, they are learning that living things have structures that help them to survive. They begin to notice and can explain the connection between the structures of living things and their specific function (e.g., the stinger on a bee helps it protect itself and the hive). They are becoming more adept at the use of tools to investigate their world, and are learning to select the appropriate tools for a given situation. They can compare the way a seed is formed with the way that it is dispersed and begin to see the function behind the form.
Providing a variety of science tools leads primary grade students to explore their world in different ways, and to gather different kinds of information. In addition, providing unfamiliar objects to explore helps students at this age apply the skills that they have practiced in new contexts. As students work, ask them questions such as these:
- Which tool would be better for ______? Why might this be?
- How could you answer your “I Wonder” question? What tools would you need?
- If you were making observations about underwater plants, what tools would you need? Would you need to make your observations a different way? Work with a partner to design this new exploration.
- Use pictures and words to describe your observations.
Common Core State Standards Connections:
Primary grade students are learning that living things are the way they are for a purpose [Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012]
Children who are moving through the elementary grades are exploring the relationships between and interdependence of living and non-living things in the environment. They are beginning to understand that some structures of living things make them better adapted for their living conditions — that there is an underlying purpose behind the way that plants and animals are designed, the environment they live in, and how they go about finding food, shelter and ways to reproduce. They are also moving beyond concrete to representational, and are using symbols and visuals to show ideas.
Children in the elementary grades can begin to discuss how certain seed dispersal mechanisms benefit plants that live in different ecosystems (e.g., why a tumbleweed disconnects from its roots when the seeds are ripe, on a windy prairie). They are also more adept at creating their own graphic organizers (“thinking maps”) to organize information in meaningful ways.
If this exploration is conducted with elementary grade students, ask them questions like the ones, below:
- Look at the structure of _______. How do you think this plant disperses its seeds? Draw a picture showing how this might occur.
- In what kind of environment would this seed dispersal mechanism be important? Explain.
- Look at the words you used to describe _______. Organize your descriptions into categories. Name each attribute.
- Create a flow map showing how _______ reproduces itself, starting with the dried fruit. Label each step in the process.
- Find another wildflower seed head in the Nature Center that you think disperse its seeds a different way. Explain its seed dispersal mechanism. Use pictures and words to explain your thinking.
Common Core State Standards Connections:
Elementary students begin to infer and explain the reasons why living things look and behave the way they do, based on observing patterns in nature [Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett 2011]
Students in the middle grades are honing their skills as scientists, and learning to evaluate the validity of experimental methods and claims. Their experiments should focus on evaluating and selecting among various scientific claims. They can be expected to produce more sophisticated arguments and presentations, based on data and resources.
When conducting this investigation with older elementary students, consider the following adaptations:
- Find two other plants that have the same seed dispersal mechanism as _______. Compare the seeds of these three plants. With a partner, make a chart showing what is sometimes true, always true, and never true about plants with this seed dispersal mechanism.
- How would you find out if you were correct when deciding what seed dispersal mechanism _______ uses? Describe the investigation.
- Find an article online that describes the various ways that plants disperse their seeds.
Common Core State Standards Connections:
In the middle grades, students practice making scientific claims and evaluating others claims, using observations and other data sources [Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett 2011]
- “Focus on… Observation.” (Simple Science Strategies)
- A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Cross-Cutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, National Research Council, 2011
- “Seed Dispersal: Teacher Resource Guide,” Cornell University [accessed July 29, 2012]
- “Plant Reproduction: They’ll Make More,” Biology4Kids [accessed July 29, 2012]
- “Assignment Discovery: Seed Dispersal,” How Stuff Works Videos, October 27, 2008
- “Parts of a Plant,” pppst.com, [accessed July 29, 2012]
- Big Backyard Magazine (ages 3-7) and Ranger Rick Magazine (ages 7-12)