Category Archives: Structure and Function

The Legendary Narwhal

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The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. {Jules Verne}

Winter Weather Not Fit for Man nor Beast? Look at the Narwhal!

It is February 15, 2015, and New England is being hit again by snow, below zero temperatures and hurricane force winds. Boston and other coastal cities are struggling to cope with more snow and depleted snow removal budgets. It would appear that all life needs to retreat to someplace warm and hunker out yet another round of winter weather here in the Northeast.

But there are amazing creatures that thrive in the very kind of weather and climate that causes us, humans, to cringe and run for cover. In the waters north of  New England, and all the way to the top of the blue marble we call home, there is one sea creature who is superbly made to withstand life in the icy waters of the extreme Northern Atlantic and under the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean: the narwhal.

Today is World Whale Day, and to celebrate the occasion, and to keep with our winter weather theme, let’s get up close and personal with this incredible, cold-loving whale.


Hearts for Home Blog Hop


The “Unicorn of the Sea” ~ the Narwhal

The narwhal, Monodon monoceros, the only living relative of the beluga whale, is a year-round resident of the frigid waters of the Arctic, off the coasts of Canada, Russia and Greenland. Its unique single tusk, which is really a tooth, makes the male narwhal readily identifiable by even the littlest whale enthusiasts. This tusk grows from 7’ to 10’ long, and points slightly upward, giving the narwhal another one of its names: Qilalugaq qernartaq (in Inuit, “the one that points to the sky”) {Female narwhals sport a much shorter tusk}. Scientists don’t really know why the narwhal has this long tusk, so it’s been the subject of much speculation and legend.

This mid-sized whale can grow to nearly 20 feet in length, and an adult male, at maturity, can weigh nearly two tons. narwhals

Narwhal range and distribution. Hashed area represents winter range; dark area represents summer range. {Image credit: (c) Wikipedia, 2015}


Being a toothed-whale, narwhals are meat-eaters, dining on flatfish, cod, shrimp, squid and other ocean life that lives deep in the Arctic Ocean. While feeding, narwhals have demonstrated the ability to dive up to 5000 feet below the ocean surface, and remain submerged for up to 25 minutes without surfacing for a breath. Like many other sea mammals, the narwhal uses echolocation to find prey while hunting.

Like other whales, narwhals use a variety of clicks and calls to communicate with one another. As you can imagine, their icy home, deep-diving habits, and relative rareness make it hard for us to know a lot about the narwhal’s calls. Fortunately, there are marine scientists who specialize in the study of this rare Arctic resident. The Narwhal News Network recorded this audio clip of a pod of narwhals at night, off the coast of Greenland, on February 9, 2011: narwhals

A pod of narwhals, off the coast of Greenland in winter. {Click image to hear audio clip of narwhal communication, from the Narwhal News Network, February 9, 2011}


The Narwhal in Legend and Folklore

The name narwhal, itself, is an Old Norse word that means “corpse-like,” in reference to the mottled gray, white and black fur covering the whale’s body. It is said that the Vikings, a legendary sea-faring people, thought that the skin and shape of the narwhal’s body resembled the bloated, decaying body of sailors who had met their demise in the icy deep. Not a pretty picture…

Their unusual appearance has caused the narwhal to be the center of some interesting folktales and ideas over the centuries. Their horns have washed up on the shores of lands in the far North, adding credence to legends of unicorns and “proof” of their existence. Royalty over the centuries have paid small fortunes for these horns, although trade of these is now illegal in most lands.

Creatures that resemble narwhals have appeared in woodcuts and early maps, among the “sea monsters” that were said to inhabit the unknown waters to the west of Europe, and the narwhal has been proposed as one possible identify of the “leviathan” mentioned in the Bible.  This mysterious whale is featured in the following passage from Jules Verne’s science fiction novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea:

“Captain Farragut was a good seaman, worthy of the frigate he commanded. His vessel and he were one. He was the soul of it. On the question of the monster there was no doubt in his mind, and he would not allow the existence of the animal to be disputed on board. He believed in it, as certain good women believe in the leviathan — by faith, not by reason. The monster did exist, and he had sworn to rid the seas of it. Either Captain Farragut would kill the narwhal, or the narwhal would kill the captain. There was no third course.” (Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1870).

The University of Washington Press has published a book about the mysterious narwhal, entitled Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World. The video, below, is a synopsis of the book ~ take note of the ancient woodcuts showing the narwhal as a sea monster on maps:



More Legends of the Narwhal

If you are intrigued by this denizen of the icy deep, read more about the narwhal in the following legends:


Winter Animal Study and Literature Links

Study the Narwhal as part of your winter studies

Connecting science and literature is a great way to add some excitement to your winter lessons. Why not add a study of the narwhal to your seasonal plans for February? This lover of the icy North is a perfect example of how an animal’s structure and habits make it suited for a seemingly inhospitable climate, and the legends around this rare creature lead to some fascinating legend studies.

The ebook, “Nature Study Notebooking Pages: Mammals” ($5.95, The Notebooking Treasury) is a big help for students organizing both facts about mammals and literature connections from their studies. This 392-page volume has both primary- and narrow-ruled pages of a variety of formats, including range maps and summaries of the life habits of 49 popular mammal species, as well as a set of template pages for the study of any other mammal, such as the narwhal and beluga whale. I have found these pages to be a big help in organizing students’ research on many topics, and use them at home with my own homeschoolers. Click the link above to order directly from this page, or click the image below for current specials from this publisher.


February Subscriber Freebie


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Zoology Lesson Plans and Links!

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Exploring Creation with Zoology 

I just posted a NEW schedule for Exploring Creation with Zoology 1: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day (Apologia Science). In our house, we worked out a daily schedule that allows us to do more nature study (Outdoor Hour Challenges), expand the experiments and hands-on portions, and do more independent work outside.

Check it out on A Child’s Garden… Better yet, follow my nature study blog for updates directly to your inbox.

Coming Soon…

Next up: Lesson 1 (“What is Zoology?”) Resources

  • Unwrapped Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, to match the lesson content;
  • Connections to the Next Generation Science Standards (2nd Draft)
  • Extra notebooking pages we created that we’d like to share
  • Links to online resources and videos, and more!


Stay tuned!



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Comparing Nests: The “Same and Different” Center

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Similarities and Differences

Research-based Strategies for Teaching and Learning

Over the past several years, researchers have studied thousands of teaching and learning strategies, to determine which ones yielded the best increases in student performance (Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement presents one meta-analysis of these strategies).

The type of learning task that led to the greatest learning in students involved comparing two things to determine how they were alike and how they were different from one another. This shouldn’t surprise us, when we consider that all of us learn new things by comparing the new with the known, in order to better “file” the information in our brains.

This article explains a simple center that you can create to compare any two objects (related to your theme or content), in an interactive bulletin board display. We will use a squirrel’s nest and the nest of a Northern oriole, to accompany our November studies of autumn nature finds.


  • Index cards (three colors)
  • Markers
  • Colored yarn
  • A stapler
  • A large photograph of a squirrel’s nest
  • An oriole nest (or large photo)
  • Bulletin board space
  • Sentence strip (2 foot-long pieces)
  • Scissors
  • Field guides or other non-fiction resources on nests


[NOTE: This is designed to be an independent learning center. The assumption is made that students have already been introduced to, and know how to work with, both the bubble map and double bubble map, described in early posts.]

Provide materials on a counter below a bulletin board (cover the bulletin board with whatever covering you’d like — I used to buy fabric remnants on theme, and kept them folded in the box with the other unit materials, to use year after year).

Students use the photos or actual nests, and the non-fiction resources, to generate characteristics or descriptions of the two nests. In the diagram below, blue index cards are used for the characteristics of the squirrel’s nest, yellow cards for the oriole’s nest, and white cards for descriptors that can be used for both nests. Cards are stapled to the bulletin board, and attached to the appropriate header and/or photo with string (I opted for brightly colored yarn).

Leave the bulletin board up for interactive work for the duration of the unit.

science centers comparing nests

A simple, interactive bulletin board becomes a powerful tool for comparing two nests during independent learning time. Image credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.


Make the assessment part of the student work, inviting students to question one another and revise one another’s work. For example, I have used a small, simple “o” on interactive bulletin board work, to indicate an “opportunity” for other students to revise a piece of information. When the information is updated successfully, I simply cover the “o” with a small, round sticker.

Periodically use the collaborative display in response work, having students summarize the learning, to date. Refer to the work during whole class instruction, as well.

Classroom routines

Once students have used this center, you can use the routine to compare all sorts of things: two books on a theme or topic; two closely related vocabulary words (e.g., blissful, ecstatic); two geometric figures (e.g., rectangle, trapezoid); two biological processes (e.g., photosynthesis, respiration).

In my elementary classroom, interactive bulletin boards were a staple among my learning centers — they fostered conversation and collaboration, were hands-on, and created a healthy “buzz” of learning. The differentiation is built into the task, allowing multiple “entry points” for the content. And the routine of revisiting the work reinforces to students that the classroom displays are meant to be resources for the students to use daily.

Additional lesson ideas

Burgess Animal Book for Children

For more instructional activities to use in conjunction with this learning center, please see “New e-Book: Nests, Nests, Nests!”,  a 25-page e-Book perfect for the elementary classroom or homeschool science class ($1.95 from Simple Science Strategies).

This set includes both primary and regular-ruled science journaling pages focusing on animal nests, as well as a variety of framed pages for thematic writing, note-taking or nature study. Organizers for studying and comparing nests of different animal orders, coloring and copywork pages, and game cards for sorting and classification tasks make this set versatile, perfect for direct instruction or independent learning tasks. Also included with this e-Book is a summary of ten lesson ideas with linked resources, enough for a great integrated unit on animal nests.

Animal taxonomy studies

One of our favorite animal study books…

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The November Simple Science Strategies Newsletter is Here!

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Well, this is not the United States Postal Service…

Weather events, loss of power, school cancellations and other unforeseen events DO affect the schedule here at Simple Science. And we apologize for it!

Winter Storm Ali 2012

We’re done making our snowman… here’s the next newsletter!

Without further ado (or TOO much delay) here is the November edition of the Simple Science Strategies Newsletter.

In it, we will use November nature events as a springboard for conversations about some big science ideas:

Topic — preparing for winter

  • camouflage
  • hibernation
  • evergreen and deciduous trees
  • fall and winter nature finds

Science processes, concepts and disciplines

  • Building an Argument Using Evidence
  • Stability and Change
  • Life Sciences: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes

Strategies and tools

  • Comparing and Contrasting
  • Using Argument (Discussion Frames) to compare sides of an argument
  • Creating Double Bubble Maps to compare two things
Simple Science Strategies November Newsletter

Click image or link to download the November edition of the Simple Science Strategies Newsletter (2012)

Don’t Forget!


Please post your work on our Blog Carnival. See the link for important details about the November blog carnival.

Give us feedback…

Take a few moments to complete a very brief survey about your experiences on this blog.

win! (who doesn’t like free?)

Enter on our sister site, A Child’s Garden, for a chance to win an All-Season Indoor Composter, by UncommonGoods. Entries will be accepted through the end of November. No purchase necessary. Click here to enter.


The All-Seasons Indoor Composter, $48 at UncommonGoods.
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From Apple Flower to Apple Fruit

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On Stability and Change: The Apple

This month, we are studying the concepts of stability and change. The first of our nature-based studies involves a favorite autumn topic in New England: apples.

science strategies apple tree flower botany

The apple: a great opportunity for year-round botany study. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

Apples present an excellent opportunity to study stability and change, in both spring and fall, where we can study the transformation of the bare tree to one with leaves, the emergence of leaves and flowers from buds, the growth of apple fruits from the spent blossoms, the gradual ripening of the fruit, and the ultimate dropping of fruits and leaves as the fall winds down to winter.

This is also a nice opportunity to begin to talk about the structures of flowers and fruits, using the familiar, and accessible, apple, even during the winter months. Use the Apple a Day” notebooking pages, for these, and other, activities.

science strategies apple tree flower botany

An Apple a Day” – September Botany Journaling, 2012
20 pages, $1.95


A Year of Studies, by Season

An apple tree, all year round

Using the “Adopt-a-Plant” strategy, choose an apple tree (or, if you do not live near one, a crabapple tree will do), and observe it very early in the spring, before the leaves emerge (March or so, here in New England). Sketch the tree, or one branch on the tree in one frame, and provide a narrative to accompany each drawing. Add additional pages, as necessary. Here are some questions you might use as prompts for sketching and writing:

Winter (March)

science strategies apple tree flower botany

Sample page. This frame and lines journaling page is useful for multiple sketches over time, or multiple views.

  1. Sketch a bud on a twig. How are the buds protected in the winter? Carefully dissect a bud. What do you see inside?
  2. As the bud opens, what parts of the bud remain? What happens to the other parts? Why do you think this happens?
  3. Notice the markings and scars near the buds. What do you think cause them? Explain.
  4. Count the number of nodes from the tip of a branch to the trunk. How old is the branch? Explain how you figured this out.

Spring (May)

science strategies apple tree flower botany

Sample page. Botanical drawings and content vocabulary for journaling, word study, vocabulary building, or penmanship.

  1. Sketch an opening bud. What parts do you see first, the flowers or the leaves? Do they come out at the same time? Do all buds produce leaves and flowers? Describe what you see.
  2. Draw an opening apple blossom. Label these parts: stem, stipules, calyx, sepals.
  3. Sketch an open apple blossom. How many petals do you see? Draw the calyx behind the petals. What shape is the apple blossom? Color your drawing. Are the petals the same color on the inside as the outside? Why do buds and the blossoms appear different colors?
  4. Draw an open apple blossom. Label these parts: petals, stamens, filament, anther, pistil, stigma.
  5. Have an adult help you cut open the base of the apple blossom. What do you see inside? What do you think these become? Use what you know about apples to help you answer.
  6. Carefully sketch the arrangement of the new leaves as they grow around the blossom. What color are they? Do they stay this color?

Summer (June)

science strategies apple tree flower botany

Sample page. Diagrams with labels, or boxes for labeling. Pages with and without word banks as a scaffold for labeling.

  1. Sketch a twig or blossom after the petals fall. What parts remain? What parts are missing? Why do you think some parts fall off? What part do you think becomes the apple fruit that you eat? What becomes the seeds?
  2. Use a piece of colorful tape to mark one twig with developing apples. Return to sketch one developing apple, once a week. Identify any parts of the original blossom that remain.
  3. How many apples grow from one winter bud? How many leaves? Draw a branch and show the arrangement of apples and leaves.
  4. Does the apple branch keep on growing? What part grows after the fruit forms?

Fall (September)

science strategies apple tree flower botany

Sample page. Woodcuts from botanical texts: useful for rendering accurate colors when observing.

  1. Sketch three apples of different varieties, making sure to render the shape accurately. Describe the differences and similarities in these areas: shape, stem, color.
  2. Observe a ripe apple on a tree. Notice the color. Is it the same color everywhere? Develop a hypothesis about the role of air temperature and sunlight in the development of apple fruit color.
  3. Carefully draw and color one apple. Is it the same color everywhere? Are they spots or streaks? Is it the same color on both sides?
  4. Draw a ripe apple (outside and inside views). Identify the flower parts that created the structures you see.
  5. Use words to describe the texture of the apple skin. What function does the skin serve? (See Experiment 1)
  6. Cut up apples of five varieties. Create a data table to compare and rate them from 1-5 based on these factors: color (1=greenest skin, 5=reddest skin), texture (1=coarsest pulp, 5=finest pulp); crispness (1=crispiest, 5=softest), juiciness (1=juiciest, 5=driest), taste (1=most sour, 5=sweetest), aroma (1=no aroma, 5=strongest aroma).
  7. Cut apples of several varieties from stem to flower end. Draw and compare the core area.

Winter (December)

science strategies apple flower botany

Sample page. A variety of lined pages, in both regular rule and primary rule, for copywork, handwriting practice, observations or thematic writing.

  1. Gather an apple, a pear, a peach, a plum and a cherry. Carefully cut each in half, starting at the stem end. Sketch what you see. What is the same about all these fruits? What is different?
  2. Cut an apple from end to end, along the core. Sketch what you see. Note the core line. Can you connect the stem to the flower end through the core? Why?
  3. Cut another apple across the core. Sketch what you see in this view. Identify the flower parts that formed what you see. Draw the seed cells. Can you see faint dots between the cells? What do you think these are? How many seeds do you find in each cell (carpel)?
  4. List all the apple varieties you know. Use other resources to find more names. Sort them by use, color, country of origin.

Want a Report Cover or Fun Word Wall?

science strategies apple flower botany

Download it here

Two Experiments

These experiments are adapted from The Handbook of Nature Study (Anna Botsford Comstock), where you can get many other ideas for prompts for botany journaling or classroom discussion, as well as great background information for you, the teacher.

science strategies apple flower botany

Handbook of Nature Study, $23.67, Barnes & Noble (click on image for ordering information).

Experiment 1. The role of the apple peel

Take three apples of similar size, shape, and soundness. Peel one. Place the peeled apple on a desk or shelf. Place one of the unpeeled apples so that it is touching the peeled apple. Place the remaining unpeeled apple on the other side of the peeled apple, but at a distance, so it does not touch.

Which one would you predict would rot first? Which one would you predict would rot next? Where would the rot start? Why do you think this?

Develop a hypothesis to explain your thinking. Explain what you think the role  the skin serves in the life cycle of the apple tree.

Observe the apples for rot over the next several days. Evaluate your hypothesis.

science strategies apple flower botany

(c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012

Experiment 2: More on the role of the apple peel

Take the rotten apple from the first experiment. Use a safety pin or a needle to prick the flesh of the rotten fruit, then use the juice-covered pin to prick a healthy fruit. Go back and forth, pricking the rotten fruit once, then pricking the good fruit, making your initials in the good fruit. Put the inoculated apple on a desk or table. Throw away the rotten fruit or compost it.

Develop a hypothesis about where rot will begin on the inoculated fruit.

Observe the inoculated fruit over the next several days. Note where rot begins. Explain why you think this is so. Also relate your findings to how apples should be handled at the orchard, in shipping, and in the grocery store, to ensure long shelf life.

science strategies apple flower botany

See “Favorite Photo Friday” for more about this photo! (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012

Share Your Work!

Make sure that you share your October apple work on the Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival. Entries are due on October 26, for posting by November 1.

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The Nature Corner: An Invitation to Observe

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Invitations are hands on, rich learning opportunities that are designed to connect with students’ background knowledge and interest and deepen their knowledge about a topic.

By carefully selecting the materials to put in the invitation, a teacher can guide a student to coming to an important conclusion, lead the student toward a skill goal, or create a burning question that compels a student to want to learn more.

When designing an invitation, remember that the root word of “invitation” is invite. That means, the materials engage and draw in the students, to lead them to the big learning that you desire. However, because invitations are open-ended, we also must be prepared for divergent responses to the materials in the center — there is not a “right” answer to the work. You might place a bucket of seashells in the sensory table, and sorting buckets, but one little guy might create a story about the little creature who lived in one whelk shell.

Safariology: My Bug Box (with four magnifying/sorting compartments, tweezers and activity book). $10.98 at HearthSong.

Designing Your Invitation

Here are the considerations when designing the invitation in your nature center:

  • What’s my learning goal?
  • What do I want my students to focus on?
  • What materials will lead them to this focus?
  • How will the students show what they know?

So, what do you put in a nature center that invites students to observe? Read below for ideas for a botany nature corner:

Focus on… Color and Details

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Flowers with lots of color and details, such as bugleweed, butterfly weed or lantana
  • Art materials that create fine details: pencils (regular and colored), fine-tip markers, skinny paint brushes and watercolors
  • Sketch journals

Focus on… Looking Closely

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Flowers or plant material with fine details, such as lichens, Queen Anne’s lace, or goldenrod
  • Hand lenses, viewing boxes, stereoscopes and magnifying glasses
  • Very sharp pencils
  • Notebooking pages with frames and lined areas for journaling

Focus on… Looking Inside

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Seed pods or structures that can be cut or pried open, such as milkweed pods, black locust or honeylocust pods, or insect galls
  • Plastic, disposable knives and child scissors, tweezers
  • Plastic trays or small cutting boards
  • Pencils and blank copy paper, folded in half (labeled “Outside” and “Inside”)

Focus on… Order and Sequence

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Plant material with flowers and seed heads in various stages of maturation, such as red clover, dandelions, or wild roses
  • Art supplies: colored pencils, fine-tip black markers
  • Notebooking pages with multiple frames to show sequence, or Flow Maps

Focus on… Describing with Adjectives

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Any interesting natural objects, such as wildflowers, seashells, mosses or other items
  • Writing tools: pencils, erasers
  • Copies of paper for making Bubble Maps, concept webs, or an Observation Page (“I Notice… I Wonder…”)

Focus on… Similarities and Differences

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Plant materials that are very similar, such as several types of grass seed heads, flowers from different goldenrod species, or acorns from different species of oak
  • Writing tools: pencils, erasers
  • Blank paper for making Double Bubble Maps or  Venn diagrams

Focus on… Whole and Parts

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Large flower/seed heads that can be dissected with hands, such as sunflower heads or small ears of ornamental corn
  • Tweezers and sorting containers
  • Copies of Brace Maps or blank paper to create them


For more examples and information on invitations and nature centers:

For more ideas on observations and nature study:


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Describing Using a Bubble Map: Observation of Wildflower Fruits and Seeds

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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]


Learning Focus:

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?

Materials Used:

  • 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
  • Tweezers
  • 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):

1. Preparation:

    • 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 PracticeObservation.

  • 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):         

1. Preparation:

    • Have students find their partners.
    • Pass out materials, or have a helper pass them out.
    • Post class Observation Page.

2. Review:

  • “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 PracticeObservation

  • 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.


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.

Key Vocabulary:

  • Adjective
  • Describe
  • Observe, observation
  • Attribute
  • Notice
  • Wonder


  • 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)

Grade-Level Considerations:


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]

Grades 1/2:

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]

Grades 3/4:

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]

Grades 5/6:

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]

Suggested Resources:

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