Power of observation

Science and Children cover, February 2008The articles in this issue focus on one of the fundamental processes of science: observation. How big? What happened? What changed? How does it feel? Students enjoy observing and using tools such as magnifiers, lenses, rulers, and scales. Inferencing, however, is a more complex process, as several articles point out. Log into SciLinks and use the keyword inference. You’ll get sites that are geared for grades 5-8, but many of these ideas can be adapted for younger or older students.
Inferencing is something for which students needs lots of guided practice. Doing a “think aloud” for the class, in which you verbalize your thought processes, can be a powerful instructional tool. These processes can’t be contained in a single “unit” but rather should be part of every unit of instruction. I found that with my less experienced students, I couldn’t assume a “once and done” approach. I had to be relentless!
Another topic that I had to keep reinforcing was fact vs opinion. Middle school students love to express their opinions! But we had to focus on facts in our written descriptions: “It felt moist to the touch” vs “It was gross.” There are several websites that can help your students to work on fact and opinion, too: Binky’s Facts and Opinions (from PBS Kids), a Fact Versus Opinion lesson plan, Is It What I Think or What I Know? , and Fact or Opinion? Rather than formal lessons on Observation/Inference and Fact/Opinion, I found it was better to embed the concepts in everyday events. With younger students, you could ask students during “show and tell” time to give one fact and one opinion about their object. Or during a class discussion (on any topic), ask the students whether a statement is an observation or an inference. I like to have all students participate, sometimes with a thumbs-up. But I also taught them a few letters of the manual alphabet so that they could raise their hands with the sign for O (observation) and I (Inference).
After reading the articles on magnifiers, you might want to go to SciLinks and enter the code SC020801 for Microscopes. Two of these sites go beyond simply naming the parts of a microscope. In Bugscope classes may remotely operate a scanning electron microscope to image bugs at high resolution. Classes design their own experiment and provide their own bugs. With the Virtual Electron Microscope interactive game, students view objects through a virtual electron microscope and try to identify the specimen.
Science is more than just observing for the sake of observing. There is usually a purpose. Here are three online projects in which students can record their observations as part of an ongoing study:

  • The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has a number of online projects, including the Great Backyard Bird Count, Project Feederwatch, and Bird Sleuth , as well as other more specialized projects described on the websites. (I worked with a third-grade class on the Feederwatch project, from observing and counting birds to entering the data online. The students were enthusiastic about watching the birds (and disappointed when at first their feeder did not attract many – the teacher turned that situation into an “I wonder why…” lesson.) Although the Great Backyard Bird Count is over for this year, the website is worth taking a look at for ideas for next year’s event!
  • Monarch Watch is gearing up for this spring. A colleague of mine used the book “The Hungry Caterpillar” as an introduction to a study of butterflies, and with ideas on this site, she came up with some truly wonderful (and meaningful) questions for her students to investigate and write about.
  • I just heard of a new project in which students, gardeners, and other interested folks can observe flowering plants in their gardens, schoolyards, and lawns. The observations can be entered into a national database to help scientists study the effects of climate change by observing the timing of flowers and foliage. The press release from the National Science Foundation describes the project and the actual Project BudBurst has lots of ideas and resources (use the “How Do I Participate” link to get to the teacher resources). If the URL looks familiar, it’s because this project is sponsored by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Studies, which also does the Windows on the Universe site – another of my favorites.

The exciting thing about these projects is that students are using their observation skills in projects that go beyond the classroom walls. If students are involved in these projects, I wonder how many will sustain this interest outside of the classroom?

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