Lessons in the Art of Observation

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A binder lies open, revealing printed field note templates created for students visiting Thompson Island Outward Bound.

On the pages above a big, white, empty box, the heading states: “Detailed Drawing with Labels.” In the space provided, hand-drawn creatures and scenes from nature emerge. Some artistically done, others from hands unpracticed at drawing from life, but each authentically capturing the image of what was observed by a student.

By asking students to draw what they see, Thompson Island Outward Bound’s educators are not initiating an art contest. Instead, they are instructing students in the art of questioning, observation, and attention to detail.

In our digital age, handwritten field notes and sketches may seem outdated. But the National Park Service rangers and Thompson Island Outward Bound staff employ field journals because they offer students a tactile experience that teaches valuable mental processes.

Most of the students don’t come to the island expecting to think about thinking.

As they look at the crab in their hand and attempt to draw what they see, they may not even register that the analytic engine that sits between their ears has begun to hum with questions: How large are the crab’s pinchers? What shape are the butterflies’ wings? Are the spots on the top and bottom the same? How long is the gull’s beak?

This attention to shape, size, texture, and color is the start of scientific thinking at work; a sign that their minds have been primed with data and are revving with activity, ready for new questions and musing based on the details they have observed. With skillful instruction, Thompson Island Outward Bound’s educators help students key into their own innate curiosity and push their explorations of the world around them further.

As the students create their field journals, the National Park Service rangers and Connections instructors teach the students how to build on the initial questions prompted by their observations. Why do you think the gull’s beak is shaped like that? That spot pattern is interesting, what purpose could that serve? Why do you think this crab’s pinchers are so much smaller than that one’s…?

By experiencing how each question and observation can act as a springboard propelling them into deeper exploration and discovery, many students realize for the first time that science isn’t just a discipline for adults in lab coats. They grasp the reality that even as middle schoolers, they have the capacity to practice and participate in scientific exploration. In their field notes, they see that scientific discoveries all start with scientific thinking- a willingness to observe, question, compare, and theorize that is supported by disciplined methodology.

On your next excursion outside try taking your own field notes. Include sketches and notes from your observations and see what interesting questions arise.