Exercise in creating drawings for field notebooks

Author: Crissy Huffard

Overview: In this lesson, students (with a partner) draw and describe a leaf in its natural setting, and then re-find leaves drawn and described by classmates. The point is to have them start to think about observations in science, what to put in a field notebook, to pay attention to detail, and to gain confidence in drawing.

Lesson Concepts:

  • Observation is a key step in science.

  • Plants and animals vary in their physical traits (such as morphology, color, pattern).

  • We can identify plants and animals by their physical traits.

  • Field sketches aren’t art. They are meant to communicate information about something that you observed, so that someone else can identify (and perhaps find) it.

  • By following a few simple tips, anyone can create informative field drawings, even if they think they can’t draw.

California Science Education Standards:

  • Students, like scientists, conduct careful observations.

  • Students evaluate the accuracy and reproducibility of data.

  • Students construct scaled and appropriately labeled drawings to communicate scientific knowledge.

  • Students, like scientists, conduct careful observations.

  • Plants and animals have different morphologies (life forms). We can learn a lot about the function of animals by studying their form.

Grade span: 6-8 or 9-12

Advanced preparation:

  1. Make available different types of leaves, or shells, etc. These can be found by students outside or brought into the classroom.

  2. Make sure the students have paper, a pencil and an eraser.

  3. For optional activity: each pair should have a calculator and a metric measuring device.

Time: 50 minutes

Grouping: Pairs

Teacher background:

Scientists prepare field notebooks in order to keep track of what they see while they do fieldwork. They write down information, such as date, habitat, weather conditions, unusual circumstances, or interesting behavior, so that this information can be compiled to understand trends about the organisms they see. Plants and animals are often drawn in the notebook. Field drawings may also help someone to locate a specific type of animal, plant or habitat. Field notes must be clear enough so that other people can read them, and identify the organism of note. In other words, field procedures should be replicable.

Field drawings are about portraying information, not art. Tracing is ok. Drawings should include a scale bar (same idea scale bars for maps).

Traits that organisms share can help us estimate the relationships between them, but they don’t help us tell those organisms apart. Diagnostic characters are traits that differ in some way, such as numbers or types of body parts, or other morphological characteristics. By looking at these traits, we can identify organisms. Many of these traits are inherited from the organisms’ ancestors.

Teaching tips:

Go around to the different pairs to make sure that students are on track. Be sure to let them know how long they have to complete each step, and remind them when they only have a few more minutes. Encourage confidence.

Procedure: (Use leaves if class is outside. This lesson can also be conducted with leaves or shells in the classroom.)

  1. Give a brief introduction about field notebooks and drawings (per teacher background) and ask students what information they might think is important to put into one (and why).

  2. Split the class into pairs. Assign each pair a number, give them one piece of blank paper.

  3. Place each pair in an area within reach of several healthy plants (not poison oak or poison ivy, nettles, etc) and tell them to select a plant to draw and describe.

  4. Ask them to fold their paper in half and write their number on each half of the paper and tear it in half (demonstrate).

  5. They should then write down on the top third of one half (demonstrate) any information they think should be written about what they’re observing, where they are, and anything else that should go in a field notebook.

  6. On this half, one student should write a description of a leaf from the plant they’ve chosen.

  7. On the other half, the other student should draw a leaf from the same plant.

  8. Collect the papers, and a sample leaf from each group, writing the group number on each leaf.

  9. Shuffle drawings and hand them back to different groups.

  10. Give them three minutes to find that leaf.

  11. Now give the written description to the students to see if the additional information changes their selection. Add three more minutes to find the leaf.

    1. IF most people in the class find the correct leaf, then return to the classroom to discuss what was learned (such as notes on handwriting clarity, key details that helped them find the leaf, variation, etc.).

    2. IF most people did not find the leaves, then tell them to adapt the description/drawing to fit their best guess. Reshuffle and hand out descriptions/drawings to see if they can find these “second round” leaves in two minutes. Then discuss (12.A).

  12. If there's time:

  13. After discussion, return to desks and hand each pair a leaf, a measuring device and a blank sheet of paper.

  14. Measure the long axis of the leaf. Multiply this number by 2 (assuming they’re small leaves). Draw a faint line on the page that is this long. Measure the width of the leaf and multiply this number by two. Draw a faint line this long across your first line so that each line crosses the other in its middle (like a plus sign).

  15. Students should then draw their leaf using these dimensions as guidelines. They may also measure and scale other parts of the leaf (such as stem, distance between veins, etc.). Remind them to count important structures and make sure that their drawing has the same number of structures. Remind then to include a scale bar in their drawing.


  1. As a class, discuss what information was helpful for identifying the plants, and what wasn’t. What information did they forget to include in their notebooks? How many drawings had scale bars?

  2. Ask students to give each other tips for drawing, or writing descriptions.

  3. On the blackboard (or overhead), make a table of common and diagnostic traits so that students can understand the nature of using morphology (and other traits) to identify organisms.

  4. Discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of using this method for identification.