Exercise in creating drawings for field notebooks

Author: Emily Limm

Overview: Students thoroughly observe a leaf specimen and create a scientific notebook page entry documenting the leaf shape, texture, color, and general appearance through a line drawing with written descriptions.

Lesson Concepts:

  • Scientists record drawings and descriptions about what they observe inside notebooks in order to gain and share information.

  • Scientific drawings include important details about the size, shape, texture, and color of the object through detailed sketches and written descriptive labels.

  • With each notebook entry, scientists include the date the entry was made, the location, and the name of the object under observation.

Grade span: Grade 7 (Life Sciences)


  • Metric rulers (one per student)

  • Fresh leaves for observing and drawing (one per student)

  • Pencils (one per student)

  • Blank paper with three holes punched for binder (one per student)

  • Example field notebook handout (one per student)

Time: 45 total minutes—introduce class to scientific notebooks, five minutes; review example of notebook entry, five minutes; demonstration of notebook entry, 35 minutes

Grouping: The students will complete their own journal entries individually.

Teacher background: Many scientists use notebooks to collect data and record observations as they conduct research. Notebooks not only are a repository of original information, but also help scientists get to know their subject of study allowing scientists to spend time making careful drawings, descriptions, and generating ideas and questions. Notebooks are helpful to people other than just the author because the contents of well-kept notebooks provide the detailed accounts of where, when, and how a scientist documented a particular event or made a discovery.

Teaching tips: Encourage students to use as many of their senses as is safe to learn about the objects that they observe and study. They will not always be able to touch, smell, or taste things, but they can make educated guesses about the texture of items just by making visual observations. If students offer one-word descriptions for an object, encourage them to expand on the descriptions by asking them more questions about the objectís appearance.

If students are intimidated by drawing an object, remind them that the purpose of a scientific drawing is to portray information and is not to create art. Drawing is one means to pay close attention to an object in order to study and learn about it.

Vocabulary: scale (the size of the object sketched represented on the notebook page as a measurement of length); notebook entry (a drawing and written description of an object of scientific study including the date, the location, and details about the object); petiole (an organ that connects the leaf to the stem); blade (the broad, flat part of the leaf); vein (the conducting tissue that runs inside the leaf blade delivering water and nutrients to the tissues)


  1. Introduce the activity by explaining that today we will learn about how scientists keep notebooks while they conduct research. Ask the students to brainstorm as a group: Why do scientists keep notebooks? Potential answers include:

    1. To collect and record data

    2. To remember things they learn or discover

    3. To show other scientists what they learn

  2. Pass out the example notebook page handout and ask students to determine what types of information are recorded in the notebook entry. Potential answers include:

    1. Drawings

    2. Labels

    3. Measurement scale

    4. Descriptions

    5. Location

    6. Date and time

    7. Ideas

    8. Questions

  3. Emphasize the importance of including the date, location, drawing, scale, and descriptions.

  4. Pass out a blank piece of paper, a ruler, and a leaf to each student. Lead the students through the process of making a notebook entry that records their own observations of their leaf.

    1. Have the students begin their notebook entry on the paper and demonstrate each step on the white board at the front of the class.

    2. Put todayís date in the top, right-hand corner of the page.

    3. Below the date, add the location name (place where the entry is made).

    4. Below the location, have the students write their name.

    5. Begin drawing the leaf in the center of the page and encourage the students to make the drawing large, either life-size or larger than the actual leaf so that there will be room for adding details.

      1. Begin by sketching the vertical axis of the leaf (base of the petiole to the leaf tip) to demonstrate how large the drawing should be.

      2. Next draw the outline of the leaf blade. If students are unsure how to draw a line of the shape, the students can use short, light strokes of the pencil instead of a solid line. Additionally, students can put small dots that are easy to erase in the shape they want to draw and then draw the line over the dots.

      3. Add visible veins, color patterns, herbivory damage, etc. to the drawing.

      4. Demonstrate how to add a scale to the drawing. Have the students use the rule to measure the length of the petiole. Have the students indicate the measured length of the actual petiole next to the drawing of the petiole.

      5. Before having the students work independently to add more detail to their notebook entries, explain that written descriptions connected to the drawing with lines will add more information.

    6. Give students time to work independently adding details to their sketches and descriptive labels. Check with each student to verify that they understand how to add a scale for reference.

    7. Ask students to write down any questions they have about their leaf or hypotheses about why the leaf looks the way it does.

  5. Collect the notebook entries and discuss how this approach they just used is the best way to record information as scientists. We will want them to do this again throughout the year.

  6. If time allows, answer a few questions about the leaves that the students came up with while they were working on their notebook entries.

Discussion: Discuss with the students how their notebook entries can provide enough information about their leaf so that if someone had not seen this leaf before, they could understand what it is like just by reading the entry. Ask the students what questions about the leaves came to them while they were drawing and describing and provide a few answers if time allows.

Assessment: Check the notebook entries for inclusion of the major required components: the date, location, drawing, scale, and description of the object. Note any common difficulties experienced by the students (such as generating clear description or adding the scale to the drawing) and provide tips to help students do this during the next lesson when they make observations through sketching.

Homework: Have students think of descriptive words to describe their shoes on the way home from school for practice.

Extensions: This technique for making observations through drawing will occur throughout the year during many lessons and as students become more familiar with the process, they can begin to focus on generating questions that arise during the drawing and describing process.