Teaching Kids to Write in a Science Notebook

American Scientist: Donald S. Erdman

When you teach kids to write in a science notebook, it helps to first look at historical science notebooks. What did real scientists do with a notebook? Today, we’ll look at a fascinating trip to the Arabian Sea in 1948 by a Smithsonian fish scientist.

Donald S. Erdman was a ichthyologist, or fish scientist who was invited to the Arabian Sea in 1948. Erdman worked for the Division of Fishes, Unites States National Museum (USNM) (A Smithsonian affiliate). An American oil company, ARAMCO, was considering doing more business in the Persion Gulf and the Red Sea. Before investing money, they wanted to know if they could feed employees stationed in the area.

To answer that question, they asked Erdman to do a survey of the fish of the Arabian Sea, especially whether or not there were edible fish in enough numbers to operate a cannery. While on the trip, Erdman collected over 5000 different kinds of fish and found plenty of edible fish.

An Ichthyologist’s Science Notebook

We know about this trip because Erdman kept a diary and later used it to write articles about the trip.

Here are a couple interesting pages from his notebook. Please notice how he used color. When scientists write in their notebooks, they often draw specimen, too. Here, Erdman is using color to give information. When the fish were preserved, they turned a brownish-black color, losing all the color of their natural state. To save that information, Erdman colored his fish.

For example, look at the fish drawn right in the middle of the page. Erdman wrote around the drawing.
Page from science notebook of Donald Erdman

Sometimes, he used words to describe the fish, too. He explained that the colors were spread out except the purple blue spots on his head. The light steel blue color was found on the top, mixed in with yellow. Faint black bands seemed to be random.

The words alone wouldn’t give the same information; this scientists needed drawings, including color to record information accurately.

Other pages from Erdman’s Diary:

Page from science notebook of Donald Erdman


Page from science notebook of Donald Erdman

Page from science notebook of Donald Erdman

See more photos at Donald Erdman’s Field Notebook on the Smithsonian Flickr account.

MY STEAM NOTEBOOK: 150 Years of Primary Source Documents from American Scientists

My Steam Notebook | MimsHouse.comErdman is one of eleven scientists highlighted in My STEAM Notebook. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math. Each discipline is represented in questions/activities at the end of the book.

The book uses the notebooks of these American scientists to discuss a progression of writing skills that can be used to teach students how to use notebooks for scientific observation. Here’s the progression of skills explained in the introduction:

  • simple lists
  • drawings + text
  • interdependence of drawings + text
  • description and scientific language
  • narratives
  • botanical illustrations/using magnification
  • using color to add information
  • visual details
  • photography
  • informational writing

NSTA Recommends

The National Science Teacher’s Association publishes a site that recommends books for teaching science, NSTA Recommends. This is their review of MY STEAM NOTEBOOK (emphasis added).

Reviewed by Steve Canipe
Director, Science, Mathematics & Instructional Design Technology

This book, written by Darcy Pattison and entitled My STEAM Notebook: 150 Years of Primary Source Documents from American Scientists, at first look might well draw a startled reception from teachers and parents. The reason for this is that the book is mostly blank pages. A reader might well think what is this? Ms. Pattison, the author, explains her reasoning for blank pages in the well–written introductory notes. She has poured through many scientific notebooks used by American scientists, ranging from those in the mid–1800s to the end of the 20th century and it appears her purpose is several fold. One, she wants to introduce the idea that all scientists keep a journal, notebook, or other record of their observations, experiments, experiences, etc. Two, she wants to inspire young scientists to start or keep doing good record keeping and has provided a blank template to follow.

The presentations of the 10 historical scientists and their notebooks/journals are very short and each occupies only two facing pages. Following each scientist’s two–page description, there are 10 blank pages for doing recording, making observations, etc. The first notebook described was one done by Alexander Wetmore who started his journaling at the age of 8. He published his first article at age 15 describing his observations of red–headed woodpeckers. As an adult, he became the sixth secretary of the Smithsonian Museum from 1925–1952. Pattison uses a mnemonic of shadowed and outlined letters (STEAM) to help readers identify the STEAM aspects contained in the work of each of the 10 scientists she describes. She describes both process and product notebooks/journals. The point is clearly made that the process–type notebook is most useful for formative feedback and that product–types are most often used for summative feedback. The book’s blank pages are designed more for process than product, but as the author points out, additional document pages can be glued or stapled in the notebook thereby making it a sort of hybrid notebook and more useful for a summative assessment.

The book has 36 blank glossary spaces where the student scientist can record any unusual or unknown words. In addition to the glossary, there are discussion questions posed for each of the 10 scientists’ work. These questions are divided into the various STEAM areas identified and focused on in the readings. Additional helps in the form of photo permissions and references for further exploration are provided at the end of the notebook. Inspiration garnered from the scientists’ work being described is a focus for all young scientists. The author notes that the reading level is geared to the third grade, making this book useful for early grade and older students. Parents and teachers would benefit from using this book to guide observations and further study from their young people. Perhaps the next Wetmore is using this book as a guide right now.

Young scientists are taught to record not their feelings but observable things like taste, touch, smell, sounds, sight. Feelings are subjective, like “I love hearing red–headed woodpeckers making a sound” but observations are objective, for example “Red–headed woodpeckers make a hammering sound when they are searching for food.” This book is a well thought out presentation and one that, even if not used for each person (it is meant for individual student use), can serve as a model for a teacher or parent to have students do their own STEAM notebook. It is a nuts and bolts process book. Users can use illustrations in this book or in their personal versions using drawings and sketches or even digital photography. Keeping good records is the point that is made throughout the book. The historical notebooks/journals pieces point this out. With the use of the outlined STEAM words, it’s easy for students to see the linkages of each of the fields (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) to the observations and experiments. Keeping journals is strongly recommended for all scientists but especially for young ones and this book has a clear–cut process for getting this point across for the beginning scientist. The book or its equivalent should be used as a guide for everyone interested in getting more scientists started on the research path.

How to Order

My STEAM Notebook is available in paperback or as an ebook (modified to fit the format).

View on Mims House site.

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