Observations: Laying the Foundation

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SWBAT state the characteristics of a scientific observation and make observations of the natural world.

Big Idea

Observations are key to unearthing new scientific discoveries, as well as enabling kids to build conceptual understanding of science. This lesson teaches kids to be accurate and objective and introduces the difference between quantitative and qualitative.

Pre-Class Assignment: View Flipped Video

As educators, we are always seeking ways to maximize time-on-learning in our classes.  Flipping your classroom instruction is an effective way to maximize student exposure with the facilitator of learning--YOU!  Although there are many ways to flip instruction, such as to highlight a skill, overview an upcoming assignment or lab and more, this activity utilizes a pre-recorded video using the Doceri App for the iPad that is later posted on my public YouTube channel--STEMatBirdMS.  The idea is for students to garner all vocabulary and basic knowledge for homework so that they come prepared to use the information in class.  What may take 20 to even 30 minutes in class to get through using lecture format will only take 5-10 minutes at home.  Meanwhile, students will be able to re-watch videos, creating a repository for them to access at their discretion.  

I like to assign flipped videos as HW at least two days prior to using the information.  This gives students, especially those who may not have home access to technology, the opportunity to find time to view it during school, at the public library or a friend's house.  The nice thing about Smartphones is that they can view the video from just about anywhere.  I usually have students take 2-column notes in their science notebooks and that is how I assess that they have viewed the video.  One column is for important terms, while the other is for important content.

I often have pop, open-notebook quizzes which encourages students to take careful notes.  It's amazing how many students take notes when you mention a pop quiz.  

Here is the video that I have students view:


Do Now

5 minutes

If we want our students to start off on the right foot with observations, then they should begin consciously observing in our classes from the very first days of school.  They should also be made aware that observations are nothing new to their lives--they perform observations every day!  

I always have a DO NOW written on the board for students to answer as they enter the classroom. This particular one reads:

From your seat, look at a non-living object in the classroom and write down everything that you notice about it. 

I give students about three minutes and then take student answers and write them down on the board. These are revisited later as a check for understanding to assess student learning during the wrap-up portion of class. 

Accurate and Objective: Two Important Characteristics of Scientific Observations

10 minutes

Since they have viewed the flipped video for homework the previous night, student should have a working knowledge of the basic characteristics of good scientific observations--accurate and objective.

Use this time to review and record each definition on the board.  Students who missed the opportunity to record the definitions for HW can record them now.  Likewise, those students who missed some details can easily go back and add them during this time.

Accurate: An exact account of what your senses tell you

Objective: Observations that do not have opinions, just the facts!

You can then explain that, in order for you to ensure that they understand the meaning of each characteristic, they are going to practice using the following worksheet.

Review directions and clarify any questions and then let your students work with pairs or individually to complete this worksheet.

I like to then have students share their responses with their larger group.  This gives them the opportunity to hash out their ideas in a safe, smaller environment than in an entire class discussion.  Students are more apt to take risks this way.

Once you have given groups an opportunity to discuss their responses, you should review as a class and then transition to reviewing the difference between quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Observations

10 minutes

This section follows the exact same format as the previous section.

I review the definitions of quantitative and qualitative on the board and give students an opportunity to substantiate their notes in their science notebooks.

I then hand out this worksheet and have students complete with a peer, then discuss in small groups and then have a final discussion as a class.

Once students have reviewed the characteristics and types of observations, they need to practice making observations without direct guidance from a worksheet.

I then hand out Observation Worksheet 3 and transition into the final phase of the instructional portion of the lesson.

Here is a work sample from a student who is struggling with the difference between quantitative and qualitative.  I usually state that if it doesn't have measurements or amounts then it must be qualitative.  This usually helps them understand the difference.  Students usually pick this skill up quickly, but we must constantly revisit the difference throughout the year, if we want them to truly grasp the concept. 


Students Practice Making Their Own Observations

10 minutes

In the final activity on Observation Student Worksheet (3) students observe various objects around the room and record observations.  As an added bonus, you can then have them read one of their observations and then use this as a formative assessment.  

Alert students to the assessment protocol: Part 1: Ask students to raise their hands if the observation is accurate and objective.  Part 2: Hold up 1 finger if you think it is quantitative and 2 fingers (peace-sign) if they think it is qualitative.  

You can then use this opportunity to fortify deeper understanding about observations by having a class-wide discussion about the observation.  It is prudent to establish a community of learning that embraces mistakes and be mindful of over critiquing students whom may be sensitive.  Keep in mind that this is the beginning of the year, so use your discretion and tread lightly if you must.

Once you feel that students are making adequate learning gains, you can transition to the last, fun review activity--I SPY!

I Spy!

15 minutes

We have all been working so hard so maybe we should have a little fun!  It is time to play I Spy!

This is how it will work: In a few moments, you will select an item, observe something about it and remember the observation--you should write it down.

This is a work sample from a student's science notebook.  They read off their observations and other students look around the room trying to correctly identify their item.  Since they haven't had metric measurement in my class, I have them estimate the size using inches.  Also, if they measure in front of their peers everyone will know the item that they are trying to describe.

A student (I select) shares their observation.  They then call on a student to guess what object they are referring to in this observation.  If that student gets it correct then it is their turn to share an observation, and the cycle continues.  However, if the first person selected doesn't get the object correct then the observer picks another student until someone gets it correct.  

Note: This is a good way to boost classroom culture and help students remember their peers' names.

Play this game as time allows.  Remember to leave enough time to revisit the observations from the DO NOW at the beginning of class.

Checking for Understanding

5 minutes

I still have the observations from the DO NOW recorded on a board in your class.  I use these student-generated observations to check for student understanding.

Tell students to pick one observation from the board that could use some improvement, and record it on the scrap piece of paper.  Then, they identify if the observation is accurate and objective and whether it is quantitative or qualitative.  They should then provide suggestions on how to make it accurate and/or objective.

I collect the sheets at the end of class and place them into two piles: one pile is students who have successfully demonstrated understanding and the other pile is students who require remediation.  I then schedule tutoring for students who require significant assistance or make sure to check in during the DO NOW the following day with students who just need a little clarification.

Formative assessments are a critical tool that I use to gauge student understanding.  Sometimes they are informal and differentiated by student or group, while other times I use more blanket approaches, like the one above, to give me a quick sense of my teaching effectiveness.