Monday, October 3, 2022

Building Children’s Science Identities One Notebook at a Time ~ by Jessica Fries-Gaither

 I’ve loved the natural world my entire life. Thanks to a childhood full of hikes in metro parks, afternoons splashing in creeks, and workshops at a local science center, I grew into an adult who enjoys sharing these wonders with others. Becoming a science teacher was a natural step after I decided that the research life wasn’t for me. And eventually my other lifelong love—reading—caught up and led me to extend my influence beyond the walls of my classroom by writing my own books. 

In my 23 years as a science educator, I’ve become increasingly convinced that simply teaching science content is not enough. Rather, we need to help children build identities as scientists themselves. Being able to recite all the concepts and vocabulary in the world means little if kids can’t see themselves in science and see science as relevant to their lives. 

Here's something else I know to be true: while children don’t bring the traditionally accepted body of scientific knowledge to their interactions and explorations with the natural world, they are indeed scientists. Spend any amount of time with a curious preschooler and you’ll witness many sophisticated science and engineering practices at work: asking questions, testing variables, and iterative problem solving. 

Sadly, traditional means of schooling can drum the curiosity right out of kids. And the problem is only compounded when science is presented as the domain of dead white men. How can we better structure experiences both in and out of school to help students bolster their scientific identities? One of the most powerful practices I’ve discovered to link students to scientists is keeping a science notebook.


Anyone who pursues science for a career or a passion keeps records of some sort. Chemists, molecular biologists, geneticists, and others keep lab notebooks which record their experimental methodologies, data, and analysis. Ecologists, paleontologists, and geologists keep field journals which detail observations and findings on location. Even citizen scientists and hobby birdwatchers document their findings in notebooks or digital apps. The documentation of procedure and findings is an essential practice of science for a variety of reasons: archiving results for future reference, replicating experiments, and sharing findings with others.

Science educators often have students keep science notebooks as well. But simply requiring the notebook isn’t enough. To maximize on the identity-building potential of a notebook, students must understand that they are engaging in the same practice as that of professional scientists. Want students to record observations through sketches? Read about John James Audubon, Beatrix Potter, or Charles Darwin and view samples of their notebook pages before starting on your own. Need to focus on modeling? Galileo’s notebooks might hold inspiration. Planning experiments? Read about Charles Henry Turner’s groundbreaking work with insects. 

The recent explosion of picture book biographies provides a terrific opportunity to help kids make connections between their own work and that of scientists. I created a [partial] list of picture book biographies and their correlations to science and engineering practices from the Next Generation Science Standards on my own blog and try my best to keep it updated.

Additionally, my first picture book, Notable Notebooks: Scientists and Their Writings (NSTA Kids 2016), profiles a diverse group of historical and contemporary scientists and engineers for whom notebooks are an essential tool. There are some recognizable names (Galileo and Newton, for example) mixed in with unfamiliar ones (Lonnie Thompson), and ones that you might not have known were scientists at all (Beatrix Potter). Linda Olliver’s beautiful illustrations make the scientists come alive, and the addition of photographs of actual notebook pages are sure to intrigue readers. In one of those “I can’t believe this is my life” moments, my book was sent to the International Space Station and read aloud by astronaut Joseph Acaba through the Story Time from Space program. The video is available on the Story Time from Space website and is perfect for sharing with children at school or at home.   

For teachers looking for more guidance in this area, I published a book on the topic this year. Science Notebooks in Student-Centered Classrooms (NSTA Press 2022) is a practical and research-based guide to implementing a notebooking practice and a testament to how science notebooks support a sensemaking culture in elementary classrooms. 

It’s worth noting that science notebooks aren’t just for school. Explorations of science and nature happen outside of the classroom, and parents can encourage children to keep records of what they are doing and learning. Homemade notebooks with a few pieces of paper stapled together work just as well as a notebook purchased from the store. Read Notable Notebooks together, talk about the ways that scientists use notebooks in their work, and then put it into practice. Sketch the worm wriggling through the garden, or write the steps for creating that perfect batch of slime. Take that notebook on a visit to a local park or the beach, and encourage kids to draw, describe, question, and investigate. Give them time to share their work and reinforce the idea that by keeping their notebooks, they are, in fact, acting as scientists.

The notebook pages featured in this post come from Jessica's students. 

Jessica is an experienced science educator and an award-winning author of books for students and teachers. Her 20+ year teaching career spans elementary school through middle school science and math. She also spent five years in the College of Education and Human Ecology, School of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University where she directed NSF-funded projects and provided professional development for elementary and middle school teachers. She is currently the Science Department Chair and Lower School Science Specialist at the Columbus School for Girls in Columbus, OH. You can find out more about her and her books at her website, www.jessicafriesgaither.com

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