Using a Forest Setting to Learn to Carefully Observe and Question

Keywords: Observations, Questioning, Trees, Plants, Leaves, Bark, Animals, Forests, Photography; Lesson Grade Levels: 5 – 7; Total Time Required: Two – Three 45-minute class periods; Settings: Outdoor forested setting, then classroom with computers and projector; Subjects Covered: General Science, Forestry / Basic Biology (depending upon students’ choice of subject to observe)

Goals for the Lesson

  • Students will begin to develop an understanding of science and what scientists do.*
  • Students will begin to look at the world as a scientist.  Scientists question what they see.*
  • Students will practice making careful observations using a variety of senses, and they will see how careful observations can lead to good scientific questions.
  • Students will begin to gain an interest in forests and a general awareness of the importance of forests, which will be built upon later in our Pennsylvania Social Studies Unit.
    *  Enduring learning from SCASD Discovering Science Unit

Topics Covered: photography, uploading photos, making observations, asking careful questions, proposing possible hypothesis / answer to a scientific question

Materials Needed

  • Set of digital cameras (at least one camera per every five kids)
  • Computers with photo software (I-Photo) and document creation software for use with images (Comic Life)
  • Forested Area 
  • Clipboard / notepaper for each student
  • Assorted resources (either print or online) to assist in tree, leaf, plant, and/or animal ID, depending on what students choose to observe.
  • Computer Projector for sharing

State Standards Addressed: (3.7.7.A) Explain basic systematic elements of scientific research.

Generate questions that can be studied in science.

Methods / Procedure

Prior to teaching this lesson:

  • Ensure that you have signed out the digital cameras and computers / computer lab, if necessary
  • Find a safe, forested place outdoors where students can make their observations and take pictures.

Note: This lesson is an adaptation from our 6th grade science unit, Discovering Science. Here is the teacher background from the original lesson:

What makes scientists different from other people?  It is the way they look at the world.  Scientists observe the world around them.  Then they ask questions about what they see.  Why do things happen?  How do they happen?  Scientists use a systematic method to find answers to their questions.  At this point in the unit students are still developing questions to IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM.

Here is the original “basic” lesson from the unit that students did without a camera:

Go outside and observe the world as a scientist. Write an observation below.
Write one question that comes to mind during your observation.  For example, “Why are leaves at the bottom of the tree bigger than the leaves at the top of the tree?”

Make a second observation and record below.

Write a question that comes to mind during this observation.

Can you think of a possible explanation for at least one of your questions?

The idea of using a camera to record visual observations is to help teach students to make very careful observations and to ask careful questions. Teaching them to observe in this very careful and systematic manner will help them in the future as they identify trees, plants, and animals during our field trip and in the future.

Depending on students’ or the class’s prior experiences, you may want to set aside time prior to this lesson to:

  • demonstrate how to use the digital camera
  • demonstrate how to upload photos from the camera to i-photo
  • demonstrate how to use the Comic Life computer program

1. Say “From what we learned last time in science, we can see that science is ‘a way of learning about and organizing what we know about the world around us.’  Today we are going to be going outside to look at the forest as a scientist.

2. Group students equally so that each group has a camera and download cord to share.

3. Provide each student with a clipboard and a sheet upon which to record observations when outside.  Remind students to make observations using all senses (except taste in most cases) and to be very specific.  Remind them that it is very important that they are detailed with touch, smell, and sound observations, as they will not be able to use the pictures to help with these.

4. Instruct each student to find something specific and natural (i.e. not a piece of litter) in the forested area of which to observe and photograph.  Students should choose something interesting to them. Examples can include leaves, branches with leaves, tree bark, plants, something on the forest floor, wildlife, etc. (Students can all be making observations concurrently, and they can pass the camera around the group)

5. Students should take five to seven close up photographs of their specific item, using different angles and various zooms. 

6. (This would be a great lesson to utilize parent volunteers and/or interns/ student teachers.) Once all kids in a group are done photographing, and once the first kid is done with photographing and outdoor observations, he/she should be able to take the camera in to upload his/her photos to the computer.  If this is not possible, students can find other things in the forest to observe closely without photographs, or they can ask more questions about the observations they’ve already made.

7. Note: specific procedure of uploading and creating the document will vary based on types and versions of software used.  Here is a sample set of instructions for the second day of the lesson, as students will find their photos and use Comic Life to observe and ask questions:

  • Open iPhoto and select the folder with your pictures and drag your photos to your library and quit iPhoto.
  • Open Comic Life and choose a template.  Find the folder with your pictures and drag your photos onto the template.
  • Save to your desktop in your Homeroom Folder.
  • Select and type in a title for your observation photos and your name.
  • Type at least 10 detailed observations using the speech balloons. Remember to use all of your senses and notes from your field observations.
  • Drag the “text”  box and type at least one question (more than a one word answer) that comes to mind.
  • Drag a second “text” box and think of a possible explanation (written in complete sentences).
  • When completely done and proofread: Select Export to Images from the file menu and change the format to JPG, name it Oberv_userId and put it in your Neon2K (file storage) space.
  • Open the “Oberv_userId Folder” and rename the .jpg as UserIdCL.jpg
  • Put just the JPG in your teacher’s Hand-In folder on Lead (or turn in electronically in whatever method applicable at your school district)

8. As students are making observations and asking questions, make tree, plant, and wildlife identification guides and/or web sites available.


Students can share their finished comic life jpgs and thus their observations and questions with the class through the projector. There is no need to print all of these projects, as it would be cost-prohibitive with the color ink.  An alternate way to share would be to post the jpg documents on a class web page.

Comic Life Documents Can be evaluate using a simple rubric, such as:

  • (10) Clever Title
  • (50) At least ten detailed observations using a variety of senses    
  • (20) Strong question / wondering derived from observations
  • (20)  Possible explanation / hypothesis to question / wondering (written in complete sentences)

Connection to next lesson:

The observations and questioning techniques are similar in Lesson 4, in which students run and observe three very simple experiments, such as dropping a paper to the floor from different heights, dropping a rock into a glass of water, and watching a ping pong ball roll down a board that’s placed at different angles. The concepts presented in this lesson are precursors to the introduction of the Scientific Method..

Literature/ Sources Cited

•    Sixth Grade Discovering Science Unit. State College Area School District, 2006
•    Comic Life Rubric. Kristen Hall, SCASD teacher, 2007


Jeff Tranell, Park Forest Middle School, State College, 6th grade